Elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union are in a desperate situation as a result of the transition from Communism to capitalism, said Michael Schneider, executive director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
Schneider, in Los Angeles last week to talk with top Jewish leaders and don-ors about the urgent financial needs of the 84-year-old international Jewish-aid organization, told The Journal that the JDC is in the midst of the third-largest relief and welfare operation in its 84-year history. The largest was the displaced-persons camps at the end of the World War II. Next was aiding Jews in the Pale of Settlement after the World War I. And now, the JDC’s biggest priority is providing relief and care to 170,000 elderly and impoverished Jews throughout the world. About 140,000 of them are in the former Soviet Union, and the remaining 30,000 are scattered throughout Eastern Europe, Muslim countries and elsewhere.
In Russia, many elderly may have been badly affected by the inflated ruble, which has lost more than half of its value since mid-August. Many are living on little more than a pound of bread a day, Schneider said. The JDC distributed 800,000 food packages in the former Soviet Union, each weighing about 20 pounds, he said. In addition, 1 million hot meals have been delivered.
But the situation is dire. On its existing funds — about $40 million a year, most of which comes from the monies collected by Jewish federations across the U.S. — the organization can just about handle its caseload of 140,000 people.
But it’s possible the number of needy could double in light of the ruble’s recent free-fall in Russia, Schneider told Los Angeles Federation leaders. Many elderly who are just hanging on could be pushed over the edge. “Feeding hungry, elderly Jews is a sacred obligation that we cannot deny,” said Schneider, who has headed the JDC since 1987. According to Federation Executive Vice President John Fishel, about $5 million of the money raised by the Federation’s United Jewish Fund helps fund the JDC’s relief, rescue and community work.
In addition to its relief work, the JDC is deeply involved in trying to renew Jewish communal life in the former Soviet Union. “Seven decades of Stalinism virtually destroyed Jewish knowledge, life, religion, culture,” Schneider said.
The JDC has spent the past 10 years helping to restore the infrastructure of Jewish life in these lands, once brimming with Yiddish culture. Schneider ticks off numbers to help tell the story of what has been accomplished: Establishing 54 full-time Jewish day schools, 225 Jewish supplementary schools, 59 Jewish community centers and 17 branches of Hillel in universities; providing 250,000 Jewish textbooks to schools and 150 containers of Russian-language Jewish books, which become instant Jewish libraries; training hundreds of lay and professional leaders. “There was nothing there 10 years ago,” Schneider said. But with the enthusiastic help of local Jewish communities, a huge renaissance of Jewish life is under way.
Since its founding in 1914, the JDC has been expected to go out of business because its purpose would be fulfilled. “But in every decade, we have had to react to the fortunes — and misfortunes — of history,” Schneider said. “I don’t think we’ll go out of business any time soon.”