Elderly in former Soviet Union top JDCs concerns

Last year Michael Schneider helped deliver a wheelchair to a woman in the former Soviet Union who hadn't been out of bed in two years.

The first thing she did was wheel into the kitchen and make tea for the South African-born American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) executive vice president.

Schneider points to this woman's isolation as proof of the work yet to be done in the former Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, all rallying around Soviet refuseniks and their needs essentially ceased. But Schneider points to new problems: chiefly, that elderly Jews remaining in the country must struggle to survive.

Schneider visited the Bay Area recently to discuss conditions in the former Soviet Union and raise funds for what he calls "the next chapter" of the Soviet Jewry story.

According to Schneider, approximately 70,000 Jews in the region are retired and dependent on pensions. Under Communist rule they suffered, "but at least there was some predictability. They knew where their allowance was coming from and that they'd have at least enough for bread," he said.

Today, the economy is unpredictable, and inflation continues to skyrocket.

"Now the large number of [elderly Jews] are subsisting on a pound of bread a day, a bit of milk, a bit of soup made from the sack of rotting potatoes kept outside the kitchen door."

In addition to financial problems, the Jewish elderly in Russia, Belarus, Moldavia and Ukraine suffer "a horrendous isolation," Schneider said.

Some long for their children and grandchildren who have emigrated to the United States and Israel. Others, who were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust, have been alone for decades.

To physically and spiritually nourish the region's elderly Jews, the JDC has distributed 350,000 protein-rich food supplement packs — containing peas, lentils, beans, coffee, tea and occasionally canned sardines — and has begun establishing welfare care centers in 12 cities.

The centers function as operational headquarters for soup kitchens, meals-on-wheels and home-visit programs. It's a three-way partnership between the JDC, local residents and a Russian organization called the Claims Conference.

The Claims Conference helps fund the project by donating part of the reparations it collects for Nazi war crimes against Russians. Schneider hopes to build "an army" of 12,000 volunteers.

It's a daunting challenge. "There is not even a Russian word for volunteer," Schneider said. Nonetheless, he views Soviet Jewry itself as his greatest asset.

In St. Petersburg alone, 250,000 volunteers are already working for 139 different welfare agencies. Retired doctors provide free medical services. Engineers repair appliances. A few entrepreneurs have put hard cash toward the efforts.

Schneider estimates that the most modest home and meal care for the 70,000 residents will cost about $24 million. By the year 2000, demographers say, there will be 300,000 elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union. The bill for their care amounts to some $100 million.

This figure doesn't even include the JDC's work toward replenishing Jewish knowledge and strengthening the community's infrastructure. Nor does it address the 9,000 Jews the JDC is aiding in former Soviet satellite countries, where it affords technical assistance toward reclaiming communal properties.

The goal for both areas is to render them "financially and culturally independent," Schneider said.

Schneider estimates the job will take about 10 years in the newly independent republics. But he cannot even guess how long it might take in the former Soviet Union, he said: Unpredictable political and economic conditions make predictions difficult.

"You're talking about a country larger than the entire region we served before glasnost," Schneider said of the enormity of the task.

Yet he welcomes the challenge.

"In 1946 the American Jewish community rebuilt Jewish Western Europe with our help," Schneider said. "We're hoping to do the same in Eastern Europe. I think it will be faster this time around."