To Russia With Love…

November 23, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Posted in Press Releases | Leave a comment

When Neil Waxman, Chairperson of the Jewish Community Federation St. Petersburg Committee, and Oren Baratz, International Operations Department Director, arrived in Russia earlier last week, they brought with them the love and concern of Cleveland’s Jewish community for the aging, impoverished Jews in small towns on the periphery of St. Petersburg. What follows is the story of one Russian community, two individuals, and two international Jewish organizations working together with Jews from Cleveland and West Palm Beach, Florida against an endemic situation of poverty and despair.

Four hours drive southwest of the very cosmopolitan St. Petersburg lies a small city called Pskov – with a population of ¼ million people, including 1,500 Jews. One of the eight “communities on the periphery,” the Jewish identity of its residents is being supported by the Jewish communities of Cleveland and West Palm Beach in conjunction with our overseas partners the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

Leonid, 52 years old, was born mentally challenged. Nevertheless, he finished eight grades in a school for children with learning disabilities and graduated from a professional college. Until his parents, a prominent lawyer and doctor, died, he had never worked. Today he is employed as a hospital night guard earning only $131 per month. Leonid suffers from a number of illnesses and lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in need of major repair. He receives help through the JDC-run Hesed program, receiving some meal packages and social visits. For hundreds of thousands of desperate Jews, the Hesed welfare program is an essential social link in their struggle for survival.

Boris, 53 years old, has been disabled since childhood and is partly paralyzed. His father was a chief of the Pskov Road police and his mother never worked. After his parent’s death, Boris began to drink heavily, homeless people began to gather at his home, and his situation deteriorated rapidly until Hesed Yitzchak, the JDC-run welfare program, reached out to him. Although Boris has his drinking under control, he has been home-bound since he fell in the street three years ago and broke his neck. Today he gets around his apartment by crawling. He receives a pension of $224 per month and is visited regularly by a Hesed home care worker.

For both men, there are only limited resources available to them in Russia. One of our Cleveland visitors emotionally noted that he has never seen such poverty or such loneliness, never seen anything like it in his life. So, as is Cleveland’s habit, our community members worked together with JDC and JAFI staff to creatively problem-solve. The result is a new program in which JAFI will take teens from its Jewish Identity programs to work with Leonid to help clean up his apartment. The JAFI teens will keep people like Leonid and Boris company, help clean up their apartments and socialize with them. From nothing, the Cleveland Jewish community is making something… with love.

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