Ukraine Jews struggle with budget cuts


LVOV, Ukraine – Ada Dianova sighs as she considers the choices she’s had to make in the past year.

As the director of the Hesed welfare center in this western Ukraine city, Dianova oversees the distribution of food, clothing and medical care to more than half of the region’s estimated 5,000 Jews. Her funding comes from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which sponsors the Hesed network throughout the former Soviet Union.

Other needy Lvov Jews are served by an active B’nai B’rith organization that receives funding from the B’nai B’rith lodge in Munich, Germany.

The two welfare groups share client lists to avoid duplication of services.

Last summer, Dianova says, she was able to provide five times as much food as she can today.

Hesed’s soup kitchen closed at the end of January, along with the Meals on Wheels program that used to bring cooked food directly to homebound clients. Dianova can still distribute 500 monthly food packages, but clients have to pick them up at Hesed centers, which for rural clients can mean traveling up to 100 miles.

In March, Lvov’s Hesed will be switching its clients to a food card program. The cards have a pre-paid monthly amount of credit that clients may use to purchase food and essential supplies at certain local supermarkets that have negotiated discounts with the JDC.

Dianova says the shift is rough for many Hesed clients who are used to the camaraderie of the soup kitchens, the ease of receiving prepared meals.

“We’re in a very bad position,” she says. “We are forced to say no to many of our clients, and it’s difficult to explain to them that it’s not our fault.”

The changes confronting Lvov Jews are being repeated across the former Soviet Union as the JDC shuffles its budget and continues to encourage local responsibility for welfare needs.

The overall budget for the region remains stable, says Asher Ostrin, the director of JDC programs in the former Soviet Union.

When money raised by the United Jewish Communities’ Operation Promise campaign ran out on Dec. 31, the JDC authorized a temporary deficit of $9 million to ensure that no services were cut. That deficit has been repaid partially by a $5 million donation from the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation.

Ostrin says Lvov is dealing with the JDC’s budgetary allocation process, which distributes money each year according to the number of clients in a particular country and its cost of living, as well as pension raises. A pension increase from $100 to $110 a month may not seem like much, but multiplied by hundreds of thousands of elderly Jews in a country, it affects budgetary decisions.

In accordance with that formula, the 2008 allocation for Ukraine was reduced while Moldova and Georgia received added funding. The Lvov Hesed’s budget was cut 13 percent, which JDC officials say is really 27 percent when accounting for inflation and the declining power of the dollar.

“They’re all needy,” Ostrin says, “but there are other Jews somewhere else whose pensions didn’t rise this year.”

The food card program, piloted three years ago in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropotrovsk, has been implemented on a large scale across the region in the past year. It serves 11,000 clients in Ukraine alone.

“It empowers the client,” Ostrin says. “They have more opportunity to choose what they want to eat rather than whatever is in the food package.”

Food cards can be used for most items except pork products, alcohol and cigarettes. The program is slowly replacing soup kitchens, food packages and Meals on Wheels except for clients who cannot cook for themselves.

Local Heseds have some flexibility in choosing how to spend their budgets. In Lvov, Hesed closed three of its five Warm Houses, which are subsidized communal dinners that clients prepare in their homes for other clients. The two remaining Warm Houses are in the countryside, where Dianova says the needs of her 1,500 elderly and infirm clients are greater than in Lvov itself.

Lyuba Yakhnovich, 58, lives with her husband, Yosef, 60, in the village of Mykolayiv, a two-hour drive from Lvov. Lyuba has had four strokes and receives medical care as well as food packages from Hesed.

The Yakhnoviches were born after World War II, so they are considered “non-Nazi victims” and receive about half the benefits of “Nazi victims” – those Jews who lived under Nazi occupation. Allocations for Lyuba’s medicines, for example, were cut by two-thirds in January 2007.

Funding from German and Swiss restitution is earmarked specifically for Nazi victims.

“Here in the countryside you can feel the difference between Nazi victims and non-Nazi victims,” says Vitaly Vasin, a medical consultant to the Lvov Hesed’s regional program.

That’s largely a function of age, he says.

“The typical Nazi victim has reached retirement age and already has a pension, whereas the non-Nazi victims, who were born after the war, haven’t reached retirement age yet,” Vasin says. “And because of unemployment, many have no income.”

A budgetary windfall last summer allowed Hesed in Lvov to buy heart shunts for Lyuba, but Vasin says he can’t help their living conditions. The Yakhnoviches have no hot water or inside toilets.

But they insist they are fine and won’t say they’re receiving less now.

“Clients affected by the cuts don’t talk about it because they don’t want to seem ungrateful,” says Ella Garasynyak, the director of the Hesed in nearby Drogobych, a branch of Lvov Hesed.

Like other Heseds, Lvov is trying to raise more of its own funds. Last year it brought in about $40,000 from a handful of local donors – not nearly enough for self-sufficiency.

“We try to educate the businessmen about philanthropy,” Dianova says. “We invite them to our concerts and celebrations, we show them films, we tell them that Hesed exists only due to donors. We tell them about Lvov’s prewar Jewish community, how wealthy and charitable it was.”

But with only two local donors, she acknowledges the appeal isn’t really working.

One of the donors is Mikhail Novack, 54, the owner of the prestigious Hetman vodka factory.

Unlike most Jews in Lvov, Novack was raised with a strong Jewish identity. His grandmother took him to the synagogue every morning until it was shut down in 1962, and he knew his parents joined other local Jews for secret prayer services in private apartments afterward.

Novack says it’s difficult to instill a sense of communal responsibility in Jews who did not grow up with that history.

“I am ashamed to say that there are many others who are able to donate but don’t,” he says. “So the help of Jews from other countries can’t be overemphasized.”

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