December 12, 2008

Impact on Community Life

In a briefing from Asher Ostrin, Director of Programs in the Former Soviet Union, the idea of JDC's impact on communities is discussed. Asher illustrates how JDC has brought meaningful change to one community, helping them on the road to self-sufficiency.

Do we really make a difference?

It seems to me that when all is said and done, that is the question we have to be able to answer.

I want to bring one example of JDC's impact on a community. To illustrate the point, we will make use of a description of "before and after", and show how one project, that reflects an investment of enormous amounts of time, energy, thought, and yes, money, (and was accompanied by a considerable amount of frustration during the stages of its creation) has put one community on a trajectory to self sufficiency.

That is not to say that this community can stand on its own now, or will be able to do so in the short run. But this project has created a new reality in the community, and serves as a magnet for precisely the kind of people who will eventually take responsibility for the community and its fate.

The example is particularly significant because it deals with a community that is, by anyone's standards, very significant in size and impact. It is the third largest in the FSU in terms of its Jewish population. We are speaking, of course, of St Petersburg, and the project is Yesod, the JCC built by JDC in the city, that opened its doors two years ago. The story of Yesod is a subject for a different piece, and along with JDC co stars the Federations of Palm Beach and Cleveland, along with many individual donors. The focus for now, though, is its impact. In order to fully appreciate the story, we start with a description of the St Petersburg Jewish community as it was some 5 years ago.


At the time, there was a very fine set of pre schools for Jewish children. Under the umbrella of a local organization, Adain Lo, run by a first rate Jewish educator, Genia Levova, any family looking to send its children to a Jewish setting for pre school could find it in that system. Tuition was free. The physical setting was substandard (to borrow my mother in law's phrase about her son's college dwelling: it looked like an upholstered sewer), but the warmth and commitment of the staff more than compensated for the physical surroundings. The system also catered to children with physical and cognitive challenges.

Once one reached school age, there were numerous Jewish options available. There were schools of all stripes, appealing to different tastes- there was a Jewish cultural school (secular), ORT, Habad, and Orthodox schools. JAFI, through its Hefzibah program played a major, and positive, role in the schools. The Agency's offerings were further enriched by an extensive program for Jewish camping.

There were extensive services for the elderly as well. Hesed Avraham was the first Hesed in the FSU. Its caseload at the time exceeded 28,000. Most needy elderly Jews in the city received some sort of assistance.

Basically, then, children and elderly had numerous options in the community. In between those two age cohorts, things were not particularly good.

There was a Jewish University in the city, but enrollment was low, and it did not attract the best and the brightest. Hillel was a presence, but starting around that time, for a host of reasons, underperformed, and did not appeal to the vast majority of the Jewish students in universities. There were other programs and institutions that hoped to attract those between the children/elderly demographic bookends, but the numbers were not significant, and they were generally targeted programs to niche groups. For example, the synagogue was under Habad auspices and was limited to those with a halachically Jewish pedigree while the Reform congregation was seriously under funded and had a limited number of adherents. There were numerous other small programs in the city.

JDC was a major funder of many of the activities listed above- we ran few programs under our own banner.

In this mapping, two major areas are missing. The first is programming for the 25-retirement age cohort. People of this age who looked for windows of entry into the Jewish community were disappointed. Furthermore, if they wished to initiate something on their own, they had no place to do so. There was no physical space available to them.

The second group that was outside of this framework was a bit more difficult to identify. It was new, and it was united less as an age cohort than as a socioeconomic group- the emerging middle class. These were Jews who had recently accumulated discretionary funds, and were prepared to spend them on things like schooling for their children and leisure time for themselves.

In the eyes of many of these middle aged Jews, the Jewish community (the only they had ever known) was associated with the "unfortunates". The flagships programs in the Jewish community they knew were Adain Lo and Hesed. They served an important role, to be sure. Jewish children from lower income backgrounds are entitled to an education. And certainly the elderly needed to be cared for. But this required of them charitable contributions, not their own participation. The educational settings they wanted for their children needed to be well equipped. The programming where they would spend their free time had to compete with the symphony and first rate theater, the tickets for which were now accessible to them.

If it sounds as if this emerging middle class is elitist, it is, indeed very much so. The struggle against this in favor of an all encompassing Jewish community is an important one, but one that will take time.


