MONTREAL, Aug. 19 (JTA) Imagine being Jewish, elderly and poor, subsisting on a meager income from the sale of household items like soap or underwear.
Add the fact you are alone and sick, and you have the ingredients for a nightmare or just another day for some in Kiev, in the former Soviet Union.
Aware of the harsh reality facing many Ukrainian Jews, the Montreal Jewish community has swung into action.
In 1999, a group of Montrealers representing Federation CJA visited the Kievskaya Oblast region of Ukraine on a fact-finding mission.
Businessman and community leader Marc Gold, co-chairman along with David Sela of the federation’s Kievskaya Project, was on that trip.
Gold had never been to the region, but Sela knew it well: He had lived there as a child until age 13, when he moved to Israel and then to Canada.
“What we found in the Kiev region was quite devastating,” Gold said. “The Jewish elderly were particularly hard hit by the fall of the Soviet Union, which was both a blessing and a curse. Many Jews were able to go to Israel as a result, but that meant fewer and fewer family members were left behind to support their aging parents and grandparents.”
On the group’s return to Montreal, “we did some serious soul-searching,” Gold said. “What could we do to help? We knew we had a moral obligation as a community to act.”
Using funds from its annual Combined Jewish Appeal and a partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Keren Hayesod and United Israel Appeal Federations Canada, Federation CJA founded the Kievskaya Project. Several other Jewish federations across Canada also lent their support.
The Montreal group targeted Kiev and the surrounding region, home to hundreds of thousands of Jews.
“We decided we would focus on a particular community and do whatever we could in a defined geographical area,” Gold said. “That was no small task, because the needs were huge, especially in the rural areas.”
Federation CJA now regularly sends people to Kiev, last year spending more than $390,000 on the program. Together with the JDC, the federation purchased two “Chesedmobiles,” vans that bring food, newspapers, medical supplies and other assistance to the elderly.
“These people can’t believe how Jews from Canada are willing to schlep in to help them,” said Gold, who has been to the region five times now.
“Why are they coming, they ask. We tell them it’s because Jews help other Jews,” he said. “It’s also to bring them a connection, or rather a reconnection, with the Jewish world. You can’t place a price on that.”
In addition to helping improve seniors improve their quality of life, the Kievskaya Project is about children.
One of its most vital projects is a summer camp for children aged 8 to 17, located about a half-hour’s drive from Kiev.
The communities of Montreal, Kiev and Beersheba in Israel all pitch in with money and manpower. Local camp counselors are joined Canadians and Israelis to supervise some 600 children from June through August, spread out over eight-day sessions.
Liya Roudaia lived in Kiev with her parents and younger sister until they came to Montreal in 1993, when Roudaia was 11. Now a biochemistry major at McGill University, she has just returned from her first summer as a counselor at the camp and is excited about her experience.
“The reason I went was to give back what I was given,” she said. “I attended a religious camp when I was a child and I learned a lot. This camp, while a secular one, gives young people the feeling of being Jewish and they change their way of thinking as a result.
“My goal as a counselor was to instill in the children the pride of living as Jews,” she continued. “It’s a good feeling to provide them with a life-changing experience. I hear that some of the older children are planning to make aliyah already.”
The group also provides a winter camp for children.
To further assist Jewish youth in Kiev, Gold pointed to the creation of a youth wing of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Kievskaya Project’s establishment of a fully-equipped youth center with an Internet café, which was just dedicated.
Gold stressed, however, that he and his committee are not the heroes in this story.
“The real heroes are the nameless people, the social workers and volunteers who make it all happen, the people in the trenches, not those of us living in comfort in Montreal,” he said.
“The Talmud states that if you save one life, it’s like you have saved the world. I know we have saved more than one life. It’s a very humbling experience.”