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This Year, Remember the World’s Poorest Jews

Image by Kurt Hoffman

This essay is part of our ongoing series, Outside the Bubble: Class and Inequality in the Jewish Community. It explores the class divides in Jewish communities of all denominations, and the financial struggles belonging to these communities can incur. Please email your thoughts and essays to batya@forward.com.

As I look ahead to the New Year, I am reminded of how many challenges the world is facing, and of how fortunate I am. As an American Jew, I belong to the most secure, prosperous, and influential diaspora community in the history of the world. Although my European ancestors said the same Rosh Hashanah prayers as I do, their lives were very different from mine. They did not have enough to eat, and I eat too much. They worried about pogroms, and I worry about the New York Mets.

My life is so different for a simple reason: over a century ago, my great-grandparents and grandparents chose to cross the ocean. This fateful choice gave my family unprecedented opportunities, while those who stayed behind experienced unprecedented horrors: two world wars, the Holocaust, and decades of Communist oppression. It is no exaggeration to say that my life was defined in fundamental ways by a choice made, for me, decades before I was born.

At some level, I have always known this. But this knowledge was an abstraction, residing in my head instead of in my heart.

In the past year, this insight has become more immediate and personal for me as I visited countries where my relatives once lived: Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. I saw a tragedy that is invisible to most American Jews: the quiet suffering of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union. They are the poorest Jews in the world, living on pensions of as little as two dollars a day.

For some American Jews, economizing means upgrading to the iPhone 8, instead of the iPhone X. But for elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, economizing literally means choosing between food and medicine, since they cannot afford both. It means enduring bitter east European winters without heat, and living without indoor plumbing.

When visiting these Jews, I am struck by the reality that even though they are mired in grinding poverty, they are just like us in many other ways. They have advanced degrees. They are engineers and scientists, doctors and teachers, musicians and librarians. They love books, chess, and chocolate (just like I do).

These elderly Jews, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, did what they could to endure a Communist regime that discriminated relentlessly against them. They persevered in the bleak financial environment after the USSR collapsed. They now have to navigate Ukraine’s rampant inflation and protracted conflict. Many face these challenges alone, with no one to care for them. Their friends have passed away, and their families have emigrated to Israel, Western Europe, and America. Aside from meager pensions, their countries do not provide them with any safety net.

Having spent time with these seniors, I have seen them suffer without complaint. I also know the extraordinary impact of even modest amounts of food, medicine, and home care.

Across the former Soviet Union today, over 100,000 elderly Jews receive this aid from my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and our partners, including the Claims Conference, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), and Jewish Federations. In fact, together with IFCJ and the Claims Conference, we just ensured that Rosh Hashanah would be especially meaningful for thousands of these seniors – as it is for us – by providing special food for the new year.

But as proud as we are to provide this support, we want to do more. We need to do more.

The good news is that in meeting this challenge, we are not alone. An increasing number of young Jews – the generation born after the collapse of the Soviet Union – are committing to this mission. In April, I met 30 Jewish teens in Belarus who singlehandedly ensured that hundreds of elderly Jews in their community could celebrate Passover. The matzah delivery to the city arrived a day late. With just a few hours until sundown, these teens swung into action, delivering hundreds of boxes of matzah on short notice.

I feel such admiration for these young people, who dropped everything to help elderly strangers. The commitment of these teens is even more remarkable because Jewish life in Belarus – indeed, throughout the former Soviet Union – was essentially dormant for decades, and began reviving just before these young people were born.

This is the same spirit of service that powered the American Jewish community’s response to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and to countless other crises in recent years. In every Jewish community, trying times can bring out the best in us. There is a profound lesson here: when we join together, harnessing the power of Jewish values, we can change lives.

As we look ahead to 5778, I hope you will join me in marveling at these communal miracles, and in reserving a place in our hearts, and on our agenda, for the poorest Jews in the world.

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