Eastern Europeans Chafe as Charity Pulls American Funds

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Even in the strange capitalist environment of post-Soviet Russia, the Nadezhda factory in suburban St. Petersburg stands out.

The factory, which produces walkers and crutches, was built not by one of Russia’s new tycoons but rather by an American charity: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Its name comes from the Russian word for hope.

When the factory started turning out walkers in the mid-1990s, the Joint was just beginning its work of caring for needy Jews in the region SEE SIDE BAR. At the time, there was nowhere to buy medical devices, so the Joint started making its own. These days the factory produces 62 different products, including shower handrails and handicap ramps.

Nadezhda is a symbol of what might be called the Hesed industry in the former Soviet Union— hesed being the Hebrew word for compassion and also the collective name of the Joint-sponsored agencies that care for the elderly in the region.

With nearly $70 million dollars a year from American donors, the Joint’s Hesed agencies have taken over the care of some 220,000 elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union — people abandoned by the rampant individualism of post-Soviet culture, or by younger relatives who have emigrated to Israel and America. The charitable work necessitated the building of whole swaths of infrastructure — warehouses, schools, factories and more — all of which added up to an astonishing community-building project.

Now, though, the Joint is trying to slowly wean the programs off of American money, while keeping the communities in place. It’s proving more complicated than some might have expected. The factory has begun generating profits, which are redirected back into welfare services for the Jewish community. But local leaders have been slow to chip in and the recipients of the aid have complained about having to pay modest fees.

“It’s not an easy transition,” said Steve Schwager, the Joint’s executive vice-president. “We’re making a huge cultural shift in a population that had the tsars and Stalin. It’s going to take time, and there will be people who complain.”

The organization’s experience in the former Soviet Union is part of a larger tale of American charitable largess imported into a land where charity was largely a foreign concept. The Joint has created a world of services that would not have existed otherwise. But after years in which it has built everything from scratch — down to the crutches — it has not been easy to cooperate with locals who say they have felt sidelined, even by their foreign benefactor.

“The Joint expansion saved hundreds of thousands of elderly from hunger,” said Josef Zissels, the head of a Ukrainian Jewish representative organization, the Vaad. “But it also made a lot of communities dependent on the Joint. It’s a price we had to pay for this social aid.” l The epicenter of much of the Joint’s recent triumph and trouble is a gleaming new glass and brick building in a leafy neighborhood of St. Petersburg. The Jewish Community Center, or Yesod, opened earlier this year with a reception for the American donors who had anted up the $13 million in construction costs.

Yesod is the headquarters of the local Hesed agency, which sends out 400 home-care workers to look after 7,000 elderly Jews around St. Petersburg. Another 33,000 receive some food assistance.

Yesod has also been an experiment in the Joint’s new strategies. The Joint put together a planning committee for the building so that locals would be involved in the decisions. Since opening in March, the building has charged rent and maintenance fees to the four Jewish programs on premise, including a day-care center and college. “After 15 years, we’ve made a strategic shift,” said Schwager. “It’s time for people to take responsibility for their own lives.”

In recent years, the Russian Jewish community has seen an uptick in wealthy members who have benefited from privatization of the oil-rich economy. But Schwager and other Joint employees say that while wealthy Russian Jews have been willing to donate money to big name projects, they have been slow to get involved in less glamorous work like the Joint’s social welfare programs.

“There are a few locals doing welfare work, but it’s peanuts,” said Danny Gechtman, director of the Joint’s office in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. “Before doing synagogues, what about the needy?”

This dynamic is perhaps most apparent in the Joint’s dealings with the Russian Jewish Congress, a leading body that unites wealthy Russian Jews. Thus far, the RJC has given millions to Holocaust commemoration and book publishing, but only $400,000 a year to support the Joint’s welfare work. The head of the congress, Sol Bukingolts, said the Joint wasn’t interested in local initiatives, while Joint representatives say that locals tend to offer support only for high-profile projects.

This disconnect emerged repeatedly during construction of the Yesod building in St. Petersburg. To begin with, a wealthy father-and-son team resigned from the planning committee because, they argued, the Joint showed no interest in their ideas. Then, a few months after the building finally opened, the director of the center resigned from her post, making her own complaints about the Joint’s control issues. The former director, Nonna Levine, said she had been brought on to run the center because of her business experience, but was never given the chance to make any decisions.

