Jewish refuge for neglected children opens in Moscow

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MOSCOW — Small and painfully thin, Dima looks younger than his 6 years.

In the past few years, Dima's mother abandoned his family. And his father, suffering from health and financial problems, could not take proper care of him.

This summer, Dima joined 27 other Jewish boys and girls between the ages of 2 and 15 who are being raised at the Passin-Waxman Center, a new Jewish children's home in the center of Moscow.

Dedicated in mid-June, the home was established with a $250,000 grant from Anita Waxman, a successful Broadway producer. The home, believed to be the first such center to open in Russia in 65 years, also receives support from the United Jewish Israel Appeal of Great Britain and a number of local donors.

All but four of the children here have a living parent who cannot care for them because of chronic social, financial and health problems — including alcoholism.

While most of the children come from Moscow, several have been brought here from Russia's troubled North Caucasus region near the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and three come from families affected by the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl.

"For about a year, we've been looking for Jewish kids in trouble," said Rafiel Ben-Yosef, the sturdy, bearded man who runs the home.

He and his wife, Svetlana, live at the center and call themselves the children's parents.

The couple thought it would be difficult to find kids for a Jewish children's home, Svetlana Ben-Yosef said. "It turned out to be easy, especially now during the economic crisis," referring to the financial chaos that has gripped Russia since last August.

As poverty has spread, family problems have multiplied and Russia's social support networks have deteriorated. Russia is facing the worst disaster since World War II, when hundreds of thousands of children were left without parental care.

The current situation of Jewish children is usually slightly better than the average, but the economic turmoil has left its scars on many Jewish families as well.

"When a 'Yiddishe mama' turns her kid over" to a home, "something in the family went terribly wrong," Rafiel Ben-Yosef said.

Without the center, most of the children would have probably never ended up in an institution because of the appalling conditions of Russian state-run homes for children.

They would have struggled for survival on the streets, in alcoholic homes — or they would have been confined to living with elderly relatives who are barely able to support themselves.

"Can I stay here forever?" 6-year-old Kristina asks in a very low voice. "People here are so kind, not like in my old home."

In addition to serving the children's social, educational and psychological needs, the center focuses on creating a Jewish environment for them.

The children — who like most Russians have not had a Jewish upbringing — eat kosher meals, celebrate Shabbat and attend services at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, which is within walking distance from the home. The boys wear white silk yarmulkes.

They will spend the summer at a camp outside the city.

Starting this fall, the children will attend classes at one of the Moscow Jewish day schools.

The center is temporarily housed in a six-bedroom apartment in a duplex in downtown Moscow. Next year, the center will move from this apartment, rented from a private owner, to a building of its own that the city of Moscow will provide.

The seed for the center was planted two years ago when Waxman, the mother of three adult children and two stepdaughters, came to Russia to adopt a 2-year-old boy. During the adoption, Waxman, who had earlier established a family foundation for needy children around the world, met with Moscow's chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt.

"We decided to start a home specifically for Jewish kids — not knowing exactly what we were talking about," Waxman said.

Now dozens of children are on a waiting list, including several from state orphanages. "The new building will also have space for infants which will give more opportunities for adoption," Waxman said.

Goldschmidt believes the center will be an important part of the Jewish revival taking place in Russia.

"These kids will be part of a community that can be proud of them, a community that will take care of both adoptable and unadoptable children."

About 200 children live at three Jewish homes for children that were opened in Ukraine during the past three years.

But Goldschmidt said the demand for such institutions in Russia should be even higher because the Jewish community in Russia is larger than that in the Ukraine.

"Ultimately, the idea is to have a home to be an alternative to abortions," said Goldschmidt, referring to the high rate of abortions in Russia. According to statistics, Russian women have between three and eight abortions in their lifetimes.

Waxman, who has visited dozens of orphanages around the world, said they all have one thing in common.

"Be it in China, or in India or here — there is always deadness in children's eyes," she said. She hopes the home she helped establish will be the happy exception to that rule.