Like many Jews around the world, the last time Madrid-based Rabbi Pierpaolo Punturello set foot in a synagogue was to celebrate Purim.
With a quarter of a million coronavirus cases and 28,000 victims, Spain stands as the fourth country in the world in number of infected people. Approximately 45,000 Jews live in Spain today, and according to data provided to The Jerusalem Post by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain (FCJE – the country’s EJC affiliate), 124 Spanish Jews have been infected and nine have died from the pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak in the country has been especially difficult in the capital, which is still way behind the rest of the country in terms of easing up on restrictions.
While synagogues have reopened in some smaller communities, Madrid’s and Barcelona’s have not yet.
“Yesterday we held our first minyan in the school courtyard,” the rabbi told the Post. “Our neighborhood synagogue announced that it will start holding services again on Sunday. They want to try out the new measures on a weekday to test them before Shavuot and Shabbat.”
Punturello is the director of the Department of Jewish Studies at the local Jewish school Ibn Gabirol, which serves about 350 students from kindergarten to high school.
“I’m very proud of the fact that 24-hours after we closed the school, we were already learning online. All pupils, including children in kindergarten, have activities,” he explained.
“Looking at the students, I see that from the psychological point of view the situation is not easy. It will take a while to see the damages that this crisis is creating in this generation of young people, who might have more technological tools available but are paradoxically so much used to faster forms of long-distance communication, like WhatsApp, that they sometimes lack the ability to have a long conversation with a friend on the phone,” Punturello pointed out.
When the crisis began to unfold, Punturello said that they immediately drastically reduced school tuition for the current year by between 50% and 70%, “although many families who could still afford it chose to pay the full amount to support the school.”
Students are going to continue to study online through the rest of the year and the school is already preparing for scenarios in September where students are going to be able to only partially go back to physical classrooms.
The rabbi highlighted that the goal is also to offer enough scholarships so that no Jewish child who wants to attend the school will be denied the opportunity due to financial constraints.
As FCJE President Isaac Benzaquén told the Jerusalem Post, Jewish institutions are concerned about the economic repercussions of the outbreak.
“We are very worried about the economic and social crisis after the health one. We´ll have to work hard to help the most affected communities and families,” he said. “The situation won’t be easy. Unemployment grows and many people in our communities will be affected. Any help we can receive will be very welcome.”
Since the beginning of the crisis, FCJE has set up a special coronavirus emergency group, as the president explained, “with professional volunteers that offered help in order to assist people in the hospital, send material as face masks, arrange burials, send food to people in need, etc.”
“We also have a channel in Telegram to offer activities for the young and the elderly, in order to make them feel in touch,” Benzaquén added.
Currently, Jewish institutions are working to create strategies to reopen following the government’s guidelines.
The FCJE president said that the community has not experienced any increase in antisemitism related to the pandemic.
“We don´t think this will happen in Spain, but, just in case, we remain very vigilant,” he concluded.