Two weeks ago marked the 20th anniversary of the worst man-made environmental disaster the world has ever experienced. Beginning on April 26, 1986, the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, near the border between Belarus and Ukraine, experienced several explosions and a meltdown said to release 300 times as much radiation as was released in Hiroshima.
But perhaps the worst part of the Chernobyl disaster is that it continues. With a half-life of 28 years, the radiation today is as strong as the day it fell, according to Yossi Raichik, the founder and director of Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl (CCOC): and is having a stronger impact on those recently born than those who were adults at the time, since they are exposed the to radiation even in utero. Radiation dispersed by the wind for hundreds of kilometers remains in the ground and continues to get absorbed from the food that people eat and the milk that they drink. What’s more, the region is dogged by poverty and inadequate medical services. Nine million people have been or will be affected by this radiation, according to one United Nations report.
A few nonprofit organizations in the United States help the children of Chernobyl, but only one, Raichik’s group, specifically aids Jewish children.
His organization airlifts kids ages 7 to 13, taking them to Israel for medical and psychological assistance, housing and education until their parents are able to immigrate or until they reach adulthood. The children are sent by their parents because there are so many people dying of cancers in the affected region. "What would it take for you to have to put your 7-year-old on a plane and not know when you’ll see him next?" asks Raichik.
On April 27 (one day after the 20th anniversary of the disaster) CCOC brought its 73rd flight of children to Israel, bringing the total number of kids the group has helped to 2,381. The organization’s goal has been to rescue 3,000 children, and it is taking longer than expected. It costs $15,000 for each child’s first year with CCOC, Raichik said. And the organization struggles to reach its fundraising goals.
CCOC held a benefit concert in New York on March 30, presenting four young male cantors (David Weinbach and Tzadok Greenwald from Israel, and Yaakov Stark and Netanel Hershtik from New York) and three Jewish men’s’ choirs, from Moscow, Tel Aviv and New York, on stage at Alice Tully Hall.
The evening was sold out, the audience filled to capacity with people passionately cheering on the musicians. But the night raised $200,000, just two-thirds of what Raichik expected. "I’m finding it much more difficult to raise money now" than in the past, he said afterward. "The biggest problem is that these children are becoming forgotten children." His organization is well-regarded by the monitoring group Charity Navigator, which gives it the top rating of four out of four possible stars, and a score of 62.28 on a scale from 0 to 70 based on the ratio of overhead and fundraising expenses to programming expenses. Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) allows donors to compare the efficacy of organizations of similar size. Its current home page features an article titled "Donor Beware: Bogus Children’s Charities," looking at several nonprofits whose stated goal is to help kids with medical and other needs, but which rate zero stars because they spend upwards of 90 percent of the money they raise on fundraising.
CCOC, in contrast, spends 6.4 percent of its revenue on fundraising, and nearly 89 percent on its programs.
According to tax documents, in 2005 CCOC raised $2,919,695. But it spent even more that year supporting the children it brought to Israel, ending with a deficit of over $500,000.
The organization was started after parents in the Chernobyl area turned to the late Lubavitcher rebbe asking for help taking their children someplace safer.
"It was four years after the disaster when they realized what was going on. Kids were getting sick, tomatoes were growing big as cantaloupes," says Raichik, a Los Angeles native.
The rebbe directed his followers in Israel to help, and the first airlift of 196 children arrived in August 1990. By year’s end, 400 children had been rescued.
Raichik happened to be in Israel then. "I got involved just to start the program off and never intended to stay here and run it. I was actually on my way back to L.A. "But it’s 15 years later and I’m still here talking about it. I never made it back to L.A.," said Raichik in an interview from his home in Kfar Chabad, the Lubavitch town near Ben-Gurion Airport. The children brought to Israel live in group homes there. Girls go to school there but boys are sent outside the town, because the boys’ yeshiva in Kfar Chabad doesn’t offer a government-recognized diploma. "We want these kids to graduate high school and go on," Raichik said. "Our goal isn’t to make Lubavitchers," and few join that community. The kids stay in Kfar Chabad for 18 to 24 months on average, though some have stayed as long as eight years. "We have some who became orphans while they were with us," their parents killed by radiation-caused cancers, Raichik said. "A lot of kids we marry off."
The most recent airlift took place on April 27, the day after the disaster’s 20th anniversary, in an effort to make a point.
"We have to be concerned with the day after," Raichik says. "We need to continue to alleviate these kids’ pain. Most disasters after two or three years remedy themselves one way or another. Chernobyl is the only disaster where for the first 28 years it’s just as strong as the first day. But people have forgotten about these children and their problems."
More information about the organization is available at www.CCOC.net.