I was fortunate to be among a small group of United Jewish Fund (UJF) campaign leaders who visited St. Petersburg, Russia and Vilnius, Lithuania to witness the work that is being done in both communities by the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).
All who went on this mission returned enlightened with an awareness of what is being accomplished in each community on a day-to-day basis. Most importantly, we came away with a stronger commitment to participate in Jewish life here in Los Angeles and help in the efforts of the UJF campaign.
We got to see how vital UJF funded services are to people in desperate need. In my 26 years of professional work in the Jewish Federation movement, no mission had more of an impact on me than this one to St. Petersburg and Vilnius.
More than 30,000 Jews live in the St. Petersburg area and close to 35 percent are elderly. The greatest challenge faced by them is their ability to maintain some measure of economic security. Approximately 10,000 seniors are in need of hot meals, home care and other support. The high cost of medication remains a major problem.
We visited the Hesed Avraham, a multifunctional outreach program that provides care to the needy based on three principles: Jewish values, community orientation and volunteerism. We met with elderly people in their apartments and saw their difficult living conditions. They expressed appreciation for the food boxes that are delivered on a regular basis and noted that it would be impossible for them to live and sustain themselves without the help of the JDC’s programs.
There is no question that there are additional needs that are going unmet in St. Petersburg. There are insufficient funds available to feed, clothe and provide needed medication for all of the elderly Jews who require our services. Most are living on pensions of less than $20 per week. It is virtually impossible to meet their basic needs on such a meager income. Their only opportunity to live some semblance of a normal life is through the help provided by the JDC.
We also visited with members of the young and emerging Jewish community in St. Petersburg. We witnessed several Ulpan classes that were provided by the Jewish Agency and spoke with parents of children who are participants in the Selah and Chalon programs.
These programs provide assistance to young people who wish to study in Israel during their last two years of high school. The Jewish Agency provides a full annual scholarship of $8,000 per student to those who qualify. There is a significant waiting list of people who wish to participate.
Our trip to Lithuania was nothing short of astounding. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained its independence and the Jewish community came to life. Although these communities are small, they are vibrant and looking toward building a brighter future.
About 5,500 Jews live in Lithuania, the majority in Vilnius and the small communities in Kovno, Siaulai, Klaipeda and Ponevezys. The JDC provides a social service package, similar to that in St. Petersburg, for the elderly of Vilnius.
The enthusiasm of the young people involved in Jewish activities is unshakable. They want to participate in Jewish life, learn more about Jewish culture and raise Jewish families. We visited the Shalom Alaichem School, the Jewish Community Center and several Jewish youth clubs.
We visited the remaining synagogue in Vilnius, and traveled to Kovno, where we met with 40 elderly members of the community, all of whom receive both food and other assistance from JDC.
Despite the tough economic and social situation, a miraculous renaissance of Jewish life is taking place. In less than 10 years, Jewish programs and institutions have developed to address various aspects of Jewish life. These include a Jewish school, welfare services, children’s clubs, cultural activities, student unions and art festivals. This is truly remarkable given the history of this community.
We are doing miraculous lifesaving work around the world. We should all be very proud of how our United Jewish Fund dollars are invested. Those dollars are making a difference for the needy and for those seeking new opportunities for Jewish expression.
Bill Bernstein is associate executive vice president of the Jewish Federation. He was accompanied on his trip by his wife Brooke, Renee Katz, Dodi Gold, Alan Shuman, Stan and Marilyn Ross and Valerie Salkin.