The newspaper story gnawed at him.
How is it possible, Robert Ivker thought, that in a city as affluent as New York, Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union can live in such grinding poverty? This despite efforts by agencies like the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst (JCH) to provide hot meals, transportation to doctors, and free English-language instruction.
Last winter Ivker, 43, a radiation oncologist at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark who lives in Lower Manhattan, clipped the story, chronicled in The New York Times’ Neediest Cases series. It detailed the financial straits these elderly and often frail Jewish immigrants face, their sole form of income being monthly government SSI payments of $700-$750 for individuals and $900-$950 for couples. That money barely covers the cost of their rent, let alone heating, utility, telephone and cable television bills.
Ivker put the piece aside, but his conscience wouldn’t let him rest. “I have to help these people now,” Ivker told The Jewish Week, recalling his reaction at the time. “I put aside what I was doing at that moment and picked up the phone to call JCH.”
Within a few months, Ivker and a group of about 10 friends had raised $12,000. It was enough to provide each of the first 20 people on a list of survivors provided by JCH (which gets funds from UJA-Federation of New York) with $50 a month supplemental income for a year.
Ivker’s story is a simple yet powerful reminder of the efficiency of small-scale, grass-roots philanthropy, even in today’s world of multimillion-dollar philanthropies with vast overheads.
Ivker was honored last month at an event at JCH that included the participation of many Holocaust survivors now receiving support from the funds he raised. He has decided to continue his fundraising efforts during 2008, hoping to double what he raised this year so that he will be able to provide $50 a month to 40 survivors, instead of 20.
Asked what motivates him to raise money for elderly Russian Jews, Ivker said, “I feel personally offended that people who went through the Holocaust and so many other difficulties in their lives are being forced to live like this in their later years. The fact they have to worry whether they will be able to pay their heating bills is unconscionable.”
Ivker is a self-described iconoclast given to undertaking lonely causes — he proudly notes that he is one of the few members of the Republican Jewish Coalition living in Soho. Which helps explain his philanthropic approach. “I am aware UJA-Federation and other Jewish organizations have done a lot to help elderly Holocaust victims, and they are to be commended for that,”Ivker said. “Yet I prefer to work together with a few friends because wheyou raise money in the way we are doing, you know exactly where your dollars are going. Also, it doesn’t take $1 million to make a difference. With $50,you can pay a survivor’s heating bill for a month. That’s a big deal.”
Asked FOR his reaction to Ivker’s “go it alone” approach, UJA-Federation CEO John Ruskay said, “Is it good that an individual [like Ivker] becomes directly involved in helping Holocaust survivors in need? Of course it is. What he is doing and what our campaign does are different ways to express the same core values. But it should not be forgotten that without our capital campaign, the JCH of Bensonhurst would have been forced to close its doors in the 1990s.”
One of the people who joined with Ivker in contributing to the fund is Dmitri Salita, a Russian Jewish immigrant boxer in his early 20s who is ranked as the No. 3 junior welterweight in the world. According to Salita, with whom Ivker connected after he watched one of his fights in Atlantic City, “When Robert told me about this cause, I decided to help because I am myself from the Russian Jewish community. And I understand it is essential to help these people who sacrificed and suffered their whole lives and now, in their old age, must endure terrible poverty.”
For his part, JCH Executive Director Vladimir Vishnevsky said, “Despite all the fine work that organizations like UJA-Federation and Blue Card are doing to aid Holocaust survivors, it is disturbing that so many survivors in our area are living below the subsistence level. So we are heartened by Robert Ivker’s generous gesture, which will provide an ongoing means of support to those survivors in the most catastrophic situations.”
For Khana Kharenko, a 79-year-old widow who has been in the U.S. for eight years, the $50 she receives each month due to Ivker’s fund-raising effort has made a decided difference in her quality of life.
Kharenko, who escaped from Kiev at age 12 with her family the day before the Nazis occupied the city and exterminated its entire Jewish population, survived the war years amid disease and hunger in the Urals. She eventually returned to Kiev where she taught German in elite schools for decades before moving to New York in 1999, three years after her husband’s death.
Kharenko receives $710 a month from SSI and pays $625 of that amount for rent on her studio apartment in Bensonhurst. She receives enough food stamps every month to feed herself, but points out that the $85 left over after she pays rent is not enough to pay her bills; these include electric, gas, telephone and $54 a month for Russian cable television. “I live by myself so it is important for me to have television programming I can understand and relate to,” she said. “The $50 I receive from Dr. Ivker nearly pays my TV bill, which is a great relief for me.”
Kharenko has two children, Yuri, 49, a violinist for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and Valentina, 56, who teaches English as a Second Language at JCH, but each of them has two children. “My children are struggling financially themselves and cannot help me much.” Consequently, Kharenko has had to borrow considerable sums to pay her bills, money she hopes to be eventually able to pay back, if and when she receives a Section Eight subsidized apartment she has applied for.
Despite the many difficulties she confronts daily, Kharenko believes she has much to be thankful for. “The life of an immigrant — especially that of a retiree like myself — is not easy, but I never forget that I am provided with a home attendant and have access to first-rate medical care. So I bless America every night Kharenko added, “I am also thankful that there are Americans like Dr. Ivker, who understood our plight and decided to help us. I hope others are inspired to follow his example, because there are so many other elderly Russian Jewish immigrants like me who simply don’t have the means to scrape by each month.”