Last week, the World Health Organization raised its global health assessment of spread and impact of COVID-19, or coronavirus, to its highest alert level. New cases are confirmed every day, the stock market is struggling, and dust and surgical masks are sold out. As of press time, the death toll from the virus approached 3,000, with more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 46 countries.
In cities across the U.S., the Chinese American community has seen the impact of the outbreak, as their businesses are seeing a precipitous drop in patronage. In Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and elsewhere, Chinese restaurants have been hit hard by the loss of business. In Manhattan, the drop has been as steep as 70 percent — despite the fact that public health officials have repeatedly emphasized that eating at a Chinese restaurant will not lead to contraction of the virus.
While this crisis for Chinese American communities might not seem, on the surface, to have a connection to Jewish people, the organized Jewish community quickly and decisively came together to make a bold statement about it. On Feb. 21, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs organized “A Letter of Support to Our Friends in the Chinese American and Chinese Communities,” signed by dozens of national agencies, local federations and community relations councils.
From Dayton to Des Moines, Baltimore to Buffalo, Jewish community stakeholders spoke out “in response to rising xenophobia aimed at the Chinese American and Chinese communities,” as the letter put it, adding, “we believe it is important that the Jewish community express our solidarity and support for our Chinese American friends.”
We applaud the fast and unambiguous response from the organized Jewish community. It demonstrated an empathy informed by history, and a unified sense of purpose. The statement didn’t belabor the issue. Rather, it simply indicated: “We are here for you. We support you. We recognize your struggle,” and that was unquestionably the right thing to do. The message sent, in addition to the explicit one, was that when it comes to other minorities being attacked for their difference, the Jewish community is there, steadfast, like the oldest tree in the forest that’s been buffeted for centuries by winds and rain, but whose branches are broad enough to shelter others in times of need.
This Jewish communal empathy toward those in distress provides clear answers to those who wonder why there is a need for Jewish community relations councils in our cities, and other local and national organizations that focus on broad community building and support. As we have learned repeatedly from recent events, our Jewish community is very much an important part of our overall communal fabric. We strengthen ourselves when we help others, and build relationships that will ultimately inure to our overall benefit as we make our larger community stronger and more interconnected.