Read what Hesed and Compassion Mean to a Frail Elderly Woman in Russia

The holiday of Shavuot that begins this evening has many elements, including all-night Jewish learning (an experience that JDC helps facilitate in various parts of the Jewish world) and, of course, reading the Megilah or Book of Ruth. That account of charitable deeds, of reaching out with loving kindness and compassionate devotion to the elderly must surely have served as a paradigm when JDC helped to devise the Hesed welfare network, which today serves nearly 150,000 Jewish elderly throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU).

So, it is altogether appropriate that this Shavuot, we take a moment to learn what Hesed means to one bedridden elderly Jewish woman in St. Petersburg, as seen through the eyes of Karen Vardimon, a Senior Associate in JDC’s International Relations department. Karen visited Russia last month with the JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet Mission; back in Jerusalem, she related this special moment from her trip to JDC-FSU field staff member Flo Low:
 
Mira Berim spent her life bringing life into this world. A surgeon by training, she worked in an obstetrical ward outside St. Petersburg. Today, she is bedridden, has blurred vision from diabetes, poor hearing, and a variety of heart problems. She never married and is utterly dependent upon her Hesed home care worker, who is with her for 25 hours each week. This is the only human contact Mira has.
 
It was hard for me to comprehend the poverty we encountered when we entered Mira's home--the rest of St. Petersburg is so majestic, with grandiose buildings, wide boulevards, and cultural landmarks. But there it was, from the moment we approached Mira's building – damp, musty, moldy walls, and the stuffy air of an apartment whose occupant has not been able to leave in five years. I could hardly breathe after five minutes, but Mira has to live with this every single day.

We were told that Mira wasn't feeling well, so we were prepared for a short visit, but from the moment we entered, the words began to flow. She told us how her father survived imprisonment in Leningrad and about her difficult medical studies. Sent to work in a distant village, she was forced to find lodging at a local church in order to maintain her job. Then she was accused of engaging in forbidden religious activities. Mira refuted the accusations by telling the authorities that she was Jewish. It was the last time she mentioned her Jewish roots until after the fall of Communism.
 
Meeting Mira was particularly moving because our group included two members of the JFNA Young Leadership Cabinet who are themselves doctors--a pediatrician and a gynecologist. They huddled with Mira on her bed to hear what could easily have been the story of their lives, had their family circumstances been only slightly different.

However, Seth and Elyse know that 30 or 40 years from now, they most probably will not be alone; they will undoubtedly have someone to care for them and they will definitely have pensions and health care systems to accompany them into their old age. Now, thanks to JDC and Hesed, so does Mira.

One final note to round out this Shavuot learning experience:  Hesed’s unique form of caring for frail and isolated elderly has been recognized by the Russian Academy of Languages, which adopted the word “hesed” as a Russian word meaning: “the provision of social services with special compassion.” That is something in which we can all take great pride.

Chag Sameach!

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