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Rebuilding Jewish Lives In The FSU

Rebuilding Jewish Lives In The FSU

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Kiev, Ukraine — Rachel Landa, 90 years old and almost blind, has lived in the same one-room apartment here for 39 years. With a pension of $63 a month and without relatives in the area, she is nearly destitute, she told several American visitors, part of a mission of 54 professional and lay Jewish leaders from around the country who visited Kiev and St. Petersburg, Russia, on a whirlwind four-day trip last week. Landa is a former designer at a military factory who said she was in Siberia during World War II. Aside from her pension, her only source of sustenance now is the approximately $30 worth of food, medicine and other services (like transportation and a few hours a week of home care) she receives from Chesed, a charitable welfare network funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.Still lively and good-natured despite her circumstances, Landa showed us the frozen soup and prepared meal she would heat up for dinner that night, and expressed her gratitude.

“Chesed is everything to me,” she said with a smile. “Everything.”An hour earlier the group had met with Vladimir Dovzhenko and his wife, Anna Golovataya, in an even smaller, bleaker one-room apartment where they have lived since 1972.Dovzhenko, 66, still works as an engineer in a local factory because the couple cannot survive on their pensions.Golovataya, 70, suffered a stroke five years ago and has been homebound since. She told us she had not left the fourth floor walk-up in more than a year, unable to navigate the shoddy stairwell. The couple is childless and receives about $10 worth of food and medical services from the Chesed.

They showed the group the bottle of vegetable oil, canned goods and barley, which they described as invaluable.“It would be impossible to survive” without the Jewish funding, Golovataya said.Why is it that Landa receives three times more funding from the JDC than Dovzhenko and Golovataya, whose situation may be even more desperate?The answer is complex and controversial, and sheds light on an area of major concern for the international network of Jewish communal social service organizations. Indeed, it is part of why the 54 Jewish leaders had traveled to Ukraine and Russia.Landa is considered a Nazi victim because the area in which she lived during the Holocaust was conquered by the German army, a criteria for increased aid according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

By a quirk of geography, Dovzhenko and Golovataya do not qualify as Nazi victims since the places in which they lived during the war were not conquered.(Critics of the distinction between victims and non-victims note that Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg, was under siege by the Nazis for 900 days during the war, the scene of mass starvation and death. But since the city was never taken by the Nazis, those who survived the siege do not qualify as Nazi victims.)In the last two years, a series of events — devalued currency, stricter eligibility criteria, reduction in services — have combined to widen the gap between aid available for Nazi victims and non-victims, adding tension in the Jewish community as a result of those distinctions and putting the approximately 110,000 non-victims (almost half the number of elderly Jewish clients) at serious risk.Leonid Kotton, director of the Chesed Avraham social service center in St. Petersburg, told the American visitors that come September, his organization could no longer afford to provide aid to non-victims of the Nazis.

“We are not able to fulfill our mandate of helping Jews in need,” he said. “I don’t know what to say to those who are not victims” by way of explanation.‘Targeted Initiative’Faced with this crisis, the U.S. leadership mission traveled to Kiev and St. Petersburg to better understand and support the plan of the United Jewish Communities, which coordinated the trip, to take on a major “targeted initiative” — somewhere between a special campaign and the annual campaign — that would provide funding for programs in the FSU as well as to help bring to Israel the remaining Falash Mura community in Ethiopia.What was unique about the visit was not only the high level of lay and professional participants — including the heads of the Joint Distribution Committee, The Jewish Agency for Israel, the UJC and the UJA-Federation of New York — but the degree of consultation and cooperation among the groups. (Officials of the JDC and Jewish Agency acknowledged that they have competed for precious charitable dollars in the past, but were determined to work closer together.)As an invited guest — my trip was sponsored by the three national organizations — I was given a rare window into the overseas work of the Jewish federation system, a chance to witness how agonizing decisions are made in setting priorities for those in need.

