Feature Story (Special from JDC): Hesed Provides Long List of Vital Services – and Dignity – to Elderly Residents of Zhitomer, Ukraine

ZHITOMER, UKRAINE – Perel Geller dreads the Ukrainian winter, when plunging temperatures and long months of snowfall compound her daily hardship. At the age of 80, she has gotten used to living alone in a tiny shack without utilities; but it is getting harder to endure the below-freezing gusts on her already demoralizing walks to a shared outhouse. Her only bit of relief is the winter assistance she receives from JDC’s Hesed network. 

Distributed once a year in advance of the season, JDC’s winter relief packages – warm blankets, clothing, and heating fuel – made the harsh winter months bearable for more than 27,000 impoverished Jews across the former Soviet Union last year; people like Perel whose well-being depends on services from JDC’s Hesed social welfare centers. A beneficiary of Hesed Shlomo in Zhitomir since 1997, today Perel also receives a food card with which to purchase groceries, medicines and medical consultations, as well as personal hygiene and laundry service, and she participates in local JDC-supported Day Center activities with other Jewish elderly. These vital acts of loving kindness (hesed) let Perel know she is not alone, especially after so many years of suffering. 

Born in July 1930, Perel endured repeated evacuations and much privation during World War II. Her father, a laborer, joined the Soviet Army when the war began, while Perel, her mother and her two siblings fled first to Stalingrad, then to the Volga region, and finally to Kyrgizia. There, 11-year-old Perel had to work with her mother on a collective farm to help support her family. Forced to share a tiny apartment lacking heat and utilities with other families, the Gellers were constantly sick. But despite physical and emotional hardship as well as the family’s repeated displacement during the war, Perel managed to save her mother’s Hebrew prayer books—relics she treasures to this day. 

When the Gellers returned to Zhitomir following its liberation in 1944 (where they were soon joined by Perel’s father) their home had been given to others and their family was reduced to living in a windowless, one-room apartment. The small stove they installed for cooking and a bit of heat caused them endless, terrible headaches. 

Overcoming tremendous obstacles, Perel completed medical school and worked for years as an obstetrician. But her siblings soon moved from Zhitomir, leaving her to care for their increasingly infirm parents. Since their death, Perel has been suffering from a variety of medical conditions all alone—save for Hesed. 

“Thanks to them, I can live in dignity, feeling I am part of a caring community that has not forgotten me.”


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