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Across the Former Soviet Union Jewish Charity Based in Belarus Helps Carry Families Through Winter

January 9, 2006
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Thirteen-year-old Sasha is not picky when it comes to choosing a winter coat or boots for one simple reason: He has never had any nice ones. So when Lena Tereshkova, a social worker with Jewish Family Outreach Services, took Sasha to Minsk’s central department store recently to shop for winter clothes, the boy’s only wish was that they be warm and comfortable.

Sasha’s mentally ill mother and aging grandmother are both unemployed. Hot meals are rare and the boy does not always have socks to wear in winter.

Sasha — his name, like others in this story, has been changed because of security concerns in this authoritarian country — is in the at-risk group in the JFOS database of needy Jewish children. He benefits from the organization’s assistance programs, including winter relief for children in underprivileged Jewish families.

“Winter is a particularly tough time for vulnerable children like Sasha, who often have no warm clothes, let alone the fact they don’t get enough food and vitamins,” says Olga Kallistova, director of JFOS. The group has hundreds of such children on its list.

But now the group is seeking new funding sources as monies from abroad are drying up.

“With JDC funding decreasing every year, we encourage” the local branches “to seek alternative money, assisting them in where to look for potential donors and how to write grants,” says Marina Fromer, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Belarus.

There’s little doubt the JFOS serves a vital need. Created two years ago as part of the JDC’s-supported Minsk Jewish Campus, JFOS has become the first of its kind in the former Soviet Union to offer a full range of support to Jewish families with children. Many of these families have monthly incomes of less than $100.

“Two years ago, we had Hesed, a well-developed welfare system for elderly Jews and a community center that targeted Jewish children and youth but which but did not offer anything beyond educational and cultural programs,” Kallistova says. “Meanwhile, we had many Jewish families who did not want just to dance or sing Jewish songs, but who also needed concrete financial help.”

JFOS has filled that niche, offering assistance programs while providing cultural and educational programs at the community center located on the same premises. They offer regular food packages and humanitarian aid, but also psychological support and vocational training, she says.

“We try to ensure that our clients are not just passive recipients of our help, but that they are actually working to improve their lives,” she says.

Lena Suvorova, the divorced mother of two teenage girls, came to the Jewish Campus three years ago to take English lessons. She hoped to advance her career in a local community college, where she did administrative work for less than $100 a month.

She says that after hearing her story, JFOS immediately offered help.

“We were on the JFOS supermarket program for over a year, which means I was able to buy a certain amount of food in the supermarket twice a month,” Suvorova explains.

Most importantly, Suvorova says, she learned computer skills at classes paid for by JFOS. That enabled her to get a new job where she earns twice her previous salary, and it also brought her closer to the Minsk Jewish community. Suvorova says her daughters participate in several Jewish Campus activities, including the Teenagers Club and the choir. She also goes with them twice a month to “family club,” where they discuss common problems with other Jewish families.

“I feel that I can always ask for help if I need it,” Suvorova says. “And I like it that my girls have the opportunity to learn Jewish traditions and culture in a friendly and encouraging atmosphere.”

Close to 4,000 families like the Suvorovas have registered with JFOS in Belarus, including 1,200 in Minsk.

The number of needy families grows every month. The staff of JFOS, meanwhile, consists of only five caseworkers, not counting professional volunteers such as psychologists and doctors.

Meanwhile, JDC headquarters in the United States, the main source of financing for all Minsk campus programs including JFOS, has been forced to cut its funding for these projects over the last few years because of a shortfall in donor funding for programs in the former Soviet Union across the board.

To fill in the gap, the Jewish Campus administration in Minsk has been trying to develop its own fund-raising strength. Last year, they created a resource and development department, the first such local and independent fund-raising department of a JDC institution in the former Soviet Union.

Artur Livshyts, manager of the new research and development department, says they are making progress with four big donors: the U.K.-based World Jewish Relief, the Atlanta Jewish federation, the Swiss Jewish community and the Tulsa-based Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation. The help received from these organizations — containers of humanitarian aid and stipends for disabled and gifted children — have made a great difference for the community, Livshyts says.

But the hunt continues for more foreign sponsors. Livshyts reports that his department has written 34 separate grant proposals. Nine have been approved, bringing in grants worth $74,000.

That money is all coming from foreign Jewish groups, Livshyts says. Local fund-raising is much more difficult.

“In the U.S., philanthropic culture is well developed and donors are rewarded by tax deductions. Here in Belarus, people are afraid to show off their money,” he explains. Donating to charity brings a host of problems with it, he continues. There are no tax deductions, and people still keep their heads down, fearful of the country’s authoritarian regime.

But things are looking up, Livshyts says. His department has established a relationship with Coca-Cola Beverages in Belarus, one of just two multinationals in the country. The company has donated a piano and sports equipment for the community center, and more projects are under way, such as financing sports events and sending local competitors to the U.S. Maccabi Games.

“Sooner or later, the Belarus Jewish community must become independent,” he says. “And as the JDC stops financing us, our resources and development department will serve as the community’s financial backbone.”

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