JDC to federations: Help feed elderly in former Soviet Union

NEW YORK, June 24 (JTA) — However oppressive communism was in the former Soviet Union, no one disputes it provided a safety net for its most vulnerable population. Its collapse ripped that safety net away, hitting the elderly hardest of all and prompting the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to step into the breach. Over the past few years, the JDC, which provides humanitarian relief and rescue around the world, has built a network of welfare services that has targeted 70,000 needy elderly in more than 250 places in the former Soviet Union. Most were subsisting on bread and potatoes, say JDC officials. The organization is now poised to intensify its efforts with an $86 million drive over two years to combat hunger among the elderly. It is asking local federations for help. Virtually all of the JDC’s roughly $64 million annual budget comes from money raised by the joint campaign of the United Jewish Appeal and federations. JDC is seeking a collective federation commitment of an additional $20 million over two years. Close to $50 million more is slated to come from the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The national fund-raising establishment is pulling out all the stops in its efforts to persuade federations of the urgency of the JDC initiative at a time when overseas allocations are in decline. “This is a potential tragedy of enormous proportions,” Richard Wexler of Chicago, UJA national chairman, said during a bid for national support for the project via satellite last month. “We have the greatest number of Jews since the Holocaust
going to bed hungry every night.” In a plan endorsed by the leadership of the Council of Jewish Federations, each federation would make a prorated voluntary contribution. “We will not as a system permit any Jew in the former Soviet Union to go to bed hungry,” said Dr. Conrad Giles of Detroit, CJF president. Many local federation leaders have expressed strong support for the plan. “If there’s any reason we exist as a system, it’s to be able to resolve” this crisis, said Stephen Solender, executive vice president of UJA- Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York. “I hope our system won’t get bogged down in bureaucracy,” he said, referring to the time it may take for federations to sort out what their individual commitments will be. The details of how each federation will be asked to contribute to the special hunger fund have not been finalized. Meanwhile, some federation leaders have questions. They are asking why the JDC is tapping the central system when it is sitting on a $160 million endowment fund. UJA is having trouble as it is, they say, meeting its commitments to the Jewish Agency for Israel, UJA’s other overseas recipient. In fact, JDC’s own allocation from the UJA was cut by $5 million in 1997, though the new hunger campaign would more than offset that cut. The plan rests on the concept that donations to the special campaign would be over and above federations’ regular contributions to UJA in 1996. But that is going to be hard to enforce. Federations could simply choose to free up funds for the hunger campaign at the expense of the regular annual campaign. And some are concerned that the resulting drop in the overseas allocation, already on the decline, will be borne primarily by the Jewish Agency, which is fighting a sagging public image. JDC leaders and supporters respond by pointing to the Jewish Agency’s special five-year Operation Exodus campaign to resettle immigrants to Israel, from 1990 to 1994, which was over and above the regular annual UJA campaign. JDC maintains, in effect, that this is their Operation Exodus. In addition to the 70,000 elderly Jews already receiving assistance, JDC has identified “a potential pool” of an additional 230,000 needy elderly, said Michael Schneider, JDC executive vice president. JDC felt it “simply didn’t have the means to cope with the demands,” he said. “We have to think globally,” Schneider added. “I would hope the [Jewish] Agency will regard this as an opportunity to add to the campaign and encourage federations to provide what is needed.” In response to a question during the satellite about JDC’s commitments in the former Soviet Union, Jonathan Kolker, JDC president, said roughly half of the total $11 million spent there annually goes to programs for the elderly, while the other half is spent to cultivate Jewish life. At the same time, he said, the JDC budget for other countries is being cut by 5 percent a year so more can be allocated to programs in the former Soviet Union. JDC has committed $6 million of its $160 million endowment fund to the hunger campaign over two years. Schneider said that all but $50 million of the endowment fund is restricted for other uses, and that the $50 million is the system’s “insurance” for emergencies. JDC officials have been careful not to apply the word “emergency” to the hunger effort. Still, Schneider, explaining the need for the program in an interview in his office, said that Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union, like other elderly there, rely on pensions that do not keep up with wildly inflating costs of food staples. In Ukraine, for instance, between July of last year and January of this year, the price of eggs rose 146 percent, pasta 93 percent, milk 52 percent and bread 38 percent. Jews often are more isolated than other elderly since many of their relatives were either murdered by the Nazis or emigrated in recent years, he said. Food packages, designed to supplement a diet of mostly bread and potatoes, have been the most basic part of the JDC assistance programs, according to Schneider. JDC also has provided hot meals, mostly through restaurants, to people who are unable to cook the dry goods that come in the packages. And for those who are bedridden or otherwise homebound, there are meals on wheels. Meanwhile, in Moscow, the recipients of the JDC packages say they make a big difference. Serafima and Lev Surenko are both 73. She is bedridden and he is a World War II invalid. “It was like a gift from heaven when they started bringing us hot meals from the synagogue,” she said. “It’s an enormous relief.” Israel Zlotsky, 89, a retired air force major, agreed. “I can hardly stand, not to mention cooking. These hot lunches mean so much to me.” (JTA correspondent Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)

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