I came away with a heightened respect for the complex voluntary network of organizations dedicated to helping Jews wherever they are in the world, and for the professionals and volunteers who devote so much of their time and resources. (See “Between The Lines,” page 6.)Last week’s visit was the outgrowth of a January trip to Minsk and St. Petersburg by 10 UJC and federation executives who, after seeing the need for increased services, pledged to themselves to widen their effort by engaging lay leaders from around the country.The endeavor will culminate at the UJC national board meeting in New York on Sunday and Monday with a resolution proposed to raise $60 million over three years for projects in the FSU. About half of the money would go to raise the level of services for non-Nazi victims to that of Nazi victims, and half for a variety of Israel-oriented youth programs as well as doubling the number of youngsters participating in summer camps (from 10,000 to 20,000) and increasing the length of the camp program from one week to three.

UJC also will seek to raise $100 million over five years to close the chapter on the rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, bringing the thousands of remaining Falash Mura to Israel.‘Moral Triage’It is no secret that UJC, the umbrella group of the Jewish federation movement in North America, has been under pressure to spark interest in a cause that could increase the annual campaigns, which generally have been flat. Some UJC leaders believe the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union and the Falash Mura in Ethiopia may provide that incentive. Others worry that those causes may be too remote to capture the imagination of American Jews.But everyone who took part in the mission to the FSU last week agreed that the need was vital and urgent, though there was much discussion over whether priority should be given to the financially impoverished elderly or the spiritually lacking young people.“I think of these decisions as moral triage,” said Morris Offit, president of the UJA-Federation of New York, whose 15 participants made up the largest contingent on the trip. He said a society is marked by how it treats its elderly.

Several of the educators, rabbis and other Jewish officials we met emphasized that with the assimilation rate in the FSU over 80 percent, there was only a brief window of time to concentrate on programs geared to younger people before that generation is lost to Judaism. They marveled at how, through a variety of efforts, a Jewish renaissance has taken hold in the FSU since the collapse of communism and the growth of religious and cultural freedoms.Whereas 15 years ago there was virtually no active Jewish life, synagogues and Jewish schools are being built, summer camps and youth groups have been created, Hillels are growing on campuses, and a variety of Israel-oriented programs for young people have been formed. Much of the work is being done by Chabad Lubavitch, which in some places cooperates with other groups and in some areas competes with them. (See story, page 49.)Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a leading chasidic rabbi in Kiev, told the visiting Americans that the Jewish community of Ukraine, estimated at between 350,000 and 400,000, was “at a crossroads.

Will we make it or break it?” he asked, adding that “this community is not looking for handouts but for partners. Reach out and challenge us,” Rabbi Bleich urged.Different StandardsSome of the debates prevalent among American Jewry several decades ago, when Jews were first allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union in significant numbers, were heard on our bus: Should young Jews be encouraged to make aliyah and assure Jewish continuity, or should they remain in their homeland and build new communities of their own?Part of the difficulty in assessing needs in the FSU is determining numbers of Jews, complicated by defining who identifies as a Jew. Estimates vary wildly, between 500,000 and several million, in part because many Jews choose not to identify by their religion, and many people who are not Jewish according to halachic standards associate strongly with the community.Natasha, a bright, animated 16-year-old girl we met in St. Petersburg, is active as a counselor in a Jewish Agency-sponsored youth program. She became involved by attending a summer camp program two years ago, her first awareness of Jewish life.“I knew my father was Jewish,” she said, “but that was it.”

Now she attends weekly programs, discussing Israel and Jewish traditions. Most of her friends are in the same group.Natasha’s case is not at all unusual, and though Chabad representatives would rather not be pressed on the subject, privately they acknowledge accepting students who are not halachically Jewish in their schools on a case-by-case assessment.Virtually every leader we met emphasized the need for partnership, noting that the effort to rebuild Jewish communities in the FSU requires cooperation.

That doesn’t always happen, but one concrete example of this mind-set is the major Jewish center nearing completion in St. Petersburg known as Yesod (Hebrew for “foundation”).Due to open in September, the handsome $12 million modern structure will house programs for the elderly and for youngsters, a café and an auditorium. It will be open to as many groups and individuals as possible. Among the major funders are the JDC and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation based in Baltimore.To be successful, Yesod and so many other projects in the FSU, large and small, will require creativity and an understanding of what young people are seeking.

Their connections to Jewish life, tenuous as they are, focus on culture more than religion, on education and professional success.American Jewish officials have come to appreciate that salvation will not come alone from pouring money into structures, but in building local communities, one leader at a time

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