U.S. groups nurture old Russian Jews

When Jonathan W. Kolker talks about the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union, his face shows a rare glow of emotion as he thinks of the aftereffects: Thousands of communities, large and small, are now able to join in Jewish life.

"What we're talking about, literally, is almost like an Atlantis that grew out of the sea, with 2 or 3 million Jews," says Kolker, 60, a former Baltimore real estate developer who is the volunteer president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — the JDC or "the Joint," as it's known.

"For those of us who lost 6 million in the Holocaust, it's an opportunity to bring 2 to 3 million Jewish citizens to society," he says. "Think of how many doctors and scientists and musicians…

"I think these people are searching for connections, searching for roots, searching for some sense of life," Kolker says, speaking across a desk that is sparkling clean, evidence of a retirement that gives him full time to devote to JDC work.

But along with the chance to revive Jewish life in 11 time zones across the former Soviet Union, he and the Joint are tackling a more pressing problem: putting food in the stomachs of some 300,000 elderly Jews devastated by the disintegration of the former Soviet economy.

On April 14, at the Council of Jewish Federations meeting in Washington, D.C., the major organizations of American Jewish life agreed to a two-year, $46 million hunger relief effort for the former Soviet Union's aging Jews.

The CJF has agreed to raise $10 million annually from voluntary, pro-rated contributions from its member federations.

The JDC will contribute an extra $3 million each year from its endowment funds, as well as try to raise another $10 million a year in Europe and from some approved donors in the United States, such as private foundations.

"With these additional funds, we will be able to reach all 300,000 elderly former Soviet Jews," Kolker says. "The American Jewish community is determined not to let Jews go to bed hungry."

Most, if not all, of those 300,000 were affected by World War II, either as fighters, Holocaust survivors or in some other way. They had counted on now-nonexistent pensions, or savings that have become almost worthless amid rampant inflation.

"The same collapse of communism which freed 2 to 3 million Jews to return to Judaism brought about an economic collapse, which has brought about a collapse of the pension system," Kolker says.

"This is what we find when our volunteers go into the kitchen," he adds. "We find a half a loaf of bread, a few potatoes, sometimes rotten. We find some mushrooms on a string and some sour milk."

For more than two years, the JDC has been sending food packages to about 70,000 elderly Jews in more than 100 communities. Kolker, who attends the Conservative Beth El Congregation in Stevenson, Md., walks to a bookshelf in his office and pulls out a small box with a label in English and Russian: "This food package was made possible with the support of: The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore USA, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee."

The goal is to send at least six of the boxes a year to each recipient. Hot meals are prepared for those who can't cook for themselves.

Kolker empties the box, which costs about $12.50 to put together. There are two packages of pasta ("for filler," he notes), two packages of lentils, two of buckwheat, a two-pound bag of sugar, some rice, tea ("We try to include tea bags instead of leaves, because they can use them for barter with their neighbors") and two "luxuries," as he describes them — a can of fish of some kind, and a can of sweet condensed milk.

"I once met a man who said he'd escaped from a concentration camp," Kolker says. While he was in hiding, "he hid a can of sweet condensed milk in the snow, and every day he came out for a sip, not because he thought it was good for him, but as a morale booster."

Over the next few weeks, the CJF and the United Jewish Appeal, the primary funder of the JDC, will determine how much each American federation should contribute to the relief effort.