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Survival with Dignity for Elderly FSU Jews

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Hesed program

For tens of thousands of destitute elderly Jews across the former Soviet Union (FSU), each day is a bitter struggle for survival. Protein sources and critical medicines are unaffordable luxuries; the choice between going to bed hungry or shivering cold is the unthinkable reality. Nominal pensions and rising inflation plunges these elderly well below the poverty line, with no family or social safety net to break their fall. Despite having survived decades of Communist repression and Nazi terror, their last years are being spent as some of the poorest Jews in the world.

Hesed, Hebrew for “compassion,” is synonymous with life for more than 160,000 of these Jews today.

Developed in 1993 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in response to extreme poverty and hunger among Jewish elderly following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Hesed welfare model has grown into a network of centers that provides essential social services in over 2,800 locations across the FSU.

The impact of Hesed is quantifiable—the number of food packages, medicines, and home care hours delivered is well into the tens of millions. But that is only part of the story. Hesed means that an undernourished bubbe in Ukraine can purchase groceries with dignity using a food card; it is a hot meal on a bitter cold day for an ill grandfather in Azerbaijan; it is help with bathing, cooking, and cleaning—as well as the only social contact—for a homebound senior living in a five-floor walkup apartment in Belarus who is otherwise completely alone; and it signifies clothing, blankets, and heating fuel so a widow in Siberia can survive the freezing winter. 

With support from UJC/Jewish Federations of North America, since 2001 JDC’s Hesed welfare relief program has impacted the lives of more than half a million destitute Jews who have no other place to turn. Most critically, it is this support which funds Hesed services for non-Nazi victims: elderly Jews who do not qualify for restitution-funded assistance and therefore rely solely on the generosity of world Jewry for survival.

Meet two of them:   

Valentina in Odessa, Ukraine 
If it had not been for Hesed four years ago, I would not have survived. If I did not have Hesed now, I would have to go out myself and beg.”

Valentina was born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia in 1931. She studied in Moldova and devoted her life to education. Now sick, devastatingly poor, and without family to care for her, she lives alone in a run-down, one-room apartment. She has suffered many grave losses, including that of her daughter and sister, leaving her elderly, alone, and struggling to get by on a meager pension.

When JDC reached out to her, Valentina was desperate for food and medications. She was bed-ridden from the effects of her medical conditions including heart disease, cancer, and glaucoma. She has received JDC emergency assistance and depends on Hesed for food, medications, medical care, as well as one home care visit per week now that she has recovered mobility.

Dmitry in Kishinev, Moldova
We are alive only because of Hesed help and care. We thank the Hesed employees and the donors who think about us.”

Dimitry was born in 1952 in Bendery. After completing school, he joined the army, and worked in construction. He was forced to work outside Moldova, spending years in northern Russia.

Today he lives in one room in Kishinev with his son; daughter; son-in-law; grandson; and his wife, who sells produce at the market. The one-square-meter kitchen is in a narrow corridor, and the apartment is heated by a stove.

The entire family has medical conditions: Dmitry suffered a stroke and has a musculoskeletal disease, his son lost several fingers in an accident and has lung problems, and his grandson has psycho-neurological and traumatological diseases, requiring the constant care of Dmitry’s daughter. The family’s monthly income is $100. Given the difficult circumstances, Hesed stepped in to provide critical services and care for the family. They regularly receive food, medication, winter relief, and humanitarian aid, which they depend on for basic survival.

For more on Hesed and other projects of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, visit their online home here.

Visits from a Hesed homecare worker help to break the loneliness and isolation for homebound elderly in Rustavi, Georgia.
For some of the neediest elderly Jews in Moldova, Hesed assistance means not having to choose between food and medicine to survive day to day.
Blankets, warm clothing, heating fuel, and other Hesed winter relief services help frail elderly in Kiev, Ukraine bear the bitter cold.

The Resources That Help Make it Happen

Through Operation Promise, UJC/Jewish Federations of North America contributed to JDC a total of $26.7 million over a period of three years to support Hesed welfare programs for non-Nazi victims in the former Soviet Union. Operation Promise funding ended in mid-2007.

Today, in the former Soviet Union, in order to provide equitable services between current Hesed clients who are Nazi victims and non-Nazi victims, JDC requires an extra $15 million. In addition, there are some 62,000 elderly non-Nazi victims who are in need but are not receiving welfare services due to a lack of funding resources. In order to meet their needs, an additional $35 million is sought.

For the poorest Jews in the world, there is a total unmet need of $50 million. That may sound like a lot of money, but for some of the poorest Jews in the world, this unmet need represents under an additional $1 per person per day which, if available, would dramatically improve their basic welfare, health, and well-being.