A brief sketch of the St Petersburg Jewish community looks something like this:

Adain Lo is continuing to grow. Two new kindergartens were opened this year. Programming for the pre school age is good. The system continues to appeal to those who cannot pay, or can afford symbolic tuition. (JDC continues to support this operation). Programs for children with special needs continue to stand out.

The Hesed is shrinking in size. The caseload has dropped by almost half over the last three years. Things will continue in this direction in the coming years.

Hillel has been revitalized. A new director has injected a vibrancy and excitement that was recently lacking.

The schools continue, but their fate is increasingly in question. This is purely a function of the economic crisis. The largest schools have been hard hit by the cessation of much Habad funding, and the Jewish Agency's re evaluation of its involvement in Heftzibah.

Religious life has been reinvigorated due to the arrival of a capable young locally born rabbi who is now at the helm of the local Progressive congregation. The movement recently purchased a facility in St Petersburg, and it appeals to a small, but committed group. The Habad operation is under tremendous pressure due to the significant setbacks suffered by some of its major funders.

Since the mapping (above) of communal life 5 years ago, Yesod has come onto the scene. Its primary contributions to community life are twofold:

*A focus on the programming for the middle aged
*Attempts to reach out and engage the middle class.

A selection of some of the vehicles utilized to achieve that include:

1. Sunday Funday. Between 260 - 290 families are in Yesod every Sunday, in two sessions, with programming for all ages in the family (from toddlers through grandparents, and all in between) at different "stations" throughout the building. Survey indicates that the vast majority of these families had no previous connection with the Jewish community. Participation is based on the purchase of tickets (subsidized for those who cannot afford).

2. Yesod provides physical space for Hesed, Adain Lo, Hillel and other organizations. The space is new and specially designed to meet their programmatic needs. While maintenance costs exceed those of their previous substandard facilities, they also allow for hourly rental of space that was otherwise unavailable to them in their previous sites (access to a gym, auditorium, etc). The more attractive facility makes their programs more appealing.

3. Large holiday celebrations, including weekly Shabbat programming, are now available to the community. On summer Saturday nights Yesod hosts a "Havdalah/Jazz "program on its roof.

4. A commercial gym on site is attracting hundreds of Jewish families into a Jewish facility, where they are exposed to programming and advertising that they would otherwise never encounter.

5. New programs created by Jewish social entrepreneurs have a place to call home. A young leadership program is hosted in the building. Each participant has to create a program for a segment of the Jewish community in order to graduate. These programs now have a physical anchor.

6. Lectures are held and films screened in the new library in the building.

7. There is much more to cite in terms of the impact of the building on the programming in the community. But there is one other aspect of its impact worth noting: a group of 14 businesspeople has been assembled and functions for now informally as a consulting group for Yesod issues. They review work plans, interview candidates for key positions, give JDC feedback on strategic goals in the community. When they are ready, they will become the first lay board of any institution in the community that understands that one of its primary roles (if not the primary role) is ensuring the long term viability of the institution, and assuming responsibility for it.


To reach the next level in community life, the following are issues that JDC needs to work on:

A. The need to manage change in the community. The current financial crisis will have a major impact on Jewish life in St Petersburg (as elsewhere in the FSU). Exactly how things will change is unclear. JAFI's role will change, and it is expected that there will be a large fall off of locally raised funds. Intelligently managing the negative impact of this, and identifying opportunities in this environment, is a role JDC is poised to play. Local agencies have little experience with these kinds of radical changes, and are looking to more experienced partners to help them through difficult time.

B. Yesod's role as a magnet for the uninvolved and not yet connected needs to grow and deepen.

C. A major investment in Hillel and the young leadership program is essential. That is not only with respect to money- we need to find ways to upgrade these programs and help them provide the next generation of leadership in the community.

D. We need to continue our efforts to assist professional activists in the community understand that the dynamics of community development mean that change is inevitable and should be welcomed. We have to recognize their contributions to date, and the roles they continue to play, and help them overcome their fierce resistance to letting others into the circle of activism and leadership.

E. We need to find ways to further engage the group of 14 business people and widen that circle, in the hopes that a community board will emerge from it. They need to take responsibility for the fate of their community.

This has been a long and at times very difficult process of helping this community to develop. There is no road map specifying how it is to be done. There has been enormous gratification, as well as dispiriting frustrations along the way. But both of these are part and parcel of community development. We hope, and daresay believe, that in Yesod we have made a major contribution to improving community capacity. Moving forward, there is reason to be optimistic.

Shabbat shalom,

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