Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

Aid is coordinated with local heseds. If a local hesed is providing food, then AAB/AAZ will supply clothing, shoes, or other non-food assistance. However, AAB/AAZ is the only provider of services in some towns inaccessible to the hesed system. Further, recent JDC service cutbacks have increased the AAB/AAZ caseload. AAB/AAZ operating costs are much lower than those of the JDC heseds, said Mrs. Sidelkovskya, because its overhead costs are minimal.

Each of the 22 cities or large towns served by AAB/AAZ has a local coordinator, who works as a volunteer without any compensation, except for small gifts at holidays. Each coordinator is provided with a two-month budget of $50 to $200, depending on the number of clients in the city/town and surrounding area. An additional $8 is provided for transportation costs. Each coordinator develops his/her own aid portfolio according to AAB/AAZ guidelines. Food is the first priority; if a client’s nutrition is deemed satisfactory, the coordinator may offer medicine, clothing, shoes, or other items. If the coordinator recognizes a specific need, he/she tries to fill that need. Most coordinators visit most clients at least once each month.

Mrs. Sidelkovskaya said that the program tries to find coordinators who are active in local Jewish life, know other Jews, and want to help other people. Mr. and Mrs. Sidelkovsky check the background of each coordinator applicant for honesty and other evidence of good character because the coordinators have access to AAB/AAZ funds and work with vulnerable clients. Although the position of coordinator carries no regular compensation, many individuals want to do this wok in their spare time, said Mrs. Sidelkovskaya. AAB/AAZ currently is seeking candidates for four vacant coordinator positions; of the four people who previously held these posts, one emigrated to Israel, one emigrated to Germany, and two were students who graduated and now are in work situations that do not permit continuation of their AAB/AAZ responsibilities.

9. The Beit Baruch Assisted Living Facility for elderly Jews opened in early 2002, the first dedicated housing for older Jews in all of the post-Soviet states. The primary sponsors of building construction were the Philanthropic Fund of the Jewish Community of Dnipropetrovsk and Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network, the latter a New York-based organization with strong ties to Chabad.

Although the assisted living center is designed to accommodate 95 individuals, the current census is only 48 individuals.31 About ten more people are expected to become residents by the end of the summer. The deliberate intake process reflects both the need for staff to learn on the job how to operate such a facility and severe financial problems. Expected major financial participation from two additional donors has not materialized, leaving the facility with a significant debt. Additionally, a new independent heating system was installed after construction when it was recognized that the original heating system, which was dependent on municipal heating resources, was not dependable. The new system was installed in late 2002 at a cost of $80,000.32 Beit Baruch currently is carrying a debt of $480,000 with monthly interest of $5,000 to $6,000.

Slavik Brez, Executive Director of the Jewish community Philanthropic Fund, said that the community is actively seeking new donors for Beit Baruch. Admission of 47 new residents, to bring the census to capacity, will cost the community $160,000 to $170,000 more annually, a burden that the community cannot now absorb. The Fund expects to begin receiving an annual subsidy for Beit Baruch from Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston in the near future; this subsidy will cover only a small portion of annual operating costs, but any assistance is welcome. Additionally, Beit Baruch may begin to ask its residents to pay rent, beginning in 2004, something it has been reluctant to do. Pensions of residents are so meager that the amount collected will be very small, but the facility needs additional income and residents are so pleased with the conditions in which they live that many probably will be willing to assume some responsibility for the various services that they utilize.33

Beit Baruch currently has about 30 employees. Few in professional positions have had any dedicated training as such training is not available in Ukraine or in other post-Soviet states. Several senior staff members were scheduled to go to Boston in June for an intensive one-week training program in facilities for Jewish elderly maintained by the Boston Jewish community.

Beit Baruch offers a schedule of activities for its residents, including arts and crafts, a choir, lectures, and visits by school groups. A small computer laboratory is to be installed in July. Additional outdoor furniture has been purchased so that residents may enjoy warm summer weather outside. Excursions to theaters and to other places of interest are limited by a lack of vehicles. Residents expressed their desire for several large vans. A fitness room in the basement also awaits a donor who would purchase appropriate equipment.

Yan Sidelkovsky, whose academic background is in music, started a choir for Jewish elderly in the mid-1990’s, before the opening of Beit Baruch. When Beit Baruch opened the choir moved there, as did some of the choir members. According to Mr. Sidelkovsky, among the 25 to 30 regular participants are 15 people with strong voices who provide the “wings” that carry the others. The purpose of the choir, continued Mr. Sidelkovsky, is therapeutic, rather than performance-based, so he is not concerned about the skill level of weaker singers. The choir does perform at some community events. Mr. Sidelkovsky said that some choir participants, as well as Adopt-A-Bubbe/Adopt-A-Zayde clients, know old folk tunes and Jewish songs; he would like to record their voices before they die. He needs a mixer and synthesizer to start this project, he said.34

Six members of the Beit Baruch choir are seen in practice in the photo above.

