May 18, 2009

Briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of Former Soviet Union Programs

At what point does JDC make a decision that it is withdrawing from a city or town, and on what basis?

If we've learned anything in our work in the FSU it is that we are always faced with a series of alternatives. Decisions are rarely clear cut- we need to make choices, sometimes very painful ones.

When we say that we cannot "afford" to maintain programs in a place, we are not really saying that we don't have the money to do so. We are saying that when we weigh the needs, and advantages and disadvantages of working in a particular place, we have reached the conclusion that our resources are more effectively expended elsewhere. We could reallocate them if we choose to do so, to maintain operations in all of the places we currently work, but for a host of reasons we will not.

When JDC's strategic visioning paper communicates that in the next few years we will withdraw all but critical, life saving services from "the periphery", the translation of that into practice is by no means obvious. What are the factors we need to consider when determining that a place is in the category of "periphery"? Is it geographic location? The size of its Jewish population? Its viability as a community over time? Its strategic importance, or its traditional role? Why one place yes, and another no, even if the characteristics, on paper, appear to be similar.

I want to introduce you to a place where this question has become very real for us. It is a place that I am sure no readers of this have ever been to, although many dream of going there while travel is still an option. (Well, maybe not many, but hopefully one or two of you). The place is Nizhny Tagil. It lies on the Tagil River (a cross between the Mississippi and your local sewage outlet). "Nizhny" means lower, to distinguish it from Verkniy Tagil, which lies on the upper end of the Tagil River! (I apologize for reviewing this if some of this is already widely known). It is in the Ural Mountains, which demarcate the Europe/Asia boundary in Russia.

The town has a total population of about 390,000 inhabitants, of whom about 2,500 are Jews, down from some 3,000 about 10 years ago.

It is a small Jewish population, in a hard to reach region.

During Soviet times Nizhny Tagil was a closed military area. Visitors were only allowed with special permission. Even locals from the region could not freely enter the city. For some reason the Communist government was concerned that allowing free access would compromise important state secrets in the metallurgy, chemistry and metal working factories that employed most of the city's citizens. These same factories spewed air pollutants with impunity. The area is grey and often overcast due to the pollutants. A very unwelcoming place.

On paper there is not much reason for optimism about the long term sustainability of the local Jewish community. There is no history of Jewish life in the city before the Second World War, when factories were moved to this region to protect them from the Nazi blitzkrieg. So Jews have no deep roots in the area. There are no old synagogues or other evidence of a communal life. Moreover, the city has many qualities that would drive away its mobile inhabitants, which is characteristic of Jews. There are severe ecological problems, a crumbling infrastructure, and little serious cultural life. In other cities that contained this number of Jews just 10 years ago, few Jews remain.

But the Jews remain here. And their community thrives. Why?

One gets a hint of the answer on visiting the address given for the local JCC/Hesed. They are found in a large, deteriorating multi story that hosts nine minority groups in the city. Among the nine, the Jews stand out.

Enter the building and turn left into the "Jewish property". You will be stopped by Moise, the guard. He will sternly ask for identification and check your bag. After a cursory glance, and upon establishing that you are a "lantsman", Moise will engage you in conversation.

He is hardly the intimidating type. He is a 91 year old volunteer. And one gets the impression that he has assumed this grave responsibility for one reason- to find the right guest who can engage in Yiddish banter with him. The Yiddish jokes pour out of him, the smile is a mile wide, and the hug can suffocate you. The sense of heaviness and squalor that pervade outside give way to the warm embrace of community, and this is only the beginning.

Get past Moise and you begin to hear the chatter and squealing of preschoolers, and the choir of the Hesed practicing for an upcoming performance. The walls are covered with posters on Jewish themes. A schedule of activities on the board is totally covered with notes, on which groups meet when, when large community events are being held, the dates for family camp, when youth clubs meet, and so on.

The question is sharpened- why is this community flourishing when so many others of similar size are moribund, or about to expire?

