KISHINEV, Moldova (Apr. 21)
Feeding the elderly has been the core of Jewish welfare activities in many post-Soviet countries.
Now, in Moldova at least, it’s time to feed the children.
Two years ago, a survey of Moldovan Jewry found that 4 percent of children here go to bed hungry and one child in five lives below the poverty line.
A new program run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in this former Soviet republic aims to address the problem.
The JDC launched the Let My Children Grow program with a $250,000 grant from private U.S. sources. The beneficiaries are Jewish children under 16 from low-income families, who receive food packages.
“After we launched the program, it turned out that our criteria were too tough,” said Vera Krizhak, director of the JDC’s branch in Moldova. “More than 70 percent of children live in difficult conditions.”
The pace of post-communist economic reforms in Moldova has trailed that in other former Soviet republics.
The debt-ridden economy of this largely agricultural country, which lacks substantial natural resources and its own energy sources, leaves few opportunities for the 4.5 million inhabitants.
Unable to revive its industrial potential after the collapse of communism in 1991, Moldova consistently has been rated the poorest nation in Europe by leading international agencies. One-quarter of the nation’s work force is employed abroad — the only chance for many people to survive.
Some Moldovans, including some of the country’s 20,000 Jews, have taken advantage of the rise of private entrepreneurship in recent years, but the majority struggles to survive on salaries and pensions that are modest even by Eastern European standards.
Moldova is the only country in the former Soviet Union that has a large-scale Jewish welfare program for children.
Among those who have benefited is Yulia Litivinova, age 12.
She lives with her grandmother, who has taken care of her since she was born. Her mother left Yulia at the maternity ward when the infant was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth.
The grandmother and granddaughter — who is homebound — live on state pensions that together total $23. More than half of the money goes for medicine.
“We haven’t seen so many fruits in a year as we have today in one month,” since the JDC began bringing food packages, the grandmother said. “I’m not mentioning such luxuries as chicken. I was used to going on one chicken for a month.”
The aid is the same amount that elderly Jewish citizens have been getting from the JDC for more than a decade.
The monthly aid package is worth $12, but JDC’s Krizhak said that $30 to $35 are needed to satisfy even the most basic needs.
Semyon Rapoport, a Jewish community leader in the town of Orgeyev, about 50 miles from Kishinev, said his community began helping 30 children when funds first became available in September.
“A half-year later we were helping 200 children, who receive food packages twice a month,” Rapoport said. “To meet the demand, we now have to reduce the size of an individual package to keep the number of recipients steady.”
Some Jewish activists criticize program criteria that allow service to some individuals who are not technically Jewish. But JDC officials say it is up to local communities to decide who should be included.
Krizhak said she believes in a liberal approach.
“We help those whom the local community considers Jewish,” she said.
Most recipients come from mixed families, reflecting a high rate of assimilation and intermarriage.
JDC officials say the value of the program goes beyond the idea of helping needy Jewish families.
“We hope this program will also serve the goal of getting the parents involved,” said Vladimir Kvitko, JDC’s regional coordinator. “This is the age group the Jewish community has otherwise always had trouble reaching out to.”
The program currently serves 2,050 children across Moldova, and Krizhak said local Jewish businessmen and women gradually are getting involved. A group of local businesspeople recently agreed to start supporting six families who are receiving aid.
In fact, JDC officials have noticed that local Jews are more likely to support programs for children than for the elderly.
But JDC officials say it’s too early to say whether the local community is prepared to start “owning” the program. In the meantime, the JDC hopes to extend the year-long grant for another year.
“I can’t even think what a disappointment this would be if we ever have to announce that the program has been closed,” said Svetlana Matveeva, the children’s program coordinator for Kishinev.