January 7, 2010

The Hesed: Filling a Social and Economic Gap in the FSU

Briefing from Steve Schwager, CEO

The Hesed centers throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU) have become a critical lifeline for the poorest Jews on earth. The diminishing purchasing power of the U.S. dollar means that each year presents a greater struggle to find adequate resources to meet their most fundamental needs. In spite of major efforts, we are not succeeding; the Hasadim have been removing needy elderly from the caseload in order to service those who are even needier. Asher Ostrin, JDC’s FSU Regional Director, wrote a brief report on the history of the Hesed movement and where we stand today. I share an edited version with you below.

Since the concept of a JDC Hesed began 16 years ago, the word “Hesed” has become part of the JDC lexicon. In the late ’90s, it actually appears in some Russian dictionaries, often without reference to its roots in the Jewish tradition. The word literally means goodness, or mercy. The goal was to ease the suffering and perhaps add quality to the remaining years of elderly FSU Jews—individuals who lived through wars, political systems that repressed them, societies that singled them out for discrimination, and who have been reduced to penury in their twilight years. In actuality, the Hasadim extended the lives of those they served.

What follows is the concept underpinning JDC's efforts, from a piece written by Searle Brajtman, Director of FSU Special Projects, who works from Jerusalem:

“JDC returned to the FSU in the early nineties—a very difficult time for the local population. The economy was going through enormous transitions from a Communist to a quasi Capitalist structure: lifetime savings became worthless, pensions were seriously eroded, medical infrastructure deteriorated enormously, and food was scarce and sometimes unaffordable for the elderly. There was much poverty, with needs far in excess of the resources available to JDC. We turned to the USDA for a multi-million dollar non-sectarian grant to distribute food in Moscow and St. Petersburg—our initial major welfare program, implemented in 1991-1992. But it was a stop-gap measure; we realized that we would need to put in place community infrastructures which, given the then-prevailing levels of political instability and uncertainty, would be able to take care of their needy on a local basis should JDC be expelled. Along with the infrastructure we needed to line up the funding on an ongoing basis. Our initial welfare budgets in the early ’90s were so small that when I convinced Mazon in LA to provide $30,000 for FSU food packages in 1993, it was considered significant funding!

The Foundation of the Hesed Center Network
We began with a platform built around a local community, using local manpower resources. The initial Hesed slogan was Community, Voluntarism, and Yiddishkeit. Community is pretty clear: build things so that local Jews will create a community; Yiddishkeit was the ‘Jewish soul’ piece of the Hesed work. Voluntarism was the revolution. It virtually didn't exist in the FSU, and therefore was something novel and exciting. It gave elderly people, many of whom were all alone, a reason to live. It made them part of a wider family and gave them something meaningful to do with their time, often with a hot meal on the days they volunteered. And volunteers, rather than hired workers, saved the Hesed money.

When you go to a Hesed, you see many more women than men. This is particularly pronounced when you see them dancing: most of the couples are two women. Why? Male life expectancy is less than female. But the major reason is more dramatic. During World War II, Red Army casualties were in the multi-millions, and most were male. Historians estimate that some 28 million Soviet citizens were killed in the war, and clearly the vast majority of them were male due to their combat status. The result: many women never married and never had kids.

Filling a Gaping Social and Economic Wound
Presumably when the Hasadim opened, it gave them a social venue which until then was sorely lacking in their very lonely lives. And this loneliness was compounded by the killing of many of their immediate and extended families during the war, along with normative old-age mortality and the post Cold War emigration of many friends, relatives, and children. The Hesed provided a comprehensive response to this gaping social wound and the response manifested itself in volunteer activities, clubs, Kabbalat Shabbat, etc. And it provided an answer to unmet needs through services which were either unavailable or unavoidable:

  • Food programs—communal dining rooms for a hot daily meal for those with very low incomes, meals on wheels for the homebound, monthly food packages, holiday food packages.
  • Medical consultations by volunteer doctors and top specialists, rather than standing on line at the public healthy clinics (“polyclinics”); partial subsidy for medicines.
  • The possibility of sponsorship for emergency situations (e.g., oncological medicines, cornea operations, surgery to repair a broken hip, a collapsed ceiling).
  • Homecare for those lacking mobility.
  • Winter relief in the form of warm shoes and clothing, gas canisters for heat and cooking, coal and wood to heat homes, money for utility bills.
  • Day centers for elderly shut-ins who cannot leave their homes unassisted.
  • Books on tape for the visually impaired.
  • Hearing aids for those with hearing problems.
  • Repairs of household items such as furniture, plumbing, electrical appliances, watches, phones, radios, fridges, stoves.
  • Loans of medical equipment based on the Israeli model of Yad Sarah. During WWII, many wounded veterans had their legs amputated. Soviet society called them “samovars” and they were shipped off to the northern towns in order not to be an eyesore—out of sight, out of mind. Or as Stalin put it, ‘Nyet chelaveka, nyet problema’—no person, no problem. No rachmonis. Available medical equipment was awful compared to what was available in the West and waiting time was very long. So this program had an extraordinary impact in its time.
Each Hesed became responsible for its city and the surrounding periphery locations; hence the creation of the Hesed-mobile, which brought services to the elderly in the smallest locations.

During the last 16 or so years of Hesed operations, the nature of our response has changed. The original focus was on food. Later, medicine joined the mix. Through the years we tried to adapt and change, fitting local circumstances and evolving needs. And in spite of budgetary constraints, Jews in almost 3,000 locations are receiving help and this number includes remote villages with a single elderly, needy Jew.

Hesed in Action: A Personal Story
Hasya Gitman lives in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine and is one of the hundreds of thousands of elderly Jews who has benefited from Hesed services.

She was born in 1925 to a religious family in the Yiddish-speaking shtetl of Zvenigorodka in Ukraine. When she was six years old, famine broke out in the country and Hasya’s family relocated to the large city of Dnepropetrovsk, hoping for a chance at survival.

Fearful that young Hasya might not endure the long trip, her parents temporarily left her at the state orphanage, hoping she would be fed and safe.

Both of Hasya’s brothers fought and died in World War II. Hasya’s father was shot by the Nazis in front of the house where they lived. While temporarily living in Central Asia with her mother, Hasya worked day and night making ammunition for the Soviet war effort. The two women returned to Dnepropetrovsk in 1944, immediately after its liberation from the Nazis. With little education, Hasya always worked in factories. She married a Jewish man who died a few years later of a serious illness; their only child was mentally disabled and committed suicide at the age of 21.

‘I have nothing good to remember,’ Hasya often says. She lives alone in her tiny room, is almost completely homebound, and suffers from severe joint problems and incontinence. Her state pension is $78 per month.

Hesed welfare has stepped in to offer her the attention and support that she needs. She receives home care, a food card (to purchase groceries at the supermarket), home delivery, medications and hygiene materials, medical rehabilitation equipment, winter relief, as well as a heater, TV set, and refrigerator through the SOS program. How would Hasya manage without the Hesed?”

Every single day Irv and I struggle to find the resources to adequately serve the poor elderly Jews living in the FSU. We want to sincerely thank our partners: the Swiss Banks settlement, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the U.K.'s World Jewish Relief, the Jewish community Federations throughout North America, and individual donors throughout the U.S. and Canada. Our work would be impossible without them.

Despite this support, our challenges today are great and the needs of many destitute, lonely, elderly Jews in the FSU are going unmet. Together we must ensure that each of them—in nearly 3,000 cities, towns, and villages—will receive the assistance he or she needs and deserves.

No comments: