Caring for the World’s Neediest Elderly Jews

September 27, 2017

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Tsilla Gorshkova wakes up every winter morning before dawn—she’s learned that 6 a.m. is the best time to load her kitchen furnace with firewood so her small wooden cabin stays warm in frigid Siberian temperatures.

A former kindergarten teacher, the 81-year-old is one of two Jewish residents of Socialnaya village, a tiny hamlet in the Russian Far East tucked between Khabarovsk and Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region, an area where Jews in the Soviet Union were told they would be sent to build a “Jewish homeland” that never came to be.

Living on just a few dollars a day, Gorshkova would likely go hungry without the food packages and holiday supplies she receives from JDC and the global Jewish community.

She’s come to count on the flour, canned fish, sugar, and other supplies JDC provides.

“They’re Jewish, and that’s why they help me—because I’m Jewish, too,” she said. “Thank you for helping us, for not forgetting us.”

Thank you for helping us,
for not forgetting us.

Gorshkova is one of more than 100,000 elderly Jews helped by JDC across the former Soviet Union (FSU). Her care is coordinated by the Birobidzhan branch of the Khabarovsk Hesed social welfare center.

Elderly Jews in the FSU are the poorest in the world. Many are Holocaust survivors, and all lived for decades under a Communist regime that discriminated relentlessly against Jews,  consigned them to poverty, and dismantled Jewish institutions.

Albina Sergeeva, the Birobidzhan Hesed branch’s coordinator, manages JDC’s welfare response in the five districts surrounding the city: food cards for the supermarket, heating help during the region’s harsh weather, warm winter clothing and boots, free or discounted medicines and dentures, and much more.

“The help is really multi-faceted, and for these Jews, very important,” she said. “For the neediest Jews, there’s really nowhere else to turn besides JDC.”

Sergeeva said she can’t imagine what life would be like for elderly Jews without the assistance they receive from the global Jewish community.

Gorshkova’s village has just two stores. Both are located far from the main road and their prices are far higher than what her clients in larger cities encounter.

“Those Jews who live in those faraway places, they need a lot of help,” Sergeeva said. “What senior citizens receive in pensions is far from sufficient to meet people’s needs. We help because we can, and for our clients, it’s nice for them to know they haven’t been left alone with their problems in their old age, that they are able to trust they’ll receive attention and care.”

Despite the difficulties of life in Socialnaya, Gorshkova doesn’t like to complain.

After all, this is the only life she’s ever known.

“We live like we’ve always lived. We’re Far Easterners. We’re used to the cold, and anyway, winter was warm this year,” she said with a laugh, despite temperatures dozens of degrees below freezing. “No matter what, you have to keep moving. Movement is life.”

Sergeeva says that when she looks around at the thousands of remote and impoverished Jews like Gorshkova who have been helped, there is much to feel proud of.

“Year after year we are reminded that thanks to the work of JDC, the life of Jews and of the Jewish Autonomous Region has become better, richer, and more substantive.”

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