Residents with skills beneficial to the Beit Baruch community employ those skills on behalf of their fellow residents. Several workshops in the building provide workspace and equipment for seamstresses and tailors, cobblers, an optician, and other skilled crafts people. The woman at right, who shares a workshop with a resident tailor, is sewing pillow cases for many residents.



As has been the case in previous visits to Beit Baruch by the writer, residents were effusive in expressing their satisfaction with life at the facility. They like the staff, activities, food, general care, and companionship. All had lived alone; many have no living relatives, and some had no regular contact with other human beings. Many lived in unpleasant physical circumstances, some in cottages without indoor plumbing or dependable heating. Many were impoverished, lacking resources even for basic items of clothing or over-the-counter medicines.

The majority of residents are from Dnipropetrovsk itself and the surrounding area. Two are from Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine; they had been living in a state facility there when a local rabbi found them and arranged their transfer to Beit Baruch, where conditions are much better. The writer met one of the Kherson veterans, who assured her that “everything” in Beit Baruch is better than in the Kherson residence.

Semyon Petrovich Konushkever came to Beit Baruch from Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. Mr. Konushkever told the writer about his life. He was born in Zhytomyr in August 1913 into a poor family. With only seven years of formal education, he became a metalworker and enrolled in the Komsomol, the Communist youth movement, as an adolescent. The Komsomol sent him to a collective farm (kolkhoz) when he was 16. He managed to leave the kolkhoz after three years and make his way to Kyiv, where he obtained a job in metal fabrication. Misfortune befell him when his wallet, containing all of his documents and money, was stolen. Nonetheless, he gained entrance as a young adult into a secondary school that provided him with an education as a mechanic. Following certification, he obtained a job in a garage as a technician, working on trucks and other heavy vehicles. In 1935, he enlisted in the armed forces where he instructed other mechanics and also joined the airborne troops. In all, he has 13 jumps to his credit, all prior to World War II. He was sent to officers’ school and served as a lieutenant in a transport battalion in Finland during the war. He was afflicted by frostbite in Finland and still suffers its consequences today.

Mr. Konushkever said that his family in Zhytomyr was evacuated to Omsk35 in the early days of World War II and thus escaped the Holocaust. Following the war, Mr. Konushkever joined his family in Omsk and began to work for the MVD (Министерство внутренних дел or Ministry of Internal Affairs) as an automobile inspector. After some time, the Ministry sent him back to Ukraine, to Chernihiv, where he continued to work as an automobile inspector for another 20 years. Mr. Konushkever’s wife died in 1997 and his children have died as well. He has grandchildren in Chernihiv. Following the death of his wife, Mr. Konushkever somehow lost his home. The Chernihiv hesed found him in a factory where he had managed to establish some living space for himself. After some communication with the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community, the Chernihiv hesed arranged for Mr. Konushkever to move to Beit Baruch in early 2003.

Semyon Konushkever posed in the winter garden at Beit Baruch for the writer. Everything at Beit Baruch is wonderful, he told the writer. All of the people at Beit Baruch, both fellow residents and staff, are wonderful.

31. According to facility director Alexandra Kizhner, five residents at the facility have died since its opening. Four died at Beit Baruch and one died in a hospital.
32. Standard construction practice during the Soviet period was to connect heating systems in all buildings to the city heating system. Although a mid-October to mid-April heating season was standard in the Soviet Union, budgetary crises in several of the post-Soviet states have caused officials to delay availability of heating until mid-November and to terminate it in March. In some cities, financial shortfalls have left residents without heat in their homes for weeks on end in mid-winter. Under such circumstances, Beit Baruch found that it was unable to provide adequate heat and hot water to its elderly residents. Most high-quality new construction in the post-Soviet period has independent heating systems so as to avoid such problems. The failure of Beit Baruch planners to install an independent heating system during the initial construction process has not been explained.
33. Another source of potential income for Beit Baruch is proceeds from the sale of private apartments formerly occupied by current Beit Baruch residents. Residents retain ownership of these apartments, most of which were sealed when they entered Beit Baruch; retention of these units permit the option of returning to private living if they find Beit Baruch unsuitable to their needs. However, almost all who have entered Baruch have chosen to remain there. Philanthropic Fund administrators would like to find a sensitive and judicious way of approaching residents to ask if their apartments might be transferred to the Jewish community for resale.
34. See pp. 15-17.
35. Omsk is located beyond the Ural Mountains in western Siberia, a great distance past the furthest advance of German troops.

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