September 11, 2009

If Not Now, When?

Over the last few weeks, I have shared with JDC’s Board and our Federation colleagues a serious concern: today we are not able to serve tens of thousands of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe primarily due to a lack of adequate resources from our North American Federation partners. Last week UJC leadership contacted Irv Smokler and Alan Jaffe and reported that the Annual Campaign results for 2009 and 2010 may be even worse than we anticipated. UJC reported that overseas allocations could decrease between 10 and 20 percent from 2008. While we can quantify the financial loss and the number of clients who consequently will not be served, what is missing from the equation is the “human element”—the life story of each individual Jew who will not be helped.

I share with you a field report from Searle Brajtman, Director of Special Projects for JDC’s FSU team, who works out of our Israel office. As you read this, I want you to think about your own mother or grandmother. Would you consider this acceptable?

…I just returned from Kazakhstan, where JDC is sponsoring one central Hesed in Almaty that has an additional 12 branches throughout the country. The purpose of my trip was to see how we can reduce the infrastructure costs while continuing to provide welfare services. Not a simple task in a country as huge as Kazakhstan, which encompasses several time zones.

I'd like to share the story of one of those Hesed branches, in Aktyube (formerly known as Aktyubinsk). During the first four months of this year, 99 elderly and 35 children received welfare services—a total of only 134 clients. While this number of clients does not seem to justify an investment in infrastructure, a total of 329 clients received assistance as recently as July 2008. Unfortunately budgetary constraints necessitated tightening the criteria and the least needy no longer receive services.

The Aktyube Hesed serves 6 periphery locations; the furthest is some 75 miles away. Located just south of the Urals region of Russia (where I recall seeing about 6 inches of ice on the sidewalk), three of the smallest periphery locations are inaccessible from November through March, as snow is not swept off the roads. The Hesed director estimates that there are about 1,500 Jews in the region. Four times a year they have holiday celebrations in a hall for 200 to 250 people. Around 70 different people visit the two-room apartment Hesed each month, and some of those 70 visit the Hesed several times a week. It's not just a Hesed. It is a “community” gathering space and a facility that is used frequently on a multi-generational level, partially due to the warm atmosphere which permeates this modest apartment. In fact, it has become a second home for many.

 And so we come to Raisa. Raisa is one of the people who participate in the Women's Club. For her, the Hesed provides much more than the means to help her live; it provides a reason to live.

Raisa is 65 years old and was born in Aktyube. She has a second-degree disability and looks like a typical Soviet Jewish grandmother of her generation—stout, on the short side, hair dyed brown, red lipstick, and a ready smile—until she begins to tell us her life story. Her father, a Polish Jew, was released from prison in Aktyube in the Stalinist period and married a Jewish woman who died before Raisa turned 5 years old. The father put her in a local orphanage, telling her that he was going to Poland to see what had happened to his family and that he would return to fetch her; Raisa remained in the orphanage for three years. She was adopted by a Russian couple, but she always knew that she was Jewish, as her official documents containing her nationality are based on her birth certificate. She grew up, married, and had a son and a daughter. In 1964, when Raisa was almost 25 years old, her father returned to see what had become of her. But she was not interested in meeting him; she considered her adoptive parents to be her real mother and father.

Raisa’s daughter married and moved to Orsk in the Urals region of Russia; she, too, had a daughter. Raisa's son, Andre, was married in Orenburg, also in the Urals region; he, too, had a son. After his divorce, however, Andre returned to his mother eight years ago, who had by then been widowed for 15 years. Andre was a good son to his mother and helped Raisa while also volunteering at the Hesed. Two years ago, at the age of 40, Andre had a heart attack and died. It was then that his mother began coming to the Hesed and attending the Women's Club. The Hesed is her only remaining family in Kazakhstan. Raisa’s life has been filled with tragedies—she lost her mother as a young girl, and was abandoned by her father soon afterwards; she buried her husband and she subsequently buried her son. And if the Hesed closes, I am not sure that Raisa will have a reason to live.

Clearly this is not just a Hesed; it is a center of Jewish community life and a “home” which, during the time of my visit, was filled with children. For the more than 1,000 Jews who live in this region, there is no Jewish facility within a radius of several hundred miles other than a small Jewish cemetery. It is true that the Hesed serves fewer than 150 welfare clients. But it is certain that if JDC is no longer able to afford to sponsor its infrastructure, Jewish community life will be buried for all those children and for all those Raisas….

JDC is doing everything possible with our own resources to maintain essential services. Our overhead is now 3.9 percent, primarily due to continuing staff reductions and other efficiencies. We are drawing 10 percent of our endowment this year and with Board approval, we will do it again in 2010. But clearly such withdrawal rates are not sustainable over the long term.

As Irv and I have stated often, JDC stands ready to do anything possible to help our Federation partners raise more funds. If we do not help our fellow Jews in need, who will? We must work together to tackle this challenge, and time is of the essence. Ethics of our Fathers asks: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

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