August 6, 2009

When the Dancing Slows and the Music Stops...

In this briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO, he shares a letter from a JDC Board Member that speaks to one of the great challenges JDC faces and the tough choices that must be made in light of the current economic climate.

As it is almost the end of July, we are busy producing a draft 2010 budget for the Board to consider at its October meeting. In the absence of new funds, there unfortunately will be significant reductions in our Jewish Renewal activities. There will also be significant changes in our welfare activities. It will be necessary to shift emphasis in most of our welfare programs to simply providing the basics, such as food, clothing, and homecare. The socialization component of the program regrettably will continue to shrink as we close buildings in smaller communities and save funds by reducing or eliminating soup kitchens and Warm Homes. While each of us on staff is acutely aware of what these programs mean to elderly Jews, we see no alternative without additional funding.

I received a very poignant letter from JDC Board member Etta Zimmerman, which she titles “When the Dancing Slows and the Music Stops”. I share it with you here:

I have enjoyed many trips throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the FSU; usually the highlight for me is joining a senior social event. Somehow the bittersweet home visits and all of the budget challenges seem to slip away. The joy I have experienced with the elderly through music and tasty cookies illuminates the unique essence of what JDC provides. When the communist block crumbled, the circumstances in which the Jews lived were often dire. JDC’s mission, especially in the FSU, evolved into nourishing more than just the bodies of the elderly, but also to mending the souls. Warm Homes were established, Yiddish clubs were started, and people would enjoy the company of fellow clients over a warm meal in a kosher soup kitchen. The consistent effort to provide essential services with ultimate attention to the recipient’s dignity captures the very essence of JDC.

I have held hands and embraced seniors from St. Petersburg, Russia to Zaporozhye, Ukraine and many locations in between. Often times I enter a room at the Hesed or JCC filled with seniors and I sing or dance with them. I have seen sad faces transformed by a familiar tune on a tired piano. I have watched slumped over spines somehow straighten and push themselves up with canes to sway to a familiar childhood song. I have seen tears of joy and sorrow flow from cloudy eyes. How rewarding it is to see these otherwise lonely people have each other, combined with a bit of joy. At Yesod in St. Petersburg, I sang and held hands with an 80-plus-year-old woman who smiled at meeting an American; Sofia told me she was sad because her friend died and she almost did not come to the Senior Club, but she was glad she had because now she was no longer so blue. Earlier that day, my husband, Raymond, and I came upon an organized senior “match making” service. They wanted to enter Raymond in the pool of candidates since there are fewer men than women! We nicely explained Raymond was not available for a “match”. So they continued with their activities, knitting blankets and clothing for young children, and were completely invigorated by each other’s company.

In Zaporozhe I danced with Yankie, who is in his 90s and visually impaired, but he has enough sight to brag to his friends that he got to dance with a young blonde girl! I have sung with Valentina, a woman whose only socialization occurs once a month when the HesedMobile drives her from her shtetl to Zhitomir. I have hugged Rosa in Kiev who was happy to meet a “young” lady and she sang beautiful Yiddish melodies for me. I have been told special and very personal stories by Holocaust survivors in Dneprozherzhinsk, because I tell them I am the child of a survivor and so we share a commonality. Many of the seniors share their lives, stories, smiles, and meager snacks. The dignity afforded these frail seniors through these social activities is nothing short of life-sustaining. As always, JDC goes beyond meeting rudimentary needs—a quality that distinguishes this organization from so very many others. These profound and simple acts of loving kindness (G’milut Chasadim) have been part of modern Jewish history. If you ever met anyone who was in a Displaced Person’s camp, they always will remember a liberation dress, a seder, the extra care given by the “great organization” that served warmly, selflessly, and consistently—the Joint.

So I must ask, when we gently say we are shifting services in these challenged times, do we chronicle the short-term or long-term effect of reduced visits to JCCs and Warm Homes or closed soup kitchens on the frail and socially isolated Jewish elderly? Somehow the budget comparisons do not illuminate this issue, because it is so very difficult to chronicle. We know that the population is aging, often requiring a “shift” in services from hot meals to home health care. But what can we say about the widower who will not see friends because the soup kitchen has shut down? Will this lead to social isolation and ultimately bring about depression and poor health? What about the 90-year-old woman who will not get to visit the Warm Home because her residence is in the periphery and the transportation costs are no longer in the budget? How will she celebrate her life—alone with the occasional food or health products delivered at less frequent intervals? Will the seniors who gather in Kharkov on Sunday afternoon be alright when the music stops and when the cookie plate is empty?

JDC has been proactive in working within these very challenging budgetary times. The professionals in the field often must feel as though the weight of the world is upon them. None of these decisions are easy and these challenges are often difficult to quantify. But the essence of what distinguishes JDC is the dignity factor, and hopefully we can stay the course in spite of our current challenges. We can and must keep the socialization of the seniors as part of the very sustenance that is JDC.

Irv and I believe that with your help, we will find the money needed to nourish the body and the soul as JDC has always done. There simply is no other way. We owe it to these elderly Jews who have so little and have suffered so much.

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