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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

During the pandemic, don't forget to help

We can all learn a valuable lesson about

We can all learn a valuable lesson about helping others by looking to the examples of the past. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/SvetaZi

A heartening story out of Ireland.

Perhaps you’ve seen it.

History-minded Irishmen learned of the tragedy unfolding within the Navajo and Hopi nations in the American Southwest, where more people are dying from COVID-19 per capita currently than anywhere else in the United States.

Recalling a historic debt to another Native American tribe, the Choctaw Nation, these everyday Irish citizens launched a Go-Fund-Me page to help. Donations have flooded in. Last I checked, the fund was approaching $3.7 million.

The debt accrued from an extraordinary kindness shown the Irish during the Great Famine (1845-1849), an agricultural disaster that cost Erin around a million lives. The desperately poor Choctaw, which had recently suffered starvation themselves, read of Ireland’s plight and acted when so many of Ireland’s neighbors didn’t: its families scratched together the extraordinary sum of $170 (about $5,000 today) and sent it to Ireland for famine relief.

The Irish never forgot the gesture.

But it wasn’t only the Choctaw who came to Ireland’s aid; another group disproportionately suffering from COVID-19 today needs to be recognized for its generosity as well.

Jewish congregations on the Lower East Side of Manhattan also organized to help the starving Irish, collecting hard-earned dollars for Irish food relief wherever they could. Many of these Jews had little or nothing themselves, yet they extended themselves for suffering strangers across an ocean.

I learned of their generosity 25 years ago, the sesquicentennial year of the Famine’s emergence, from a charming Dublin rabbi with the thickest of Irish brogues. (That’s also when I learned, to my great surprise, that synagogues have existed in Dublin since the 1600s.) The rabbi had come to the United States to thank the Choctaw and the New York Jewish community for what they had done for the Irish people all those years ago. The PR firm for which I then worked was retained to help tell the story.

It didn’t take much work to uncover the past. It still doesn’t: From The Occident and American Jewish Advocate dated Nisan 5607, April 1847:

“A nation is in distress, a nation is starving,” a speaker at a special meeting of Congregation Shearith Israel on 60 Crosby St. began. “Numbers of our fellow-creatures have perished, dreadfully, miserably perished from hunger and starvation. Millions are threatened with the same horrid fate, the same dire calamity. The heart of civilization is touched by the distress and wo of the sufferers. Relief, and if not relief at least alleviation, is the first sentiment to which utterance is given, and in obedience to that sentiment are we, my brethren, assembled this evening.”

Not only was a substantial sum raised that night, the larger Jewish community is credited with having raised more money for Irish famine relief than anyone else in the world.

Today, just like with insular Navajo and Hopi communities, Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities are getting hammered with COVID-19, many of them right in this area. They need help now, too. 

I got a call last week from a friend in Monsey, the largely Hasidic enclave in Rockland County. Several close friends had died, nerves were frayed and the community was feeling besieged by law enforcement authorities singling out Ultra Orthodox families for being outdoors. “We have large families, tiny houses and our children aren’t allowed to watch TV — we’re doing the best we can!,” he explained. He lamented the loss of young parents and the orphans they’re leaving behind, asking that I and others consider giving to relief funds online.

Even as this community is suffering, though, it’s giving back in a way that would make its Lower East Side ancestors beam. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Hasidic and other Ultra Orthodox Jews who have recovered from COVID-19 are now flocking to donate plasma at area hospitals in the hopes their antibodies will save others, Jew and non-Jew alike.

A heartening story out of New York, to be sure.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.

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