MOSCOW (Jun. 21)
Small and painfully thin, Dima looks younger than his 6 years.
In the past few years, Dima’s mother abandoned his family; his father, suffering from health and financial problems, could not take proper care of him.
This month, Dima joined 27 other Jewish boys and girls between the ages of 2 and 15 who are being raised at the Passin-Waxman Center, a new Jewish children’s home in the center of Moscow.
The home, which held its dedication ceremony last week, was established with a $250,000 grant from Anita Waxman, a successful Broadway producer. Believed to be the first such center to open in Russia in 65 years, the home is also supported by the United Jewish Israel Appeal of Great Britain and a number of local donors.
All but four of the children here have a living parent who cannot care for them because of chronic social, financial and health problems — including alcoholism.
While most of the children hail from Moscow, several have been brought here from Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region near the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and three come from families affected by the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine.
“For about a year, we’ve been looking for Jewish kids in trouble,” says Rafiel Ben-Yosef, the sturdy, bearded man with smiling face who runs the home.
He and his wife, Svetlana, live at the center and call themselves the children’s parents.
“We thought it would be difficult to find kids for a Jewish” children’s home, Svetlana says. “It turned out to be easy, especially now, during the economic crisis,” she adds, referring to the financial chaos that has gripped Russia since last August.
As poverty has spread, family problems have multiplied and Russia’s social support networks have deteriorated. Russia is facing the worst disaster since World War II, when hundreds of thousands of children were left without parental care.
The situation of Jewish children is usually slightly better, but the economic turmoil has left its scars on many Jewish families as well.
“When a `Yiddishe mama’ turns her kid over” to a home, then “something in the family went terribly wrong,” Rafiel Ben-Yosef says.
Without the center, most of the children would have probably never ended up in an institution because of the appalling conditions of Russian state-run homes for children, where kids are exposed to shocking levels of cruelty and neglect. They would have struggled for survival on the streets, in alcoholic homes — or they would have been confined to living with elderly relatives who are barely able to support themselves.
In addition to serving the children’s social, educational and psychological needs, the center focuses on creating a Jewish environment for them.
The children — who like most Russians have not had a Jewish upbringing — eat kosher meals, celebrate Shabbat and attend services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, which is within walking distance from the home. The boys wear white silk yarmulkas.
They will spend the summer at a camp outside the city.
Starting this fall, the children will attend classes at one of the Moscow Jewish day schools.
The center is temporarily housed in a six-bedroom apartment in a duplex in downtown Moscow. Next year, the center will move from this apartment, which is rented from a private owner, to a building of its own that the city of Moscow will provide.
The seed for the center was planted two years ago, when Waxman, the mother of three adult children and two stepdaughters, came to Russia to adopt a 2-year- old boy. During the adoption process, Waxman, who had earlier established a family foundation for needy children around the world, met with Moscow’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt.
“We decided to start a home specifically for Jewish kids — not knowing exactly what we were talking about,” Waxman said.
Now dozens of children are already on a waiting list, including several from state orphanages.
“The new building will also have space for infants which will give more opportunities for adoption,” Waxman says.
Goldschmidt believes the center will be an important part of the Jewish revival taking place in Russia.
“These kids will be part of a community that can be proud of them, a community that will take care of both adoptable and unadoptable children.”
About 200 children live at three Jewish homes for children that were opened in Ukraine during the past three years.
But Goldschmidt says the demand for such institutions in Russia should be even higher because the Russian Jewish community is larger than Ukraine’s.
“Ultimately, the idea is to have a home to be an alternative to abortions,” says Goldschmidt, referring to the high rate of abortions in Russia. According to statistics, Russian women have between three and eight abortions in their lifetimes.
As one of the guests at last week’s dedication looked at the children playing, he reminisced about his experience at a Jewish orphanage.
Anatoly Dun was one of dozens of children that came through the Moscow Jewish orphanage, which existed between 1923 and 1933 — until it was closed by Stalin.
“I was happy there,” Dun, 84, says. “I hope these kids have the same memories about their home when they grow up.”
Waxman, who has visited dozens of orphanages around the world, says they all have one thing in common.
“Be it in China, or in India or here — there is always deadness in children’s eyes,” she says.
The home she helped to establish in Moscow may be the happy exception to that rule.
“Can I stay here forever?” 6-year-old Kristina asks in a very low voice. “People here are so kind, not like in my old home.”