“Everything was done by the Joint,” Levine told the Forward. “All decisions here actually came out of Jerusalem or New York.”

For Levine, the control came mostly from the local Joint director, an Israeli who, she said, insisted on being involved in every decision — down to the placement of the posters on the wall and the computers she bought. Before sending even the simplest letter, she said, she had to read it out loud to the director, who did not read Russian, according to Levine. After a year and a half with the organization, she said she believed the problem was a result of bureaucratic inertia — a large organization with many employees who don’t want to lose their jobs.

“The Joint didn’t really want us to fundraise, because then it will go directly to [local] organizations and the Joint’s power will be less,” Levine said.

Schwager said he would not comment on the concerns of a “disgruntled former employee.” He did acknowledge, though, that the Joint demands a level of oversight that is unfamiliar to most Russians, given the lack of business and accounting standards in the region.

“As Russian donors come on board and take responsibility, they can own the program,” Schwager said. “Until they do, we have an obligation to our donors.” In a few cities the Joint has actually dissolved local boards that it formed after finding out that they were not following standards of American accountability. Local leaders have complained that the Joint uses its financial tests as ways to marginalize them.

“They’re always talking about the incompetence of local people,” said Rabbi Yakov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis and a member of one of the boards that was dissolved by the Joint.

Ukraine has long been a problem spot for the Joint. A proposal by the Joint to build a Jewish community center — on the site of the Babi Yar massacre — was withdrawn in 2003 after the project met opposition from local politicians and the head of the Jewish Vaad, Josef Zissels.

“Now they say I’m the only person who won in a fight with the Joint,” Zissels told the Forward. “But I don’t think so. It was a conflict for the whole country to see.”

Whatever the cause for the division, the urgent need for cooperation is increasingly apparent. Much of the Joint’s welfare work is supported with money from various Holocaust restitution and reparations programs — last year, these Holocaust-related funds accounted for $40 million of the Joint’s $70 million social welfare budget. Some local Joint employees estimated that these sources will run dry by 2012.

“In eight years the money from restitution will disappear, and what next?” said Gechtman, the Joint’s Kiev director. “Today we have to think about the day after tomorrow.”

The Joint is still trying to cultivate local donors, but it is also trying new routes, like commercializing certain Joint projects to subsidize other ones. In Kiev, the Joint is looking to begin selling its home-care services to the government.

“We are talking about making a business plan for the Hesed system,” said Gechtman, the Kiev director. “Home care could be profitable, and we could sell our catering services.” Currently, the Hesed building in Kiev serves some 1,000 Jews each day and delivers hot meals on wheels to 450 people.

In St. Petersburg, the city government has begun to pay Hesed for help in creating soup kitchens, modeled on those operated by Hesed institutions. And then there are the products from Nadezhda. For many years, the Jewish population was the sole beneficiary of the factory’s newfangled medical devices. Then, in 2004, the Joint successfully lobbied for a new national law that promises crutches and wheelchairs to all handicapped Russians. The law went into effect in early 2006. Orders at the factory have doubled since, with 650 walkers turned out in September.

The irony of the law — and of the Joint’s larger commercial ventures — is that while the Joint has struggled to get local Jews on board, it has been a success with the broader Russian and Ukrainian societies, which have never had the sort of social welfare programs the Joint offers. In Ukraine, elderly clients of the Joint live, on average, 10-12 years longer than the average Ukrainian, according to Joint statistics.

One of those clients is Elena Dikovskaya, 82. Her husband died six years ago and she last left her apartment two years ago. Nowadays her main life support comes from a Hesed homecare worker named Tamara who comes every day for three hours to help cook and clean. At this level of interaction, there are few complaints about the Joint’s willingness to come in and run things.

“Tamara is the dearest person in the world to me now,” said Dikovskaya. “I rely on her for everything.”

Nathaniel Popper traveled to Eastern Europe on a World Affairs Journalism Fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists. The Fellowship is funded by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.






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