ODESSA, Ukraine, Aug. 18 (JTA) — Inside a beautifully renovated 19th-century building here, nine Jewish children are seated around a large wooden table, coloring with crayons. An older woman enters the room and claps her hands, and the children rush past her, chattering loudly, each one eager to be the first to the dining room where a hot meal of soup and chicken awaits them. For many of the children, this may be the only hot meal they eat all day. This is Beitenu, Hebrew for “our home,” a children’s program sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Every week, the program provides after-school activities and psychological care for 36 at-risk Jewish children, aged 7 to 15, who come from broken homes, whose parents are dead, poor, in jail or otherwise unable to care for them properly. Open five days a week, Sunday through Thursday, Beitenu’s building also boasts propane heat, allowing the children hot showers and washing machines for their laundry in a city where the hot water shuts off from April through October. Beitenu isn’t the only Jewish children’s program in town. Chabad has been running a far larger one for years in Odessa, tied into its extensive day school system. But for the JDC, Beitenu, which opened in Odessa in late January as part of the group’s Children’s Initiative project for the former Soviet Union, represents a new direction. “This is a new focus for us,” says Scott Richman, JDC’s New York-based director for Russia. “From the time we opened our first Hesed” welfare agency in 1993 up until last December, “JDC programs in the former Soviet Union were exclusively focused on the disabled and the elderly.” That meant that for 10 years, the only Jewish children receiving Hesed aid in the former Soviet Union were disabled, and that help was limited to food packages and medicines delivered to the home. At the time, JDC decision-makers felt that the elderly poor were the most vulnerable among more than 1 million Jews in need in the former Soviet Union. As such, the Hesed system was designed primarily with this demographic in mind. But by 2001, Richman says, the JDC was ready to look beyond its traditional mandate. “We wanted to help children in general, not just the disabled,” he says. A needs assessment was conducted that year in Moldava and a pilot Children’s Initiative project was launched in 2002. Following its success, the first Children’s Initiative programs were established in Russia and Ukraine last December, offering clothing, medical care, psychological help and home repairs to at-risk children and their families. Programs now are operating in several dozen cities, with applications in for many more. In some places, like Odessa’s Beitenu, in addition to these very basic, life-sustaining services, centralized after-school programs offer arts and crafts, Hebrew and English lessons, computer facilities and hot meals. Sophia Fingerova is the director of Beitenu in Odessa, a city with 35,000 Jews, 11,500 of whom are on Hesed welfare rolls. Fingerova says that although Hesed has identified 60 Jewish children who are at risk, just 36 come to Beitenu. “The others might have parents or grandparents who don’t want them to come, or maybe they have no way of getting to our building,” she says, adding that Beitenu doesn’t have the money to transport children who live in outlying districts. They also get free medical care, including vitamins, sessions with speech pathologists and visits from psychology students at the local university. “The children have all kinds of psychological problems,” says Fingerova, who is also a physician with the state-run clinic. “Hyperactivity, aggressive behavior, infantilism, slow development. But already, even after three months, we are seeing some changes in them.” Boris, 13, has only been coming to Beitenu for a week. His grandmother, a fabric cutter in a local factory, brings him on the bus every day after school. Boris is developmentally disabled, his face bloated from the hormones he takes to counteract the effects of a brain hemorrhage he suffered when he fell on an umbrella and one of the spokes pierced his face. His knees are skinned and his gaze is unfocused. “I like the drawing, and running fast on the treadmill,” he says shyly, his eyes begging his grandmother to let him run back into the other room where his friends are playing a computer game. Many Jewish children in Odessa, some of them disabled, are helped by Chabad. Rabbi Avraham Wolff is the chief Chabad rabbi in Odessa. He runs five kindergartens and elementary schools, all of which feed into a central high school serving hundreds of Jewish children. Wolff’s schools are clean and well-run, with low teacher-to-student ratios and plenty of books and gym equipment. Unlike Beitenu, Chabad owns several buses, which it uses to bring students to the school. The children in Chabad’s central Odessa elementary school look happy and well fed, many of them expressing gratitude that they are not in the Ukrainian public school system. In September 2002, Wolff established an orphanage when a woman showed up on his doorstep with her two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, whose mother had been slain outside her home by an assailant who stole her ring. Saying she was unable to care for the children, the grandmother left them in Wolff’s hands. Wolff says he was not about to relinquish them to the state-run orphanage system — notorious throughout the FSU for substandard care, rampant disease and understaffing. So, Wolff set up two separate orphanages — one for boys and one for girls. Today, each houses about two dozen youngsters, who study together with the other students in the Chabad day school. Chabad’s Odessa orphanage is one of 10 the organization runs throughout the former Soviet Union. The dormitories are plain, but the beds are cozy and warm, and each child has his or her own closet and desk, with a personal key for privacy. “They have the same clothes as the day students, and no one knows the difference,” Wolff says. “It’s very important that they not feel second class.” The word “orphanage” is something of a misnomer, since some of the children have living parents who simply are unable to care for them. For that reason, Wolff emphasizes that none of the children in his care is up for adoption. “If their mother comes back for them, I want her to know they are here and waiting for her,” he says. The children in both Chabad’s orphanage and the JDC-run Beitenu program look remarkably well cared for. And except for the yarmulkes on the heads of the boys in the Chabad program, they are dressed similarly as well. There is one difference, however. All of the children in the Chabad orphanage are halachic Jews, whereas Beitenu, in accordance with JDC policy, serves anyone who is Jewish according to Israel’s Law of Return — which includes children with just one Jewish grandparent. This difference has the potential of creating a two-tiered system, some locals acknowledge quietly, where children with Jewish mothers could gravitate to the Chabad schools, which are much better funded and offer a wider range of services, leaving the non-halachic children on the JDC roster. It also penalizes orphans who only have Jewish fathers. Chabad won’t take them, and Beitenu can’t, since the JDC does not run orphanages in the former Soviet Union and Beitenu’s program is only available to children whose parents or other family members are able to transport them to the center. In fact, dozens of half-Jewish orphans languish in Odessa’s state orphanage; the same situation obtains throughout the former Soviet Union. “The conditions there are awful,” says Irina Zborovskaya, JDC children’s program coordinator for southern Ukraine. “Some of them have no beds, they sleep on the floor.” Every Friday, student volunteers from Odessa Hillel take these children out for the afternoon, bringing them to the Jewish Community Center or to a park, where they help them with their homework or just give them a breath of fresh air. “These children don’t know what a brush is,” says Zborovskaya. “When they see soap, they gasp.” Richman, of JDC’s New York office, acknowledges the problem, but lauds Fingerova and her staff for “making the best use of community resources like Hillel.” He says Hillel students in other cities perform the same mitzvah. “In Moldava there are 14 Jewish kids in the state orphanage, and the Hillel students take them out every Friday,” he notes.This article is one in a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
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Sue Fishkoff is a contributing writer to JTA.
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