Tamara Gotlib: With Nowhere to Turn, JDC Helped Me Live a Jewish Life
When Tamara Gotlib, 72, started having health problems, JDC provided immediate lifesaving support.
By Tamara Gotlib - JDC Client | January 6, 2022
Tamara Gotlib once dreamed of volunteering for her local JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center. But overnight, she found she was the one who needed help. In this reflection, Gotlib describes how JDC reconnected her to Jewish life and provided lifesaving assistance when her health declined.
Like others my age, I grew up poor, in the shadow of war. My dad fixed trucks and my mom was a cashier — she worked all day and rarely had time off. So it was mainly just my father and me.
My father taught me much of what I know about the world. On Fridays, he’d come home from work, a book tucked under his arm. He’d read by himself and then retell me the story at bedtime. I think he needed to retell these stories; they were mostly about the war.
Our conversations always fascinated me. My father had so many stories. When I was little, he would sit me on a stool and tell me lots of things — how he escaped from the ghetto, how he survived, how he fought in the war.
I feel like I grew up very fast. My family didn’t have the money to send me to university, so I started working right after graduation, when I was seventeen.
For a long time, I worked at a computer factory, and I learned how to operate the machines. They didn’t resemble anything we’d now call a computer. They were much larger and more complicated. But strangely, I found them easier to use than the smartphones people now carry around (I myself still use a landline).
Later, I earned a degree in finance and worked as an accountant for the very same factory. There were no other Jews there, and I hid my identity. During Soviet times, you just didn’t talk about it. And for all my father’s stories, I wasn’t raised with a strong connection to Jewish life.
All of that changed when I got involved with the JDC-supported Hesed (Rachamim) here in Minsk. I heard about Hesed through my aunt, who was a client. I started going there all the time and I was always excited to attend their many lectures, film screenings, and Shabbat services.
Hesed was my door to the Jewish world. I celebrated all the Jewish holidays there, and every week, I’d join their Shabbat services, lighting candles and singing. At Hesed, I knew I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by other Jews, like an extended family. After staying silent for so many years about my Jewish identity, I embraced my new Jewish life.
I wanted to give back, so I decided to become a Hesed volunteer. I attended the training and dreamed of helping an elderly lady. I wanted to visit her, cook for her, and go on walks with her. I thought it would be fun for me, too, because I didn’t have any family — no husband or children. She’d be like a new friend, and I would help make her life more liveable.
But that never happened.
When I turned 55, I started fainting at work. My doctor thought I had epilepsy, but it turned out I didn’t. Thankfully, the fainting stopped, but then I lost the ability to walk, and I started losing memories, too. I had to use crutches and then, when that was too difficult, a wheelchair. Eventually, I began to go blind, so I could hardly read or see anyone I was talking to.
Without mobility or vision, I felt completely alone.
During this time, I was forced to retire, but my pension wasn’t enough to support me. I had worked my whole life, but after medicine and rent, I couldn’t afford food.
Overnight, I was the one who needed help. I went from wanting to volunteer to needing a volunteer. And the only reason I’m alive today is because of JDC — if JDC didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist. They sent me a homecare worker, and suddenly I knew I would be OK.
These days, I don’t want to think about where I’d be without her.
My JDC homecare worker is everything to me. First thing in the morning, she steps through the front door, makes breakfast, cleans, and spends time with me. She does everything I can’t, like going to the store. My apartment is always sparkling clean — that’s all because of her.
And thanks to JDC, I got a new wheelchair when my last one broke. If I had to pay for that myself, I wouldn’t be able to eat. I would have had to choose between food and mobility.
Of course, the pandemic has made me lonelier and more isolated. I haven’t been outside for nearly two years because my apartment isn’t wheelchair-accessible. I can’t even enjoy my balcony – the wheelchair doesn’t fit through the door. And due to pandemic restrictions, I haven’t gone to Hesed. I miss Shabbat services and the Jewish community I cherish.
JDC hasn’t just helped me to live — they’ve helped me live a Jewish life.
Still, JDC hasn’t abandoned me. I attend twice-weekly lectures over the phone. They’re always interesting, and the instructor is so knowledgeable. I love our discussions, and feel I’m right there, sitting with other people, learning about the world beyond my small apartment. I often sit next to the phone, waiting for them to call and say, “We’re about to start the lecture.”
Life is more fun when you have someone to talk to. That’s why my homecare worker is so essential — she connects me to the larger world.
That’s also why, each day, I wait for the door to open. I wait for my JDC homecare worker to step through the door and bring me food, warmth, and friendship.
JDC hasn’t just helped me to live — they’ve helped me live a Jewish life. Thanks to them, I am proud to be Jewish. I no longer hide it, and I know my father would be proud.
I’m so grateful for JDC’s support, grateful that they bring me warmth in winter and hope for a better spring.
Tamara Gotlib, 72, is a JDC client in Minsk, Belarus, receiving food and homecare.