Posted on: December 5th, 2013
Leonid’s childhood was far from easy. Growing up in Kherson, Ukraine, he constantly had to search for food and shelter after his mother was banished, and ultimately he was put in a camp under the Nazi occupation.
A homebound woman in her 90s in the former Soviet Union who received help from a homecare worker with obtaining food and medicine. Photo: Sarah Levin
Still in Kherson to this day, Leonid lives alone, homebound by numerous illnesses and poor vision. More than 150,000 elderly Jews like Leonid in the former Soviet Union are surviving only with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), a UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary agency.
“Here in New York, there are things like community centers and daycare centers,” says Marcia Eppler Colvin, chair of UJA-Federation’s Taskforce on Aging. “Those don’t exist in the same way in the former Soviet Union.”
“Basically, as a result of the fall of communism, the first thing that collapsed was the social welfare system; the state wasn’t able to provide for its own citizens,” explains Rina Edelstein, director of strategic partnerships at JDC. “During the 20 or so years since the fall, slowly social services have come back to a small extent in the big cities, less so in [smaller] cities,” she adds.
A woman in her 70s in her Ukraine apartment where she received help from Hesed. Photo: James Nubile
Over the past decades, JDC, with extensive support from UJA-Federation, has built a network of 126 Hesed welfare agencies that serve these elderly Jews in need spread out across 11 time zones.
Leonid’s nearest Hesed center sends a homecare worker to his house for 25 hours each week. The aide helps Leonid with his hygiene, shopping, and food preparation needs, and Leonid also receives a food card and medical assistance from Hesed.
A Subtle Form of Anti-Semitism
It’s not unusual in many parts of the former Soviet Union to find elderly Jews living in apartments without heat or running water, but the greatest need of all is home care, Edelstein says. Without it, many Jewish seniors wouldn’t be able to access food, medicine, or the warm clothes and fuel to endure the brutal winters.
Additionally, many of the elderly Jews that JDC serves in this area live in fifth and sixth floor walkups with no elevators. It was a subtle form of anti-Semitism over the years to rent the worst apartments to Jews and now, Edelstein says, “It’s not unusual for us to find many elderly who haven’t left their apartment in years because they have no way of getting down the stairs.”
But there has been a great deal of progress in the past two decades. “From Siberia in the east to Belarus in the west in the former Soviet Union, an elderly Jew will know what Hesed is and know that that’s a place that they can go for help and assistance,” says Edelstein.