In the last issue of NJJN, Lee Livingston reported on the first leg of his journey to Turkey and Uzbekistan with a mission run by “the Joint” — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — accompanied by Gerrie Bamira, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, and Mark Fuerstein of Highland Park. Here, he tells about meeting families who rely on Jewish community support and visits to a JCC and a Hillel House in Tashkent and a day school in Bukhara.
Everywhere we went in Uzbekistan, we brought gifts — socks, scarves, shirts, sweaters, and food. It was our way of thanking everyone for allowing us to share their lives.
Nowhere were our gifts more welcome than at the home of 92-year-old Sofia Varshavskaya and her 69-year-old developmentally disabled daughter. Living in a fourth-floor walkup made it virtually impossible for her to leave her apartment. Sofia told us she had not been outside for several months.
The local Chesed program provides her with weekly visits, food, home care, laundry service, medicine, and, most importantly, community support. She passed around pictures of her family, including faded photos of her three brothers, husband, and father, all of whom were killed “at the front” fighting the Nazis. Sofia’s two sons recently died.
Mark Fuerstein gave her a gift of food and presented the daughter with a warm winter sweater, coat, and hat. What would happen to the daughter when her mother died? Without the JDC and Chesed there was no answer. With them there would be community support and placement in a safe environment.
There may well be a JCC in the United States like the one we visited in Tashkent. I know there are JCCs operating in infinitely better buildings with larger staffs and significantly more funding. I would be hard pressed to find one with equal spirit and joy.
Dov, of the JDC staff, and I hung out with the little kids. We drew butterflies, cut and pasted and stapled and had the time of our lives. Oh, the faces of the children! In between cutting and pasting I could not stop taking pictures of the faces.
Doo-wop at Hillel
Everyone was so proud of their JCC. The library, begun after the fall of the Soviet Union, boasted works of the best Jewish writers. The computer class was filled. The Mommy and Me program was in full swing. Psychological counseling and family support services are available. There was an exercise room. It was, after all, a JCC.
When I looked at the kids, the teenagers, the parents and grandparents, the staff, I thought about all that the JDC has accomplished in 20 years. From a Jewish community that was virtually nonexistent, where people were afraid to identify as Jews, to this vibrant community. What pride we took in knowing that our campaign played a role in this rebirth.
The Hillel in Tashkent began 13 years ago in a house. Today they have a building. Hundreds of local university students meet in this non-campus-based program to take part in social activities, Jewish cultural celebrations, Israel learning experiences, and, most importantly, training as Jewish professionals.
The young people sang and danced and entertained us. We played games so they could show off their English. Then Mark and I sang doo-wop to kids trying to figure out what these two old Jewish guys from the United States were doing. We left talking about what a bright future the Jewish community had. This in a place where I was told it was once easier to find an old lady needing food than a young Jew willing to identify with the Jewish community.
The next day it was on to Bukhara. Our bus to the airport broke down and we had to hail taxis. Then we boarded another Soviet-era prop airplane: no heat, torn seats, no bathroom facilities.
All ended well as a bus in Bukhara took us to the Jewish Day School funded by the Chehebar Foundation. The school was started by Rabbi Sammy Kassin from Jerusalem. There are 183 children ages six-15 in the school, all attending free of charge. Of course we were treated to another show of singing, dancing, English and Hebrew — and more faces of children.
On a short walk to the JCC of Bukhara, we traveled unpaved streets and tired buildings that reminded us of scenes from Afghanistan. We were greeted at the JCC by singing children with red carnations. Several of us danced with community members. In this city of huge unemployment, substandard living conditions, and lack of medical care, there still exists a feeling of optimism in the Jewish community. Much of it is due to the JDC, which provides medicine and food and caring and spirit.
‘The true heroes’
We visited a few families in the area. The Hashaev family lives in absolute poverty. Skinny chickens roamed the concrete courtyard of their home. The children sleep on the floor and are malnourished. Half the Jewish families in Bukhara, including the Hashaevs, depend on the JDC for food. Our gifts of clothing and toys for the Hashaev and other families’ children were met with gracious smiles.
I have been on many missions to many places. Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Cuba, to name a few. This was my first mission with the JDC, as it was for Gerrie and Mark. To say that this was an unforgettable experience is a disservice.
For years my rabbi — Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick — has sung the praises of the JDC, calling them “the true heroes of the Jewish community.” What Mark, Gerrie, and I witnessed, along with the other five people on our mission, was truly the work of heroes.
Why was I there? In spite of the bone-chilling cold, the primitive transportation, the adequate but uninspired food — there was nowhere else in the world that I would rather have been.
When I arrived home, one of the first e-mails I read was from Sam, a JDC staff member who accompanied us in Uzbekistan. He had just landed in Haiti to spearhead the JDC efforts there following the earthquake.