Former Soviet refusenik Ida Nudel: Where is she and what is she doing

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The name Ida Nudel was a household word about 15 years ago when she won a long, hard battle to emigrate after years of imprisonment and exile as a human rights activist in the former Soviet Union.

Yet not long afterward, she managed to alienate herself from the country she had fought so bitterly to be allowed to make her home by speaking her mind about everything that she thought was wrong with it.

Nudel disappeared from the public eye and went to live in the rustic haven of Karmei Yosef near Rehovot with her sister Elena. She bought a house and what looks like an entire forest as her back garden with the proceeds of her best-selling autobiography, "A Hand in the Darkness."

However, Nudel has been doing a lot more than tending her garden. For the last 10 years, away from the glare of publicity, Nudel has been running "Mother to Mother," an organization funded entirely from donations from abroad that seeks to bring the children of Russian immigrants off the streets and into after-school activities.

Nudel initially became alarmed by the huge number of single-parent families arriving from Russia at the beginning of the 1990s, usually Jewish women who had come alone with one or more children.

"In '92 and '93, 25 percent of Russian immigrants were single mothers," she says. The figure rises to about one-third of the immigrants, when taking into account the numbers of divorces and men who leave their families after a short time in Israel, Nudel adds.

"It was not easy for a Jewish woman to marry, if she didn't want to marry a Russian," says Nudel. "First she studied and made a career then began to climb the professional ladder. She became too educated and sophisticated to take just anyone, and she didn't want to marry a non-Jew. So she had a child."

Apart from that last sentence, Nudel could have been speaking of herself. But she had made a promise to her parents, traditional Jews, that she would never marry out.

She never had a child either. But according to Barbara Portner, a friend of Nudel's, she has saved 4,000 children from the streets with the creation of Mother to Mother.

Nudel maintains that the Shamir government knew non-Jewish Russians were immigrating by the thousands and encouraged it.

"This country was a paradise compared to Russia then," she says. "Who could blame them for wanting to get away from the total breakdown of society? For $4,000 anyone could buy an Israeli passport in Ukraine through the mafia and fly here direct, with all the documents showing Israeli citizenship."

The desperate poverty and unhappiness of many of the new immigrants, as evidenced in articles in the Russian-language press in Israel, bothered Nudel, as did the growing anti-Semitism of those who had settled here.

"I decided to do something about the children; either we would lose them to crime and drugs or we would create enemies inside, raising Jew-hating Israeli citizens," Nudel says.

She decided to concentrate her efforts in the most depressed areas in the Negev and opened learning centers in Ofakim, Sderot, Netivot, Beersheva and Ashkelon.

She begged the municipalities to provide unused bomb shelters, using them to establish afternoon activities for children of all ages.

"It's difficult to say how many children need our services, as there are no statistics," says Nudel, "but all we know is we try to get them during that first month of their new life in Israel, as this is crucial for their survival. We go looking for them. Our workers go from door to door, knocking and asking."

She employs coordinators in each town who go round to the families and check that the hard-luck stories are true.

"There are so many emergencies in this community, you can't predict what is going to happen," says Nudel.

The teachers are all Russian, many living on welfare, and the extra work is invaluable for them. In the classrooms, a huge variety of activity goes on, from language and computer classes to crafts and sports. The main thing is to keep the children doing something constructive.

Who is paying for all this?

"Until last year I was the only fund-raiser," says Nudel. "This year, I began to work with a private American fund-raising company. We got $40,000 from an endowment fund last year, and we hope there will be more from that source."

The Israeli government was approached, but nothing came of it.

However, a group of Danish Pentecostal Christians, who supported Nudel when she was a refusenik, has formed a group specifically to collect money for Mother to Mother.

The Danes are responsible for 30 percent of the annual budget. The other 70 percent comes from the Israel Endowment Fund, created in New York in 1922 as the Palestine Endowment Fund. Norwegian Christians are also becoming involved, with the founding of a new organization called "Help the Jews Home."