YEKATERINBURG, Russia (May. 10)
Evgeniya Fridman pours into a glass jar some of the free soup she’s just received at a soup kitchen here.
“These lunches give us life,” says Fridman, as she adds more food to the jar.
The leftovers will serve as her dinner, she explains. “I will have it at home.”
The 78-year-old former schoolteacher is one of 63 elderly and needy Jews who receive free hot lunches daily at two locations in this city in the Ural Mountains, 900 miles east of Moscow.
Another woman says the free lunches she eats here are the only hot meals she has had for several months.
Some 30 percent to 35 percent of an estimated 1.5 million Jews in the former Soviet Union are elderly, and of this number, anywhere between one-half to two- thirds require at least some social services.
For example, in St. Petersburg, which has Russia’s second-largest Jewish population, some 30,000 of the estimated 100,000 Jews are listed in the database of the local Jewish charity center.
Many elderly Jews at the soup kitchen, located in a restaurant, say they never thought they would have to survive on charity.
When these people retired, during the days of the Soviet Union — having worked for decades as engineers, teachers or doctors — their pensions seemed more than adequate.
However oppressive the Communist regime was, it allowed people to survive on retirement or disability payments and provided the needy population with a safety net of free social services.
But post-Communist Russia’s economic hardships and the collapse of the state- run welfare system have thrown the most vulnerable populations below the poverty line and left many without hope.
Most elderly in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union receive pensions of less than $20 a month, far below what is necessary to make ends meet. In some places in Russia, such as Yekaterinburg, even such meager payments are made several months behind schedule.
The situation turned even worse last August, when Russia devalued the ruble. As a result, prices skyrocketed, but pensions remained the same.
As Ada Katz, director of the Hesed Menorah welfare center in Yekaterinburg, simply puts it: “After the onset of the crisis, the standard of living of our elderly declined sharply.”
According to official statistics, the prices of 25 basic foodstuffs rose between 30 percent and 115 percent after the onset of the economic crisis last summer. The price of utilities jumped 60 percent and the price of medicines also climbed steeply.
The skyrocketing prices have left many elderly with the option of choosing between medicine and a diet that consists mainly of bread, hot cereal and the cheapest vegetables — potatoes and cabbage.
Leonid Kolton, the director of St. Petersburg’s Hesed Avraham, Russia’s oldest and largest Jewish welfare center, says food programs are again becoming a major focus of charitable activities — similar to the early 1990s, when, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Jewish welfare services in Russia were first re-established.
Jewish welfare workers now say their clients’ most urgent need is medicine.
In the Soviet Union, the pharmaceutical trade was a state monopoly and included state-subsidized or free medicines for veterans and the disabled population.
Today, this system is almost nonexistent. Medicines are sold at free-market prices that usually correspond to world market prices. Medicines that are distributed free or at reduced prices are almost unavailable as most supplies go to commercial pharmacies.
According to a recent survey of the Jewish elderly, 65 percent say they don’t have enough money to buy even the most necessary medicines — and among the most poignant cases are those people who have chronic diseases such as diabetes.
Homebound Eva Vinokur of St. Petersburg says the spends most of her $11 pension on medicine, including insulin.
“Medicines are the most critical problem for our clients,” says Ada Katz of Hesed Menorah center in Yekaterinburg.
Jewish welfare workers say community centers now have to look for additional funds to implement medication programs, which could be the most expensive part of the aid they provide.
Understandably, the material deprivation has placed the elderly under great strain.
“People are living under continuous psychological stress,” says Beniamin 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.
“Everything is available in stores but people cannot afford it, and they are not quite used to seeing this situation.”
The demographic profile of the Jewish population in the former Soviet Union makes the need for such centers especially acute.
According to a recent sociological survey, the Jewish elderly population is distinguished from the overall elderly population in the former Soviet Union by larger proportion of singles and small families
As a result of the Holocaust, mass aliyah to Israel and Jewish emigration to other countries, more Jewish pensioners live alone than do those among the general population.
About 5 percent of needy Jewish pensioners are bedridden and require a full range of services, from home care to meals-on-wheels.
Government institutions provide the services of social workers for only half of those who need them. In many cases, social workers’ visits are irregular even for those elderly who live alone and are homebound.
The situation on the periphery of Russia is worse than in the big central cities, where people generally receive more services.
“In the provinces, people more often die of malnutrition, or simply because they had been forgotten,” says Haller.
To cope with the worsening crisis, an increasing number of poor and elderly Jews are turning to the welfare centers that the JDC operates throughout the former Soviet Union.
Created in the past five years in partnership with local communities, the centers, known as Heseds, run both community-based and home-based services – - food, medical assistance, home repairs and home care — for clients with different degrees of impairments.
Last year, 23 new Heseds were established throughout the former Soviet Union, bringing their number to 88 spread across 10 time zones.
For many Jewish poor and elderly, the Heseds are a godsend.
Lyubov Aleksandrovskaya, 78, a Jewish woman living in St. Petersburg, says it would be nearly impossible to survive on her $12-a-month pension. She says free lunches, hairdressers’ and laundry services she receives from the Jewish community allow her not only to avoid hunger, but “to remain a human being.”
“These services are like a life buoy to me,” she says.