Tamara Boronina, an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Ukraine, can barely afford her small Odessa apartment on her monthly pension of $65.
She is a widow whose only daughter died in 1999. Unable to visit the local Jewish community center that has been her social lifeline, Boronina now eagerly awaits the weekly visit by her caseworker from the JDC, the humanitarian group formerly known as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“The worst loss this virus and quarantine has brought for me is isolation,” Boronina said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I am a very sociable person and communication is even more important for me than material assistance.”
The former Soviet Union (FSU) has about half a million Jews, most of them living in Russia and Ukraine. Many thousands of them are elderly and have decided to pass up the opportunity to immigrate to Israel or the United States because they feel too old to adjust to a new country.
The JDC, a 106-year-old Jewish international aid agency, was born in 1914 to assist exactly those types of Jews who found themselves mired in difficult circumstances at the start of World War I. It helped Jews flee Nazi Germany beginning in 1933. Altogether, some 80,000 German Jews escaped Europe with the help of the JDC, whose current work with victims of Nazi persecution is funded in part by the Claims Conference, a body that represents world Jewry in Holocaust restitution negotiations.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the JDC was only reliable source of aid for many who were plunged into extreme poverty. It also has helped thousands of non-Jews survive in the wake of natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
So the agency has plenty of experience with providing food and medicine in war zones, earthquakes and the like. The trickier part, JDC officials said, has been relieving the loneliness and isolation that the coronavirus crisis has brought to elderly Jews in that part of the world.
Before COVID-19, the JDC had offered them things such as yoga, gymnastics, pottery, language and painting classes, and the benefit of socialization, through a network of dozens of Jewish community centers and day centers.
Now, “they’re confined to four walls, some in dilapidated homes. For some, the will to live is slipping away,” said Michal Frank, JDC executive director in the FSU.
In response, the organization has set up COVID-19 hotlines manned by trained volunteers in six call centers, including ones in the Ukrainians cities of Odessa and Dnipro, as well as in Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova. Working off a list of elderly clients who get regular aid from JDC, volunteers and staff chat for about half an hour with each person they call and make sure they have what they need.
Across the FSU, additional Jewish communities and groups also launched emergency services to help vulnerable populations through the pandemic. Organizations affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which constitutes a major force for post-Soviet Jewry, have been churning out thousands of meals and providing protective gear to at-risk elderly Jews in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
One Chabad project for young volunteers, EnerJew, addresses the isolation issue with EnerJew activists delivering more than 2,500 packages to needy Jews, along with doorway chats and follow-up telephone calls, according to the project’s director, Konstantin Shulman.
Russia and Ukraine have about 500,000 Jews, but fewer than 100 of them have died from the virus. So far, JDC has recorded 17 coronavirus-related deaths among its elderly subjects in the FSU. One JDC employee has died from the disease, and several other JDC staff have been infected but survived, a JDC spokesperson said.
JDC’s Jewish community centers and day centers are closed to the public, but many of them still feature activities, conducted under social distancing limitations, that are broadcast live on the internet. (It’s not clear at this point how many people over 70 and 80 are able to enjoy these broadcasts, Frank said.).
Eighty-year-old Nadya Gassilina of Odessa, said “the quarantine changed our life dramatically. Our day center was a window to the outside world for me.”
In Gomel, Belarus, a JDC volunteer center began a series of Facebook posts for the elderly with manuals on how to get online services, like home-delivered grocery shopping. A Zoom instructional video showed elderly viewers how to order online medications to be delivered to a nearby pharmacy in Gomel. From there, JDC volunteers picked up the order and delivered it to the older adult’s address while maintaining social distancing.
The workarounds generally help, according to Svetlana Ignatyeva, a 74-year-old from Odessa. But they’re no substitute for being a part of the “bigger family” she found at her local day center.
“How can just a taste be enough when you are used to a big meal?” she asked.