Trip to Georgia exemplifies JDC, Federation support
By Jonathan Rubenstein
Lidiya is 81 years old. Since the 1940s, she has lived in the same third-floor walk-up apartment in Tbilisi, Georgia. The apartment is very small. It is sparsely decorated. The living room serves as a kitchen as well as a bedroom. Lidiya’s health is declining; her impaired vision and high blood pressure worsen each day. Her husband, Nikolai, almost died twice in the last two years. They live off the paltry Georgian government pension — which has varied between $3 and $70 per month.
To many, it may seem as though Lidiya and Nikolai have next to nothing. Recently, I learned otherwise.
Along with 120 friends and colleagues from the Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, I had the pleasure of serving as co-chair of the 2019 Cabinet trip to Tbilisi, Georgia and St. Petersburg, Russia. Each year, Cabinet takes a trip abroad, so we can see firsthand the impact of our donations to Federation through the programs of its overseas partners.
The opportunity to witness present-day Jewish life in Russia and Georgia, and contrast it to what we know about Jewish life and communities during the Soviet era, was eye-opening. For decades, across the former Soviet Union, a dark cloud hung over Jewish communities — either forcing them into hiding or to flee elsewhere. What our robust group of young leaders found in 2019 were large, growing and vibrant Jewish communities in both Georgia and Russia. At every Jewish community center, school and organization we visited, we witnessed members of the community showing their pride in being Jewish. The sun now shines brightly on these communities.
Our Cabinet members also had the opportunity of a lifetime during this trip: We were fortunate to have legendary activist and former Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, and his wife, Avital, join us for the St. Petersburg leg of the trip. They joined our group for many activities, spoke about global Jewry, and shared harrowing stories from the time of Natan’s unjust and lengthy imprisonment in a series of Soviet prisons. For many, this was not just the highlight of the trip, but several people shared that it was the highlight of their lives.
Back in Tbilisi, standing on a street corner in a residential neighborhood, we had arrived at Lidiya’s apartment building. Seven of us, including an interpreter, walked up three flights of stairs to Lidiya’s apartment, and she generously invited our small group into her home to learn more about her.
Judaism has always played a big role in Lidiya’s life. Indeed, it was a big deal to her father, who always insisted on having matzo around the house as a constant reminder of from where they came.
Lidiya described not only some of the challenges she and her husband endured in the past while being Jewish in the former Soviet Union, but also the things for which they are now grateful. In the Soviet era, Jews were marginalized, and organized religion was banned. But Lidiya said that the Jews in Georgia were known for being hard workers. This led to them being frequently overworked and not compensated proportionally for their efforts. For most Georgian Jews, earning enough money to just pay the bills was hard, and sometimes impossible.
Lidiya is well educated, having earned an engineering degree from a university in Moscow. But when she and Nikolai were no longer of a “working age,” according to the Georgian government, they were unemployable and forced to live off the Georgian government pension. When Lidiya first went on the government pension, she received $3 per month — nowhere near enough to pay the bills.
When speaking with Lidiya about how she is able to get by each day, the conversation quickly turned to Hesed. Hesed is the name of an organization in Tbilisi that is run by the JDC, one of the longtime overseas partners of the Jewish Federations of North America. Hesed provides much-needed support — in every sense of that word — to the local Jewish community.
The JDC and Hesed mean everything to Lidiya. Hesed saved her life, literally and spiritually. Hesed provides Lidiya and Nikolai with food and medicine and pays for all of their medical expenses, including two emergency, life-saving events recently for Nikolai (heart surgery and treatment for a brain bleed). Hesed visits Lidiya and Nikolai, not just to make sure their apartment is stocked, but to speak with them — as human beings — to make sure they are doing all right. Hesed also runs a community center, where Lidiya and Nikolai go weekly to socialize with their friends, constantly staying connected to the Jewish community. Lidiya said that, without Hesed, at a very minimum, Nikolai “would have been in the ground” years ago.
One of the beautiful things about human emotion is that it matters not what language is being spoken, or even if you understand it. I can list for you all of the great things that Hesed does for Lidiya and Nikolai, but what really captured the impact was the passion in her voice and emotion on her face when she described all of those things. I didn’t need the interpreter. I learned the most important things by just watching and listening.
Courtesy of this organization that the Jewish Federation helps to fund, those who really get to know Lidiya and Nikolai understand it is not true they have next to nothing. In reality, they have everything. They have a roof over their heads. They have food in the refrigerator and medicine in the cabinets. They have community support. They have each other. They have life.
After leaving Lidiya’s and Nikolai’s apartment, the JDC’s volunteer interpreter turned to me and said, “What you do saves lives.” The reason National Young Leadership Cabinet does the work it does cannot be described more succinctly than that.
Jonathan Rubenstein is a Dallas attorney and member of the Jewish Federations of North America National Young Leadership. He participated in the NYLC trip to the former Soviet Union recently.