June 3, 2009

JDC Featured in "Chronicle of Philanthropy"

From the issue dated May 21, 2009

Cookies and Camaraderie

(Photograph by Jonathan Levine)
By Caroline Preston

Elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union are sometimes known as "double victims," terrorized by the Nazis and persecuted under Communism. But nearly two decades after the Soviet regime's fall, many have reclaimed their faith and are rebuilding their lives around Jewish traditions.

A New York charity is helping them do so. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee spends $120-million each year, or roughly 40 percent of its budget, to assist impoverished Jews in Russia, Ukraine, and nearby countries.

"These people were lost in the fall of the Soviet Union," says Steven Schwager, the nonprofit group's chief executive. "When Communism ended, state support of people and taking care of the elderly fell off the table."

The charity's 170 "welfare centers" deliver meals, provide medical care, and hold social events.

Many of the elderly men and women are too feeble to leave their tiny one-room apartments, so the visits they receive from case workers provide a rare opportunity to socialize.

In towns where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee cannot afford to start an office, it provides small stipends to older people who open their homes to others.

Sometimes the elderly participants will hear a musical performance or a lecture; other times, they may discuss a book.

That "warm home" model is an inexpensive way for the charity to fight isolation among elderly people, says Mr. Schwager.

Based on its experiences in former Soviet states, his group recently introduced the approach in Israel.

Payments from the German government to compensate Holocaust victims, as well as contributions from individuals and foundations in the United States, cover the charity's program expenses in the former Soviet Union.

Here, men and women in Odessa, Ukraine, share a meal in a neighbor's home.

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