The Faces of Jewish Poverty

This morning we split into small groups and went on home visits to Hesed clients. For the most part the elderly people who receive home care from the JDC can’t leave the house — due to illness, disability, or the fact that they live in a walk up and can’t use the stairs, among other reasons. As I mentioned in my last post, other Hesed clients receive food cards to purchase food, but homebound clients receive the food directly and have a worker come in as many as four days a week to help with household tasks and be a companion.

The first woman I saw was bedridden. She lived on the fifth floor of a building without an elevator. It was clear she hasn’t left her apartment in years. She is in her 90’s and still has perfect hearing and mental ability. Her apartment was very clean and she made us feel welcome. She was from what is now Belarus. She moved to Moscow right before the War to begin medical school to become an audiologist. During the War while she was in school, her four sisters and parents were killed. She received a job in Khabarovsk and met her husband here who was a doctor working at the same clinic. He passed away many years ago. Her daughter was there during our visit and it made me happy to see that in addition to a home care worker who comes twice a week she also has her daughter looking out for her. Throughout her story, she broke into tears at points. Her daughter said some of them were tears of happiness to have people in her home. It was a good example of how important the JDC’s work is. It is clear what a difference it makes that JDC exists and how different it would be if it wasn’t there to provide the services.

The next visit I am still trying to process. On the way there we learned we were visiting a mother with 11 children living in one home. Some of them were her children and some were her grandchildren. A few had mental disabilities. Let me set the stage. Overall, Khabarovsk is a wealthy Russian city. We are driving down a main road and turn off to a small dirt road, which has a neighborhood of homes that I can best describe as shacks. They were pieces of material with a slab of metal on top. On the streets there are water pumps every 100 feet and you could see people filling up buckets of water and carrying them home. The dirt roads have huge holes that are filled with water. There are bugs and lots of stray dogs walking the street. We pull up to her home and sadly it looks like all the others. Everyone in the car became very quiet and we weren’t sure how to respond. She greets us and walks down the path to her home. Along the way there are cesspools of water, some had metal across to act as a bridge. Before we enter the home, I see what can be best described as sheds on either side overflowing with belongings and garbage. There are a bunch of kids hanging out outside, most half dressed. We walk into the home and the first thing I see is a refrigerator with the door wide open and completely empty. The next thing that greeted me was the smell. I can’t even describe it. The whole house is only three rooms. She takes us into the largest room, which can barely fit seven adults standing. As she begins speaking to us one of her older daughters wipes mud off her mother’s feet (no one had shoes). It was obvious the girl had some pride about where she lived. The mother said that she sleeps on the bed, which was very small and all the children sleep on the floor. They pay $500/month in rent for the apartment. Apparently, no one wants to rent to them. None of the children go to school. She made it seem that it was for various reasons including that some have disabilities, some are needed at home to take care of other kids and that they can’t afford to get there. Buses come to the main street, but not through the neighborhood. The walk to the bus would be at least 20 minutes on a sunny day. Khabarovsk’s claim to fame is that it is the coldest city with a half million inhabitants. I can’t even begin to imagine how they even get water on days like that, so I see how getting to school would be a challenge. The mother said that in the winter there are large mice and other bugs in the apartment. JDC provides them with some food assistance. The woman’s maternal grandmother was Jewish. The whole experience was heartbreaking. It was clear there is a cycle that will be repeated. Later in the day I spoke with the regional director of JDC about this family and what are the real options. He said it is a hard situation. They have given the older children opportunities to work in the synagogue for money to clean windows or shovel snow. The family hasn’t taken them up on the opportunity and seems to only want to take from the system without doing their part to contribute or improve their lives.

The last man I met helped improve my mood after the terrible situation with the children. He is 94 years old and looks and acts like he is 60. He greeted us in running pants and a black tank top. He has larger arm muscles than I do! He was very active and chatty. He was from Odessa, but he and his family moved to Khabarovsk before the War. He served during the War, but spent most of his time in a Nazi camp (because he was a Russian soldier, not because he was Jewish). He also went on to become a doctor. He didn’t want to talk about sad topics, so I am unsure what happened to his family. He was also reluctant to discuss anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. He did show us his old passport that listed “Jewish” as his nationality. He discussed his love for his late wife, how he just booked a trip to Israel to visit his niece, that walking is his favorite activity, and he showed us some pictures. When we thanked him for sharing his story, he responded by saying, “it is you I have to thank for hearing my story.” I hope to be with it as much as him when I am 94. At the end of the day, his caseworker provides him not only help cooking, but companionship. He is able to leave his home and takes part in many of the events at the JCC. He was truly inspiring.

My mind is still racing trying to process everything. The concept of Jewish poverty is something that Jewish Federations in the States try to point out. That our community is not exempt. It was just interesting to see so many intellectuals, such as former doctors, in poverty. In their case it was due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is just not the people I normally visualize in need. The woman who served as our translator for the day is the Hillel Director. She was also shocked by the family and their situation. What struck her most as a Russian was that this Jewish family was so un-intellectual.

I see the challenges organizations such as the JDC face in deciding how to spend their money. In the situation with the family, where do you draw the line on what to give them. Giving them more means others get less or no money. The needs in the community are so great. However, I have never seen an organization on a local level so invested in where the dollars end up. The local Hesed Director is amazing. He was worried one family was buying alcohol or food for themselves instead of feeding their son. He required them to go to a four day Jewish camp so he could observe the family relations. He now calls the 10 year old child twice a week to ensure he is eating. For all the challenges, they do their best to meet them.

I have photos from today that I will post when I am back in Moscow.

From Russia with Love,

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