Volunteers bring some relief to needy Lithuanian, Latvian Jews

Caption: On a visit to the Baltics, volunteers from British group World Jewish Relief present a van they bought to help the Jewish community in Vilnius, Lithuania. (World Jewish Relief)

Caption: On a visit to the Baltics, volunteers from British group World Jewish Relief present a van they bought to help the Jewish community in Vilnius, Lithuania. (World Jewish Relief)

MOSCOW (JTA) — It took them five days and nights in four hotels through three countries to deliver two vans from London to the Jews of Latvia and Lithuania.

Eight British volunteers went on a “Mission Impossible,” a program of the British charity World Jewish Relief, to aid Jewish communities in the Baltics that have been severely affected by the recession.

In the past two years Mission Impossible has sent $10 million — from volunteers and World Jewish Relief — to needy Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, including warm clothes and bedding, footwear, personal care and Judaica.

The volunteers, mostly in their 40s and 50s who took a week off from work for the recent mission to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and the Latvian capital Riga, collectively raised nearly $60,000 themselves to purchase the vans, complete with spare parts and costs such as servicing, fuel, insurance and drivers’ salaries. They also filled the vans with gifts from Great Britain.

The vehicles will be used for doctors and hospital visits, community center visits for the elderly and infirm, and bringing meals directly to people’s homes.

Fanya, an 80-year-old Vilnius resident, accompanied the group on a tour of the Lithuania capital. She is a survivor of the Vilnus ghetto, where 95 percent of the Jewish population of about a quarter million was killed during the Holocaust.

“We visited her original home, where 18 people shared just two rooms,” said Mark Gershinson, a London businessman. “We experienced actual anti-Semitism as we stood at that home, when two young Russians shouted, ‘The Jews have come back to claim their homes.’ "

Volunteers also visited a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor who lived alone in a shack with no heat, a decrepit wood outhouse and the only water provided from a hydrant 50 yards up the road, but also had a satellite dish on the roof and a modern stereo playing inside.

They presented the first van to the Vilnius Jewish community center, which held a music concert for the visitors.

Simon Gurevich, who heads the JCC — the lifeblood of the city’s 5,000 Jews — said the JCC used to bring elderly and infirm to the center in a rented minivan.

"Now that we have our own vehicle, we’ll be able to bring these people to the community center not just once a week but twice or more," he said. "Moreover, we are going to travel to other towns in Lithuania, which means this van is not just going to bring Jews to the community, but to bring Jewish culture to many people who live far from Vilnus."

Gurevich told how an elderly man who came to the center was so touched by the volunteers that he wanted to present them with a picture of Vilnus he had at home.

"He said, ‘You are in our hearts, and I want you to have us in your hearts, too,’ " Gurevich related. "I think many old people, especially those who live alone, may think they are the only Jews in the world, that no one thinks about them. To receive this help from unknown people who have traveled several thousand miles to bring it is the best remedy for many of their ailments."

Gurevich said the recession hit Lithuania hard, with the number of young families in need of help from the community increasing by 42 percent over last year.

"Many have lost their jobs, others have experienced salary cuts," he said. "Pensions have been cut by 20 percent. If things don’t improve by next year and the community has the same amount of people to feed, help with medications, etc., our budget is going to have a $100,000 deficit.

"Now that we have the van and we can save the money it took to rent it, we’ll be able to feed two, three, even five more people. This doesn’t sound extraordinary, but it is extraordinary for those two or three people." 

In Riga, the last stop on the mission, the head of the local American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Moni Beniosev, painted a bleak economic picture of Latvia: an unemployment rate of 23 percent; the worst health care and life expectancy in the European Union; a 66 percent cut in teacher and doctor salaries; a 10 percent cut in pensions; restaurant and retail income down by 80 percent.

The volunteers learned in Riga that many of the community members who had been employed were now out of work with little prospect of finding employment — and now are desperate to support themselves and their children.

“We felt that our presence and our caring, more than the gifts we brought, made a small difference,” Gershinson said.

Since 2003, Mission Impossible has raised more than $430,000, with each volunteer raising up to $7,200 to cover the purchase of the vans, as well as each contributing to the cost of the trip.

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