Jewish life is thriving in the countries of the former Soviet Union, according to Amos Lev-Ran of the American Jewish Distribution Committee.
“After 70 years of repression, the rebirth of Jewish life is nothing short of miraculous,” said Lev-Ran, JDC regional specialist for the former Soviet Union, on Monday before the meeting of the Overseas Allocation Committee of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, a major JDC funder.
But Lev-Ran also told the group that while much has been achieved in the region, many elderly Jews suffer in isolation and poverty, and they and others yearn to connect with their Jewish heritage.
As Lev-Ran explained it, the role of the JDC is to step in with funds and other assistance to enable communities to help themselves. That is don e through the creation of JCCs, Hillel student centers, young leadership programs, and family retreats.
Lev-Ran’s comments came in his introduction of Masha Aryeva, the director of the JCC in St. Petersburg, who detailed the varied role of her organization. While Russia has seen the rise of the very rich, and even a middle class living well, there are still the elderly and infirm who live on a subsistence level, shut-ins leading lonely lives.
The collapse of the Soviet Union opened many doors, but along with that came the collapse of the pension system, leaving many elderly destitute. For those, JDC aid is a lifeline.
“The only hope they have is chesed from the JDC,” said Aryeva. Even in a thriving city like St. Petersburg, there are elderly people unable to leave their apartments, she said. Nobody in Russia will help them, and that’s where the JDC steps in, she said.
There are some 165,000 needy Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union, said Lev-Ran, with assistance coming from 2,600 JDC locations.
The role of the JDC is two-fold, Lev-Ran explained. There is a “hunger and a thirst” in the Jewish world of the FSU, he said. The hunger is for physical needs, such as food and medical care. Then there is a thirst for knowledge about Judaism, and a connection to the religion and tradition.
Lev-Ran displayed a document, written by a rabbi in 1952, meant as a testament to earlier Jewish life. The rabbi saw the destruction of religion in the Stalin years as the “end of Jewish life as we know it,” said Lev-Ran.
The rabbi was mistaken, Lev-Ran said, and years later, in 1980s, it was the Soviet Union that unraveled and religious life, for Jews and others, was rekindled.
Lev-Ran recounted a visit to an elderly woman in Odessa, in Ukraine. Nellie, now 76, lives on a pension of $71 a month, and she hadn’t been out of her apartment for seven years.
“There is no social safety net” for people like Nellie, infirm, who may live in a multi-story walkup, and whose only help comes from the JDC chesed system, he said, which relies on some 14,000 volunteers, some of them elderly themselves.
“As chesed succeeds in prolonging life,” Lev-Ran said, “the cost per client increases.”
Besides the elderly, JDC programs serve some 30,000 at-risk children with food and medical, social, and psychological support.
Modern JCCs have been established in Moscow, Odessa, Kharkov and Kishinev, but in her address Aryeva focused on the JCC in St. Petersburg, where she said some 100,000 Jews live.
She said that some 20 years ago, when she was in school, “I shouldn’t say I was Jewish.” Then, in 2005, the JCC was built, with a huge sign announcing its presence.
“Our goal is to open the doors to any Jewish person in St. Petersburg,” she said. “What we build I hope will be there forever.”
The services provided by the JCC in St. Petersburg sound strikingly familiar to American ears. There is a gym and a swimming pool for the body, Hebrew and Yiddish lessons for the mind, and holiday celebrations for the soul drawing some 600 attendees, she said.
While most of the programs are low-cost, a new middle class is able to afford more expensive services, such as a preschool that costs $1,000 a month, Aryeva said. Revenue received enables the JCC to support other programs.
Lev-Ran said a Jewish population of some three million had fallen to about a million because of emigration, and Aryeva said that those remaining are there to stay. “Those who wanted to leave left,” she said.
Many are not religious and don’t necessarily want to go to Israel, but they do want to connect with their Jewish roots, she said.
Lev-Ran reminded the group that despite the improvement of life for Jews in the FSU, many people in the smaller towns and regions need continued support, and there is an ongoing need for funds. With that thought, committee volunteers manned the phones for a telethon.