For Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month, we wanted to bring you the story of a disabled elderly client of the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Riga, Latvia. This is Nahum Gelfand’s story, in his own words.
I live in Riga, Latvia, in the Purvciems neighborhood on the eastern bank of the River Daugava. I’ve been disabled for decades, and I am 71 years old.
More than 40 years ago, I had an accident, and I’ve been in a wheelchair ever since. I thank my parents for the fact that I’m still living. It’s been about five years since my mom’s been gone, and my dad died five years before that. Transitioning to their absence was very difficult — waking up in the morning and realizing there’s no one there.
Thanks to my parents’ belief in me, I worked for 20 years at our city’s Disabled Persons’ Association. We did so many things — computer courses, skills training to help people find jobs, and more — and I feel confident in saying I really earned my retirement.
All of us are products of the Soviet regime. Back then, it was shameful to be disabled. We practically weren’t considered to be people, and it was like we didn’t even exist. With that in mind, one of the first things our association did was to just ride around city streets and show people that we are here — right here in Riga, Latvia, you might find a bunch of wheelchair-users rolling out onto the street. Visibility is so important.
Aside from my parents, the other blessing of my life is that I’m Jewish. I believe that being Jewish isn’t just a nationality — it’s a job, with certain privileges and responsibilities. One of those tasks is to understand yourself. Before you can help others, you must figure out your own issues. Decades after I reconnected to my Judaism, that’s still the most important thing for me: How can you love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself?
Through the years, I’ve always had faith that whatever happens happens to help, not hurt me.
My parents were JDC clients, too, so I’ve been familiar with the organization for a long time. I only started receiving aid myself, though, after they passed away. JDC helps me with homecare and other medical needs, and this assistance is crucial to me. Life would be very difficult and lonely without their help, especially during the pandemic. I’m in a high-risk category, and I feel myself getting weaker by the year. Without the physical therapy JDC makes possible, I worry that more of my body could become paralyzed.
Despite all the challenges in my life, I know G-d wants the best for me. Through the years, I’ve always had faith that whatever happens happens to help, not hurt me.
After my accident, it took time for something to change in me and for something new to be born. I know myself, and I know I can be a difficult person … a closed-up person. When I first started using the wheelchair, I was afraid of people, and it was hard for me to interact with anyone. Whenever someone new would come over, I’d start sweating all over. I’d stutter. But eventually, I joined a disabled sports league and then my job at the association. I’ve come to realize that if you want to help yourself, you have to help others.
That’s when everything changed in my life. Though I’d never done anything of the sort before, I started to write songs. I swear the lyrics didn’t come from me — they came from the heavens, flowing like tears. What I’m trying to say is that we were all born into this world with great talents that G-d has given us. We all have that power within us, even if it’s sleeping. If you’re looking for G-d’s help, you’ll find it.
I’m glad JDC has come into my life. They are genuine people. May G-d bless them on their path and help them in their work.
Nahum Gelfand, 71, is a client of the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Riga, Latvia. He receives homecare and other medical services.