Journal Entry: Zhitomer Hesed Center Fulfills Its Meaning of ‘Loving-kindness’ In So Many Ways

ZHITOMER, UKRAINE, April 3, 2011 – To call the Hesed Center in Zhitomer, Ukraine a “lifeline” would be an understatement.

Hesed serves as the social services hub of this small town 100 miles west of Kiev, serving 3,000 Jews in 86 different villages, including a single recipient in one locale.  While economic conditions in the Ukraine overall are bleak, they are particularly brutal in communities outside of the main cities – and Zhitomer is no exception. 

“The social welfare system in the Ukraine is broken.  It’s inhuman in many cases,” said our tour guide Natalia. One harsh example of how bad things are is the fact that people have to provide their own medial supplies when they visit a hospital.    

“For years, the Soviets built rockets and a space program, but neglected the social welfare needs of the people,” she said. 

Reflecting these difficulties, social worker Sofia Zeitziva needed both hands to list what the Hesed center provides: 

  • Food Card Program – The days of the food box are over.  Now, clients have a debit card they can use to conveniently purchase the goods that they want.  And with every bag of groceries comes a major added value: dignity, being worthy to have exactly what they want, even though it might not be in the quantity they would like.  For the elderly clients who are unable to shop themselves or live far away from the limited number of grocery stores on the outskirts of Kiev, Hesed workers secure a list of their needs, buy the food for them and deliver it to their homes.
  • Medicine and Home Care – The medicine program in Zhitomer is crucial as many area residents developed cancer from the Chernobyl disaster 25 years ago.
  • Day Center – Elderly with limited mobility are picked up and brought to the Hesed day center.  Because most do not have access to running water, they are bathed there and have their laundry done. Eighty to 100 clients are served daily.
  • Winter Relief Fuel – This includes coal or wood for heating, warm clothing, blankets and boots for Hesed’s many impoverished clients.
  • Home Repairs – From appliances to water taps to water closets, the center provides repairs to the local community.
  • Jewish Cultural Programs – For decades, Jews in the Former Soviet Union were not allowed to explore their Jewish identity.  Hesed cultural programs help then reconnect – or connect for the first time- to their Jewish heritage.
  • Social and Hobby Clubs – A variety of programs are available, including chess, art and literature.
  • Community Programs – The local family club, for example, brings together three generations of Jews for theater programs, Shabbat services and camps.
  • Children at Risk – Hesed provides for basic needs such as food, medicine and warm clothing as well as disabled and special needs and early childhood intervention.  

* * *

Our first stop in Zhitomer was the local supermarket.  We had a list of items requested by Perel Geller, 80, whose physical limitations prevent her from shopping.

Seed Oil, minced chicken, raisins, dates, sugar, buckwheat, smoked salmon, pasta, apples, tangerines 

It sounds like a nice list – a lot better than the standard food box – but the quantities were very limited.   In fact, a piece of smoked salmon that would normally comprise one main course here in the states – had to last her for four Shabbats. 

Nevertheless, shopping for Perel felt so good.  And checking out with the food card made the process seem so much less antiquated than the food box.  The best part was seeing Perel’s grateful smile when we hand-delivered the bags of food (See Perel’s storyfrom the JDC in my blog). 

* * * 

We also had a brief visit to the Zhitomer Hesed Day Center, which included a gathering of about 30 local elderly residents, who get together once or twice a month to socialize, eat and engage in recreational activities.  One look at this group, you can’t help but notice how much the women outnumber the men.  All were widows – that’s because the life expectancy in the Ukraine is 58 for men and 68 for women. 

After speaking with some of those gathered today, it is a wonder they made it past their childhoods. 

“I was born three weeks after the war started,” said Ludmilla Brandes, 69, referring to the time the Soviet army began fighting the Nazis in late June 1941.  She was with her family on a train, when her father, who had medical experience as a veterinarian, brought her and a twin sibling into the world as bombs exploded all around them. 

Her recollections prompted others to tell the same story.  Another woman was 15 when she was evacuated.  “I remember the cargo cars and open platform cars,” she said.  “The bombings never ceased.  People went crazy.” 

Yet another recalled another train ride in which an elderly grandfather covered a baby from the bombs and suffered splinter wounds that he died from two weeks later. 

These prompt and vivid recollections clearly indicate how these elderly participants were impacted by their childhood experiences.  But knowing they were in each other’s company able to spend leisurely time together was comforting and reassuring.  Their expressions of appreciation for Hesed came just as promptly as their early memories of the war. 

“This is like our second home,” said one woman.  “The people here really care about us.  Thanks to the assistance we get from our sponsors, we are able to survive.” 

* * * 

In another room, we mixed and mingled among 20 people of all ages working on art and literature projects of different kinds – some were cutting out figurines, others were painting glass, some were discussing poetry. 

I met Vycheslav, 55, a volunteer in charge of the literary studio for children.  He proudly showed me a collection of children’s poems written by local residents.  He not only works with children on their writing skills; he organizes Jewish cultural activities, such as holiday celebrations. 

How important is Hesed? 

“It is very important that the Jewish culture is developing here,” said Vycheslav.  “It was not possible a few years ago.  We are our own culture, different from Israel and we have to keep things relevant.” 

* * * 

This was my fourth visit to a Hesed Center during the past five years.  While the centers I visited in Odessa, Kharkov, Tblisi and Kiev are still operating, I am pained to hear that many have closed.  

As the JDC reports, the Hesed system is essential to thousands of lives, but it is a lifeline on life support. A multi-year erosion in the purchasing power of JDC’s welfare budget, increased per capita costs, and a decline in available funding have forced the system to tighten its eligibility criteria and pare down services.  So tens of thousands of elderly Jews who cannot afford to purchase adequate food and medicine, let alone home care, are now going without Hesed services—and even those still eligible are suffering in the current economic climate, with many of their basic needs unmet. 

Considering there are 160,000 destitute elderly in some 2,800 locations across 11 time zones in the FSU, this is a bitter pill to swallow. This is a dilemma that our donors absolutely need to hear about.


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