The Responsibility of Peoplehood

Trip Start Jul 21, 2013
Trip End Aug 05, 2013

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Flag of Russia  , Moscow,
Friday, July 26, 2013

The collapse of communism in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) in the 1990's left the Jewish world with the responsibility to provide life-sustaining food and medical aid to hundreds of thousands of poor elderly who have no other safety nets – no Jewish old age homes, no Jewish hospitals, no local Jewish federations, and, in most cases, no surviving relatives.

Into this breach jumped the JDC- The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Today there is not a Jew on the planet that cannot get help from the Joint within 24 hours.

For most American Jews, the fate of these bubbies (almost all are women – the average life expectancy of men in the FSU fell to 57 years in the 1990’s) is heartbreaking and their stories became the centerpieces of Jewish federations annual appeals.

The relief effort organized by JDC, the network of Hesed centers, is the third largest relief effort mounted by the American Jewish community in its history. In the 1920’s we fed 600,000 Jews who were starving in the great famine of the Ukraine. In the 1940’s we operated the Displaced Persons camps in Europe that housed over 400,000 surviving victims of Nazi persecution. Through 20013, more than 300,000 elderly from the FSU have been fed and cared for by the American Jewish community through the work of JDC.

Hasadim were established that can reach 3000 communities with poor elderly Jews across the FSU – a region that today spans 13 countries and 11 time zones staffed with over 50,000 volunteers.

The very first Hesed established - Hesed Avraham – was established in St. Petersburg 20 years ago. Today it is housed in a sparkling new JCC, built and run by the Joint. Marcia and I met with Duby Rodman Barkai, the director of the facility.

We learn that a funding partner for the Joint – The Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany - has recently added two new categories of funding that is keeping the JDC busy. First, they have added all Jews that survived the 900 day siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to their list of eligible welfare recipients and, second, they declared that all Jewish Nazi victims will get a $2500 one-time bonus. As one can imagine, the lines at the Hesed were out the door.

Duby describes how he mobilizes 500 volunteers to deliver food and medicine and, most importantly, friendship to elderly shut -ins in a region that extends from St. Petersburg to Murmansk at the Arctic Circle.

But the Joint has a second mission in Eastern Europe – to reverse the obliteration of Judaism and Jewish identity ordered by Stalin in the 1930’s and carried forward into 1991. More than 3 million Jews – 25% of the Jewish people were cut off from Rabbis, synagogues, Hebrew, Israel, holidays, bar mitzvahs, etc.. Lisa, a social worker at Yesod recounted a story from her mother that in the 70’s, as a young professional, she did a favor for someone and walked into a synagogue and bought a Jewish calendar and sent it in the mail, not realizing the potential consequences. In the Soviet Union, that was a crime punishable by the loss of one’s job, apartment, and permission to live in the city. Luckily the post office was so inefficient, she was never discovered.

Today, there are many centers of Jewish renewal in Russia – the JCC’s built by the Joint, Choral Synagogues restored by Chabad, new synagogues built by the oligarchs of the Russian Jewish Federation and amazing Jewish history museums built in the past few years. We visit them in both St. Petersburg and Moscow.

We daven Friday night in the main Choral Synagogue in Moscow where an eclectic mix of Orthodox, Chassidic, and "just Jews" in jeans and T shirts show up. It is an incredible feeling to daven in Moscow, in essence declaring victory over Stalin and the Communists who wanted to wipe out Judaism. On our last day, we visit a new, Frank Meisler designed, synagogue and holocaust education center, a $100 million Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, and a small private Russian Jewish History museum.

It is hard to imagine how basic the presentation of Judaism needs to “meet people where they are.” The first exhibit at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center was a Disneyesque 7 minute presentation of Bible stories and Jewish history using 3D glasses, animation, and chairs that rock (with the waves of the flood, the swarm of the locusts in Egypt, and the destruction of the Temple). My Russian improved immeasurably, when I used the Rohr Siddur in Synagogue which has a complete transliteration into Russian of the entire Siddur, with a huge apology by the editor to our sages of old for allowing people to pray without needing to learn Hebrew.

At the Board level of JDC we always have to weigh the relative merits of alleviating the suffering of the poor against building the Jewish people of the future. For me, these have always been agonizing discussions, but now they will be enriched with the faces and stories I have encountered in Russia.
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Carol on

The picture of the "Leader of the Sobibor Revolt", is that Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky?

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