Feature Stories

Coming of Age: Hesed Helps Three Generations in Ukraine

Boris learns to play the recorder at Beitenu social service center in Zhitomir, Ukraine.
Boris learns to play the recorder at Beitenu social service center in Zhitomir, Ukraine.

Boris D. has not yet reached his bar mitzvah, but he has faced hardship that belies his age.

He and his mom Inna live in Zhitomir, Ukraine, in a 12 sq meter room in an overcrowded, rundown high-rise tenement building where they share their utilities with eight other families. Inna supports them on her nurse’s salary (only $160/month) from the city children’s hospital, where she often works extra long hours to bring home a little more money. When food prices soar and inflation doesn’t allow her to stretch her salary any further, Inna turns to JDC’s local Hesed social welfare center to get Boris clothing, shoes, and medications. He is one of more than 30,000 children who receive this and other critical support through the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews(IFCJ)-JDC Partnership for Children in the Former Soviet Union.

Boris has been coming to the Hesed since he was a baby when his mother joined the center’s family club. His mom later enrolled him in the JDC-supported Beitenu program which, in addition to supplementing his food, medical, and clothing, helped care for his and his mom’s emotional needs as they struggled to make a life for themselves on minimal income. Boris attended after-school activities where he received professional counseling and help with his studies, and participated in Jewish educational activities. Though he doesn’t connect to any of his neighbors or family members, Boris breaks out of his shell at Beitenu. “I love my computer class. I find refuge there,” he says.

Growing up in the reviving Jewish community in Zhitomir, Boris feels he has a bigger family to care for him. This feeling is reinforced by his grandmother, Beshiva, who has taught him that he is part of the Jewish people.

Beshiva is the family matriarch and attends the elderly day care center program at the same Hesed. Struggling to survive on a meager pension of barely $100 per month, Beshiva turns to the Hesed to avoid having to make the tough choice between buying food and medicine. Not only can she get medication and special winter relief here, she also regularly receives a JDC food card that she can use to purchase groceries at her local supermarket.

Beshiva teaches Boris about Jewish traditions and the importance of doing mitzvot (good deeds) and performing acts of Hesed (acts of loving kindness), which are all reinforced by his experiences at the Jewish community hub where he has found a second home. There Boris has even begun to perform in Jewish plays and show signs of leadership and becoming a young man.

“Thanks to Hesed, we know we will survive!” says Boris's mom. She is hopeful that despite the family's ongoing challenges, her son has the support and guidance to truly become a bar mitzvah.

Tags for this story: Baby Help, Children, Elderly, Families

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