Elderly Russians Rediscover Their Jewish Roots Through JDC Centers
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Elderly Russians Rediscover Their Jewish Roots Through JDC Centers

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Lev Entin, a 90-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, has spent the past year relearning something he spent most of his life trying to forget: his Judaism.

Entin’s father was a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, and until Entin was 12, he attended a cheder, or Jewish school. But after that, Entin, “a product of the Bolshevik Revolution,” as he puts it, did not pay attention to his religion.

But in the past year, Entin has reintroduced himself to his tradition by reading books and brochures he receives from his local Hesed welfare center.

“Only this year did I become a Jew again,” says Entin.

Roughly 175,000 Jewish elderly in Russia are now served by the 88 Heseds across the former Soviet Union. These centers, run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, account for about one-half of all Jewish social and welfare organizations in the former Soviet Union.

They provide basic services, such as food and health care, to the large numbers of elderly who were impoverished both by the chaos of post-Communist Russia and by last August’s economic collapse. But the Heseds also play a role that is just as important in creating a Jewish community for the Russian elderly.

When the JDC began opening Heseds in the former Soviet Union earlier this decade, the organizers were afraid of two things: that the centers would be overwhelmed by requests from non-Jewish clients, and that the centers would lead to an anti-Semitic backlash. None of the fears has come true.

Indeed, in some places Hesed centers serve as a model for similar state-run organizations. In St. Petersburg, for example, Hesed Avraham is among the most successful welfare organizations in the city of 4 million.

Last year, Hesed Avraham started a joint project with a local government-funded welfare organization, where one of the Hesed dining rooms is now feeding 100 non-Jewish needy elderly. It’s also providing them with cultural events for Russian national holidays.

The success of the Hesed program has led to some problems. Indeed, in some cities, local authorities ignore the needs of Jewish clients because there are other organizations to take care of them.

“The state sometimes wants to lay its responsibility onto the Heseds. But Jews are citizens of this country just like non-Jews and the state has certain obligations toward them,” says Benjamin Haller, director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s William Rosenwald Institute for Communal and Welfare Workers in St. Petersburg, which trains Jewish social workers and conducts sociological research of the Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union.

But there is one aspect of the Hesed activities where the state welfare system cannot help: reconnecting people to their Judaism.

“People are coming to Heseds not only to get a piece of bread. They come to taste the spirit which makes us unique, distinct from other similar organizations. This is the spirit of belonging to the Jewish people,” said Haller.

The examples are legion.

In the city of Tula, some 190 miles south of Moscow, about 50 elderly Jews gathered on a recent Friday night at the Hasdei Neshama center. A concert by a local youth klezmer band was followed by a Shabbat service and a meal conducted by a young Moscow rabbi who comes to the city every weekend.

In St. Petersburg, Hesed Avraham publishes Hesed Shalom, a bimonthly newspaper with a print run of 15,000.

Saul Safrai, a 92-year-old St. Petersburg pensioner, spends two hours riding a bus to get to and from the Hesed center. But he does not complain.

“I’ve got nowhere else to communicate,” he says. “Here I can exchange a few words in tongues that are understood nowhere else,” Safrai says, referring to the Yiddish and Hebrew he studied as a boy in his hometown of Herson, Ukraine.

This process of creating a community extends beyond the clients served by the Hesed centers to the volunteers who help serve their needs.

The notion of voluntary work was compromised during the Soviet era, when millions of people were encouraged to join “voluntary organizations,” which in fact were state-run structures that in most cases sought only mass membership rolls and required nothing except small, regular fees.

“Six years ago, when we were about to open the center, I did not believe there would be any volunteers,” says Leonid Kolton, director of Hesed Avraham.

Now the center relies on the work of 685 volunteers who participate in every program — from meal deliveries to home repairs to medical consultations.

In 1998, more than 5,000 volunteers, professionals, paraprofessionals and lay leaders received training through the branches of the Institute for Communal and Welfare Workers located in St. Petersburg; Minsk, Belarus; Kishinev, Moldova; and Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.

“Thanks to Heseds, the communal life in many cities of our region has received a new start,” says Ilya Pestrikov, the Yekaterinburg-based JDC representative in the Ural region, the vast area that encompasses the junction of European Russia and Siberia.

In many places, Hesed activities became a focus for the entire local Jewish community. In some instances, welfare centers became a unifying factor for different groups within the community.

Indeed, a slogan on the wall at St. Petersburg’s Hesed Avraham refers to the three principles of Hesed work, “Volunteers, Community, Yiddishkeit.”

Last year, about 7,000 volunteers participated in the provision of welfare and other social services in the centers.

“We are different from any other welfare system in this country, both because of our target clients and because of the principles of our work,” says Haller of the Institute for Communal and Welfare Workers.

“Any program we run involves people helping other people. Even a bedridden person can call another bedridden so that they will not feel lonely.”

In most communities, youths and students of Jewish schools occasionally volunteer in some social programs.

But the average volunteer is recently retired and is in his early 60s.

These people deliver food to the homebound, do home repair or work once or twice a week as hairdressers, shoemakers, electricians. Medical doctors conduct regular free consultations for Jewish elderly in almost every Hesed center.

The economic crisis has unexpectedly increased the numbers of volunteers in the past several months.

These are people — mostly nearing retirement — who have lost their jobs in the economic crisis but don’t want to sit idle at home.

Despite all the good work they are doing, the future of the Heseds is not entirely rosy. With the ongoing economic crisis and the depreciation of pensions, money is becoming rare, particularly to supply medicines.

The multimillion-dollar annual budget of the Heseds, operated by the JDC, comes from several sources.

Most Russian Heseds operate with the money channeled by JDC from funds raised by the joint campaign of the United Jewish Appeal and local federations in the United States. These funds go primarily to support the most fund-consuming part of the Hesed operations — food programs, including monthly and holiday food packages and distribution of hot meals through community dining rooms and meals-on-wheels programs.

While the activities are operated by the JDC in conjunction with local groups, including the Russian Jewish Congress, a majority of the funds for the multimillion-dollar project are provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — particularly in Ukraine and Belarus, which were under Nazi rule during World War II.

Most observers say Hesed programs have been the most successful — in their scope and outreach — of all similar projects supported with local and foreign funds.

They appear to be successful for Sofia Shapiro, an 80-year-old retired engineer who receives several services from her local Hesed in Yekaterinburg. The homebound Shapiro and her bedridden blind sister, Vera Brook, have no relatives and a caretaker from Hesed visits them daily.

The center also gave Shapiro a walker made by some of the eight staff workers and 39 volunteers who assemble a total of 2,500 wheelchairs, walkers, walking canes and crutches a month at a plant in St. Petersburg.

“There is a sticker here,” Shapiro says, pointing at the bottom part of the walker. “It says `Live with Hope.’ So I do.”

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