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Tales from the Pale in Russia, Volunteers Feed Elderly, and Place Volunteering on the Map

September 2, 2004
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Until the fall of communism, Larisa Bermanson had only a cursory understanding of volunteering. Like many in the Soviet Union, she says, “I’d read about the volunteers during World War II, and I knew about volunteers with foreign armies.”

Now, the 73-year-old retired economist handles 35 to 40 elderly clients for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates Hesed programs, a social services network in the former Soviet Union that provides food and psychological aid to a quarter-million Jews, primarily elderly, every year.

Even with an annual budget of $70 million, the JDC’s Hesed wouldn’t be able to help anywhere near that number of clients if not for 14,000 local volunteers.

These are the people who deliver the food boxes, make the home visits, answer the phones, provide the free medical care and run the social and cultural programs paid for by federation donors in North America. They are t! he unsung heroes of the JDC’s welfare efforts in the former Soviet Union.

It would be more correct to say “heroines,” since the overwhelming majority of these volunteers are middle-aged and elderly Jewish women, many of whom, like Bermanson, are themselves Hesed clients or just marginally better off than those they help.

They are people like the two dozen women and one elderly gentleman gathered one recent morning in the Hesed office in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city of 1.5 million residents.

The city’s Jewish community organized its own quasi-Hesed in 1998 to take care of the needy elderly, but welfare services were piecemeal until the JDC opened its Rostov office in January 2001 and began funding Hesed operations.

“Most of us are women,” acknowledges 68-year-old Rolana Glauberman, who coordinates the 130 volunteers that help Rostov’s Hesed reach its 8,800 clients scattered across South Russia and the northern Caucasus, an enormous territory home to 2! 1 million people.

It is women who have the time — they are the fi rst laid off when the economy worsens and often outlive their husbands: Glauberman’s own husband died suddenly last year while she was on a trip to Israel.

And, these volunteers insist, women are natural nurturers, used to taking care of their own families.

“We are all retired,” Glauberman says. “I came here because I wanted to feel needed. That’s the reason we’re all here, right?” She looks around the room for confirmation from the others, who all nod their heads.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the JDC in the former Soviet Union is this creation of a dedicated network of Jewish volunteers in a region with no history of volunteerism — countries where for 70 years the very word was suspect, implying a currying of favor with the Communist authorities.

In little more than a decade, the Hesed system has not only fed and clothed hundreds of thousands of needy Jews, but has changed the social culture in a region that is still learning how to flex its de! mocratic muscles.

The women sitting in this basement room in Rostov wear shoes that are badly worn and their dresses are old. But like their U.S. counterparts they have the same concern for their fellow Jews, and they express it in a similar way — by volunteering.

Many of them are among the 6,500 volunteers and lay professionals the JDC trained in welfare and community building last year at the William Rosenwald Institute in St. Petersburg, and eight regional institutes, a new leadership cadre for the former Soviet Union’s million-strong Jewish community.

Volunteers, most of whom are retired, are often able to use skills from their previous professions. Glauberman runs a Women’s Club, which last year knit 300 pairs of wool socks for elderly clients.

Another woman in the room repairs watches for free. “The old people bring in piles of their broken watches for her,” Glauberman says. “Cockroaches are sometimes living in them.”

Anna Sherbina, an 80-year-old ! retired gerontologist who walks with a cane, is Rostov’s volunteer Hes ed doctor. Every Monday she travels in by bus to hold office hours at the Hesed, and she’s always available for phone consultations. “Many of these old people suffer from stress, so I listen to them and give them informal psychological advice,” she says.

“All of us on staff started out as volunteers,” says the director of the local Hesed, Tatiana Minjoraya.

Because the 66,000 Jews in southern Russia are widely scattered, Rostov’s Hesed-on-Wheels mobile unit also relies heavily on volunteers to reach its 400 clients who live in more than 40 towns and villages outside the capital.

Minjoraya says some towns may have just one or two elderly Jews, which makes it financially prohibitive to pay for the gas to reach them. Some receive their once-a-month food packages just once a season.

Yosif Hirschberg, the lone man in the room, is head of Hesed-on-Wheels for Azov, a port city half an hour southwest of Rostov. That may seem close enough, but a car is still a luxury i! n Russia, and with monthly pensions of $15 or $20, even a weekly bus ride to the capital is beyond the reach of most elderly people.

Hirschberg says he showed up at the Hesed a year ago to learn more about his Jewish roots, he says. He was handed a list of the five known Jews in Azov along with a suitcase full of Jewish books, and was told to go home and distribute them.

“When I talked to those five people, they all knew someone else, and today we serve 48 clients,” he says proudly.

The Rostov Hesed takes good care of its volunteers, Minjoraya says.

“We celebrate their birthdays, and at the end of each summer we rent a guesthouse near the Azov Sea for a weekend seminar. We invite musicians, we have cultural activities, we give them caviar and other special foods they can’t get at home.”

This article is a part of a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schus! terman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Chari table Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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