There are, of course, many reasons, but experience teaches us that it all comes down to the people. In the case of Nizhny Tagil, the X factor is a 36 year old dynamo named Ira Gutkina.

Ira started volunteering in the Hesed when it was established in the mid 90's, when she was in her early 20's. The child of a father who was evacuated during the War from the siege of Leningrad, and a mother who was raised in Ukraine and moved to the city in Soviet times because of government incentives, she elected to stay put and enrich her own life through community activism. She stood out in the Jewish community from the outset of her involvement, and JDC professionals asked her to move from her engineering career into a role as a Jewish communal professional. She set two conditions: That JDC provide her training opportunities to build on her own abilities, and that JDC not abandon the community as long as it reached performance targets. From that point on, she never looked back.

From director of the Hesed, she eventually assumed additional responsibilities when JDC allocated funds to broaden community programming to include other age groups in JCC. Ira set about engaging volunteers, and put special emphasis on what she called "caring projects". The young and middle aged were challenged to help program for the elderly, and the elderly became teachers of Jewish culture for the young. Issues of personal responsibility towards the community became a hallmark of programming.

In a recent study JDC carried out in the field, Nizhny Tagil was the only community in its size category in which the level of voluntarism has remained stable over the last ten years, a remarkable accomplishment given the population shrinkage. In interviews, the volunteers stated that they feel they are partners in the community, and individually feel responsible for its fate. They noted that they were regularly consulted on the direction of the organizations and the community, and that their voices were heard. Moreover, they felt that their work was meaningful and they were making a real contribution.

Always on the lookout for more challenges, Ira used the Hesed as the convener of a Council of NGOs in the city. She was elected chairperson, and represents this group in dialogue with the local authorities. She is committed to attending at least two professional workshops a year sponsored by JDC, on subjects ranging from a JCC directors' course for management, a seminar on how to plan a community's future, to a course on using public relations tools to outreach to the unaffiliated. Her annual program has now been supplemented by her involvement as a faculty member in at least one FSU wide course a year.

Now, in the season in which budgets are allocated, we take a careful look at our choices. Jewish communities in large cities are clearly under funded. And the money for Nizhny Tagil is not great- the 130,000 USD spent on elderly welfare clients will be spent even if we pull back. The same holds true for the 34,000 USD for children at risk in Nizhny and its environs. The "discretionary" sum, about 14,000 USD for Jewish renewal is up for discussion. And we ask ourselves if that sum of money can be spent in a more meaningful, and purposeful setting than this small, but vibrant community?

Some insight into the current economic situation in Ukraine as related by a Jewish journalist:

In a small town on the Black Sea, there is a persistent drizzle that keeps residents in their homes. The town appears to the untrained eye to be deserted.

Everyone is laden with debts. Everyone lives on credit.

One day, a Russian tourist arrives in the town. He is clearly extremely wealthy.

He enters the town's only hotel, and very demonstratively puts on the counter a 100 Euro note. He takes off his coat, dripping wet, and climbs the stairs to check out a room in which he will be comfortable.

The hotel owner watches the man disappear up the stairs, and as soon as he is out of sight, grabs his coat and the bill, to pay his debt to the local butcher.

The butcher in turn takes the 100 Euro note and goes to the rancher to pay him the money for the meat he received the week before.

The rancher passes on the money to the person who supplied the feed for his animal, to whom he owes money.

The feed supplier grabs the bill and runs to pay the woman whose "services" he had hired the week before.

The woman takes the bill and runs to the hotel to pay off her debt to the owner who had provided the rooms where she had provided her "services" to clients the week before.

At that moment, the Russian tourist comes down the stairs, after checking all of the rooms, and takes back his 100 Euro note from the clenched fist of the hotel owner, saying that he did not find any room to his liking, and he is leaving town.

No one earned anything, but now the residents of the town have had their debts wiped out, and all can look to the future with optimism.

May, 2009.

Shabbat shalom,

No comments: