Ten local Jews traveled from Siberia to Shanghai recently on a mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. They discovered the interconnectedness of Jews in every corner of the globe through their tours, site visits and conversations with recipients of Federation-funded programs and services. The experiences of mission participants affirmed the veracity of Federation's tagline -- One People, One Community, One Federation.
Mission Chair Betsy Sheerr described the 165,000 older adults in the former Soviet Union who are served by Federation in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), as "the poorest of poor in the world." She observed that "older adults exist without a safety net. Many are shut-ins, dependent solely on the twice-weekly homecare visits for shopping, cleaning and conversation."
Recent budget cuts have forced both Federation and JDC to rethink their food distribution system in this region, Sheerr said. "In the name of efficiency, recipients get supermarket debit cards rather than hand-delivered food packages."
The group learned about the impact of this change when they visited with Gitya, a sight-impaired, retired teacher. "She expressed gratitude for our help and wistfulness about the reduction in personal visits," Sheerr said.
Jeri Zimmerman, director of Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, said that Federation currently allocates $360,000 annually to the JDC Hesed Welfare Centers in Siberia and the Russian Far East -- the only welfare-service system assisting the more than 5,000 men and women in their 70s and 80s who live in this region. Zimmerman said that Federation is committed to caring for these older adults because "we represent their last hope to live out their lives in comfort and with dignity."
For Donald Berg, the delegation's visit to the community of Harbin, China, represented something of a family reunion. His great-grandfather was one of the estimated 20,000 Russian Jews encouraged by the government to settle there in the late 1900s during the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. "He came over in the 1890s and remained until the 1930s," Berg said, noting that his own father lived in this community -- located eight time zones away from Moscow -- for a decade as a child.
Jewish residents in this region, considered part of the Russian Far East, enjoyed full religious and economic freedoms. "The czar allowed Jews to build a synagogue, Jewish school and hospital and other facilities which enabled the community to fully celebrate their faith," he said. Although today, many of these buildings have been renovated and/or renamed, their original ownership and intent are historically preserved through plaques.
The group toured a former synagogue that was restored in 2004 and is now home to the Jewish Museum of History and Culture. "As part of the main exhibit, I found pictures of my great-grandfather and his family," Berg said, adding that he also felt connections with his family when they visited the Hotel Modern, which was constructed in the 1920s. "This hotel was the setting for many Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and other Jewish life-cycle events of that era -- events that my great-grandfather, grandfather and father would have likely attended," Berg said.
Like Berg, Batame "Tammy" Hertzbach felt a familial connection to the Russian Far East region that the delegation toured, particularly the community of Birobidzhan, the site of an annual international festival of Jewish culture and the arts.
Hertzbach explained that although her family had no physical ties to either China or Russia, "we felt connected to the region through our lively dinner table discussions about religion, politics and Jewish culture." Hertzbach vividly remembered one discussion about Birobidzhan as the Jewish Autonomous Region, which was created in 1934 by former Soviet Premier Josef Stalin as an experimental alternative to Israel as the Jewish homeland.
A Yiddish teacher, Hertzbach knew that Yiddish was the official language of the region when it was created. "I wanted to know if, 77 years later, anyone remembered the community's rich Jewish history or still spoke its mamaloshen, mother tongue," she said.
Hertzbach said that she was thrilled to learn -- while on route to the sold-out international Jewish festival that attracted artists and artistic groups from Israel, Germany, the United States, Austria, Russia and the Ukraine -- that the answer to both of her questions was "yes." She engaged one older Birobidzhan resident in a Yiddish conversation and discovered that Jews of all ages were interested in learning about and connecting with their Jewish roots.
This discovery was reinforced by one festival performance. They saw a group of school children singing "Am Yisrael Chai," the nation of Israel lives, and she said she "was filled with a sense of hope and optimism for the future of our Jewish community in this corner of the globe."