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Across the Former Soviet Union Old-age Home Offers Facilities, Jewish Life, Possibility of Romance

January 28, 2005
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It’s one thing to find physical and cultural sustenance at a Jewish old-age home — but Yosef Braginsky and Nina Russetskaya have found love at theirs. “Both of our spouses died and neither of us ever expected to marry again — that is, until we met here and fell in love,” says Braginsky, 83. “It’s hard to believe that something so wonderful has happened near the end of our lives. Not only that Nina and I found each other, but that we have the opportunity to live together in a worry-free environment where we can explore common interests.”

Their experience may be rare, but Dnepropetrovsk’s Jewish care facility — Beit Baruch Assisted Living Facility for Holocaust Survivors and Victims of War — feels more like an old-age home in an affluent Jewish community in the United States than in this industrial Ukrainian city of 1.5 million.

The facility is one of several examples of the impressive social service projects created by the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk in collaboration with foreign partners, projects that go a long way toward buttressing the community’s claim to be the best functioning Jewish community in the former Soviet Union

There’s also the Beit Chana Pedagogical Seminary, believed to be the only Jewish post-secondary teacher-training school in the former Soviet Union.

Slava Brez, a dynamic 30-year-old who heads the community’s wide-ranging social-service programming, said the driving force behind the city’s Jewish life, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky, and the leadership of the Jewish community, many of them wealthy businessmen, are sensitive to the myth that poverty is being created by Jews who are making money.

The Women’s Gynecologic Clinic, which opened in 1996 at a medical facility, is an example of a service provided by the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk to the entire city

Flour, cooking oil and other foodstuffs from the U.S. government and elsewhere are funneled through the Jewish community to large number of non-Jews in need of sustenance here. Meanwhile, several of the city’s Jewish millionaires are providing funding for schools and orphanages, which serve the general population.

That spirit of openness to non-Jews extends even to community cultural programs, such as the Jewish Agency for Israel’s “Jewish Guitar” program, which draws an equal number of Jews and non-Jews every week to strum guitars and sing Jewish and Israeli melodies.

“I am not Jewish but I feel totally at home coming here and taking part in a group singing this wonderful music,” says student Olga Afanafsyeva, 18. “Our lives these days are a constant struggle for survival, and it seems that only the Jewish community provides this kind of oasis for music, culture and camaraderie.”

Beit Baruch is spotlessly clean and cheery, with a physician’s office, a room for massages and medical baths and a library with a reading room where residents study Torah and learn such subjects as Yiddish and Russian and Jewish literature.

The home also boasts a computer lab, social club, dining room and a large room filled with tropical plants called the Winter Garden, where members of the home’s choir perform Yiddish songs.

There are 24 medical assistants for only 55 residents — eventual plans call for 94 residents — and the quality of care is such that residents, many of whom lived in poverty and squalor before being referred here, joke that perhaps they have died and gone to heaven.

“After my husband and my son both died, I felt I had no one left in my life. I was living in very bad conditions and saw little reason to go on,” says Katya Scrynichenko, 77. “I live here in a warm Jewish atmosphere that contrasts completely with the ugly atmosphere I endured before coming here. Every few days I pinch myself to make sure this is all really happening to me.”

The spacious, three-story facility is a joint project of the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk, the New York-based Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network and the Jewish Community Relations Council and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

For some, like the love-struck Braginsky and Russetskaya, 75, life in the home even has led to renewed interest in being Jewish.

“Neither of us was at all religious prior to coming here, but now both of us have learned to pray in Hebrew,” Russetskaya says. “Studying Judaism felt strange at first, but now it has become a central part of our lives.”

This article 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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