In Kaliningrad, Jewish Community Comes Together During Pandemic

When the pandemic began, the Jewish community of Kaliningrad answered the call, caring for its most vulnerable. Learn more in this post from the Russian city's Hesed director.

By Svetlana Elokhina - Hesed Director; Kaliningrad, Russia | October 15, 2020

Members of the Jewish community of Kaliningrad gather together for a cooking class in the Russian city before the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve witnessed an incredible bond between people all over the world. It’s happening on both the personal and the global levels — volunteer movements coming together to help strangers, and neighbors helping each other, too.

Jewish history is full of challenging times that called for help, compassion, and unity in the face of a common threat. The Jewish answer to the question “Is it my place to help?” is forever the same: It’s always the right time to do good deeds.

Here in our Kaliningrad community, the most incredible thing happened during the lockdown — so many of our community members answered the call. There were times when it felt like all of our former youth club members had grown up and gotten married with some of them even moving to other countries. They helped out sometimes, of course, but you know how busy families with small children can be. We didn’t begrudge them their obligations in the slightest, but we missed them.

Svetlana Elokhina

As soon as the pandemic restrictions hit, all of our community members, who suddenly had unexpected free time, rushed to help us. Though many have since returned to work, the most important thing is that we now know if our city’s elderly Jews ever needed help, we could call these people and they would come. We cherish that immensely.

Our Hesed social welfare center — which provides aid and community to our community’s elderly Jews — didn’t stop its work for a day, despite four months of restrictions in Kaliningrad. Founded by JDC in 2005, the Hesed cares for hundreds of clients, 180 of whom receive homecare with the help of 80 homecare workers. We also provide financial support, in the form of food cards, to assist clients whose small pensions make it difficult for them to afford even the basic essentials.

Beyond just caring for our clients’ basic needs, our team innovated to enrich the lives of our clients during the crisis by finding new ways to fundraise. Thanks to financial assistance from our Jewish community’s Board of Trustees, along with other partners, we were able to support 30 at-risk families, purchase rehabilitation equipment for the elderly, and assist the “new poor” struggling to make ends meet after one or both parents lost their jobs due to the pandemic. I was so proud we were able to help on a new and expanded level, not merely continue existing services.

Our city has a special Jewish community, and I hope you’re able to visit when travel restrictions relax. We’re one of the youngest Jewish communities in Russia, and since we’re over 1,200 kilometers and several borders away from our country’s capital, we’re actually closer to Berlin than Moscow! We’ve long enjoyed a dear friendship with our neighboring Polish and Lithuanian Jewish communities.

There are about 3,000 members of our community, and we love to celebrate Jewish holidays together. At our center, we’re particularly proud of our memory preservation program, which helps to combat dementia, and our Hesed Club, where clients have access to a variety of educational and just plain fun activities. The club helps our clients overcome loneliness, giving them the opportunity to express themselves creatively, celebrate birthdays, and discuss their favorite books and films. We also have special art, book, and travel clubs, along with a dance ensemble, “Sheva” — always a popular guest at Jewish holiday celebrations.

During the pandemic, everything changed, but we were able to support our clients and homecare workers, ensuring their health and safety. We are grateful for the partners who helped us in our efforts.

Beyond just caring for our clients’ basic needs, our team innovated.

There were times when it was difficult to make sure all of our clients had everything they needed, but our Hesed Club program coordinator took matters into her own hands, single-handedly calling our clients and collecting the information. She would ask if everything was OK, and if it wasn’t, what kind of help was needed. Through her hard work, we were able to meet all of our clients’ needs.

Every client has their own story. With some, it’s a quick conversation, and with others, a long talk that lasts 40 minutes or more. Sometimes the calls feel like therapy sessions, but thanks to this initiative, each client knows there is a “9-1-1” number they can call, where help will always be provided to anyone who needs it.

The pandemic has been challenging for us, but we’ve risen to the occasion — in partnership with our wonderful staff and our newly revitalized community. After all, we’re all working for the same thing: to improve the quality of life for our city’s elderly Jews. That’s our main goal, and we’ll only meet it together.

Svetlana Elokhina is the director of the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Kaliningrad, Russia.

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