Eastern European giving

Wearing an elegant dress and a name tag, Dasha Fedoseeva flitted among the tables during a recent Jewish community dinner in Moscow just after Rosh Hashanah.
October 11, 2012

Wearing an elegant dress and a name tag, Dasha Fedoseeva flitted among the tables during a recent Jewish community dinner in Moscow just after Rosh Hashanah.

Fedoseeva wasn’t just a guest. She was part of a team of young Jewish volunteers whose goal was to mingle and charm older guests into increasing their donations to local Jewish charities.

Organized by the Russian Jewish Congress, the gala dinner and auction raised $85,000. In 2011, the Congress allocated $385,000 to a Jewish orphanage in Moscow — all the money was raised locally in fundraising drives.

The raising of substantial funds here is a sign of something almost unthinkable just a few years ago in former Soviet bloc countries. For years, the Jewish communities there subsisted on Western help for welfare and community-building. But these communities are becoming increasingly self-reliant — evident both in the growing culture of local volunteerism and homegrown philanthropy.

“Over the past few years, we see more volunteering by young Jews and more donations, which are aspects of the same trend of giving,” said Matvey Chlenov, deputy director of the Russian Jewish Congress.

“In the 1990s there was a feeling we were struggling to survive in the post-communist upheaval,” he said. “Now in Russia we have more time and money, and some people are looking for a way to do positive things for the community.”

Chlenov says this applies not only to Jews but to Russian society in general.

In Ukraine, a $70 million Jewish community center in Dnepropetrovsk due to be dedicated this month was funded entirely by local philanthropists. Elsewhere in Ukraine, JCCs are encouraging activism and philanthropy among young Jews while accustoming older members to paying fees.

In Poland, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) recently received its first significant donation from a local philanthropist.

Promoters of Jewish life in Eastern Europe say getting people to donate time and money is difficult in the former Soviet bloc, where bitter memories of “forced volunteering” remain, and there is deep-rooted skepticism toward the idea of sacrificing for the common good.

“Former Soviet countries have little culture of giving or volunteering, and I know exactly why,” said Karina Sokolowska, director of the Poland office of the JDC. “Growing up in communist Poland, I remember attending ‘compulsory-voluntary action’ every month. We would go somewhere and do what they told us. It profoundly affects your attitude to community work.”

Mariya Zarud, 22, of Odessa, encountered this barrier to community work at home.

Zarud, the regional coordinator for the JDC-funded Metzuda program for developing Jewish leadership, said she had to plead with her parents to convince them that her unpaid role in the Jewish community was a good thing.

“Initially, it was pretty tough. I had to make them see I wasn’t wasting my time,” Zarud said of her teen years, when she first became involved with JDC programs. Like many people who grew up under communism, her parents were wary of organizational activism, she said.

While her parents’ generation looks askance at volunteering, young Jews recognize that it is up to them — not just international Jewish aid groups — to build their communities, she says.

In Odessa, the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center, which was dedicated in 2010 thanks to American Jewish donations, collects fees for all cultural activities, according to Ira Zborovskaya of the local JDC office.

“Even if it’s only symbolic, everyone has to chip in and pay something for services,” Zborovskaya said.

In Soviet times, “charging fees for cultural activities was unthinkable — it was all free,” said Kira Verkhovskaya, director of Odessa’s other JCC, Migdal. Fees are also collected as a matter of policy there, but most of the budget comes from subsidies from Jews in the West.

“Some older people are not happy when they are asked to pay,” she said.

Both Migdal and Beit Grand have programs that encourage young Jews to contribute time and effort to the community.

Beit Grand also operates a luxury Jewish kindergarten for 40 children whose well-off parents pay a monthly fee of $500 — approximately double the average national monthly salary. The kindergarten is so popular that it has a long waiting list. The annual income of $240,000 from fees helps cover other programs, including charitable activities.

Nevertheless, the culture of giving is still far less widespread than it is in the West, experts say.

Russia has a Jewish population of 265,000, according to a 2010 official census, and the World Jewish Congress says it estimates the number is at least 330,000. Despite the community’s size, local philanthropy comes mostly from a thin layer of “oligarchs or super-rich Jews,” Chlenov said.

“What we are missing is a trusted brand for small donations from middle-class donors, like what the Jewish federation system does in the U.S.,” he said.

Attempts to raise donations from that sector yielded some results, according to Chlenov, but never beyond a total of $150,000 per fundraising campaign.

In Ukraine, Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, says the Jewish middle class still isn’t opening its wallet.

“Since the mid-’90s, we are seeing the same 10 to 15 very rich Jews funding charity,” he said. The donor pool is “sadly not expanding.”

This means that with a Jewish population of 360,000 to 400,000 and many thousands of welfare cases, Ukrainian Jewry would “face a humanitarian disaster” if it weren’t for American money, Dolinsky added.

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