Elderly in ex-USSR on edge, says envoy

For thousands of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union, it's come down to this: "They want to just live another day."

That's the determination of Sara Bogen, director of the St. Petersburg office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, following her latest visit there.

The international aid organization serves 200,000 Jews in the former Soviet Union, providing welfare services and helping to build Jewish communities.

According to Bogen, the group most desperately in need of the basics — food, health care and contact with other people — are elderly Holocaust survivors.

"They are our first priority," said Bogen, who is also the director of JDC's community development program in the ex-USSR. "For the elderly, it's about helping them survive and to have some sort of dignity in their lives.

"For young people, we're actually changing the course."

Israeli-born Bogen came to the Bay Area last month to meet with top officials and major donors at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She works primarily out of Jerusalem but travels to the former Soviet Union once a month to oversee JDC programs and to meet the people they serve.

It's no secret that the situation in the former Soviet Union has deteriorated rapidly since September's economic collapse. The consequences, especially for the retired population, have been severe.

"In terms of services provided to citizens, the former Soviet Union is like a Third World country. The government invested in education, the arms race, spreading communism and the space program. People came last," Bogen said.

"If not for our workers and volunteers, many elderly Jews would be dead."

Among the services the JDC provides are soup kitchens, home-delivered meals and "A Warm House," a program the JDC created for elderly, isolated Jews.

"Warm houses" are like clubs, offering up to 12 people a hot meal and a chance to socialize. "It's for single, lonely people," Bogen said. "This gives them an extended family. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning. Many would just stay at home all day and not even get out of bed because they either can't afford heating or there is no heating."

Those who run warm houses are usually post-retirement Jewish women in their late 50s, who earn food and about $20 to $30 each month to supplement a monthly pension ranging from $20 to $80.

The JDC also assists the elderly in obtaining medication and health services. "People in the former Soviet Union get older faster. They look older and act older than those in the West," Bogen said. "That's what happens when they can't afford medication or operations."

Despite the hardships, she said, survivors and other elderly Jews in the ex-Soviet Union have little or no desire to leave.

"They're as miserable as their next-door neighbor," Bogen said. "The Holocaust survivors are not really sad. They say, `We survived much worse than this when people were dying all around us.' Those who survived the Holocaust and communism are resilient people. You can see their strength."

Bogen insisted the Jews there haven't lost all hope, due at least partly to the re-emergence of a Jewish community.

About 5-1/2 years ago, when Bogen began supervising JDC programs in the former USSR, there were no Jewish community centers. Now there are 56. There were only a few Jewish welfare agencies, and now there are 80.

In addition, JDC helps support three Jewish universities, 12 adult education "open universities," kindergartens, Hillel clubs, family seminars and camps, and Jewish book festivals.

In November, Bogen attended the opening of Lugansk's Jewish community center, which includes a welfare center, the Ukraine town's first synagogue in 70 years, a youth club, family club and Jewish library — all receiving JDC funding.

Nearly 400 people attended the daylong opening festivities.

"A year ago, they had nothing," said Bogen, referring to Lugansk's 5,000 Jews. "Now they have a physical place to go for help and to socialize with other Jews and learn about Judaism.

"Life in Russia was never easy," she added. "But having a Jewish community makes it easier. They didn't have that before. When things are bad, they want to cling to fellow Jews."