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Seeing tzedaka at work on a mission to Moscow
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Seeing tzedaka at work on a mission to Moscow

Sheryl Grutman, second row, fourth from left, with members of the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2011 Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission in front of the Kremlin. Photos courtesy Jewish Federations of North America
Sheryl Grutman, second row, fourth from left, with members of the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2011 Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission in front of the Kremlin. Photos courtesy Jewish Federations of North America

Sheryl Grutman summed up her recent mission to Moscow and Israel with a talmudic expression: “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh.”

“All Israel is responsible for one another,” translated Grutman, a Manalapan resident. “This is a key message of federation. We are all responsible for each other — locally and overseas.”

Grutman, president of Women’s Philanthropy with the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, joined more than 100 other leaders on the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2011 Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission, July 10-17.

Selected in March to JFNA’s national Women’s Philanthropy board, Grutman was the only Monmouth County representative with the mission.

The trip marked Grutman’s first visit to the former Soviet Union, and her eighth to Israel. Participants witnessed firsthand how the federations’ philanthropic dollars are used, in conjunction with its overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In Moscow, Grutman and her colleagues visited elderly Jews, many of whom are homebound, bringing them gifts of sunglasses, bedding, clothing, and towels. Among those they met who receives benefits from the Jewish community was Rita, a 78-year-old former teacher now living in a rundown communal apartment and receiving a $320 monthly pension. “Rita is suffering from cataracts and is going blind,” said Grutman, “something that wouldn’t happen if she were living in the United States.”

For many of the homebound elderly, like Rita, the meals and social services they receive from JDC not only provide nourishment, but also their only contact with someone from the outside world, Grutman added.

The mission representatives also visited the Kremlin, the Moscow Choral Synagogue, and a Jewish Agency for Israel center.

“What struck me the most about Russia was how many Jews are openly living Jewish lives,” Grutman told NJJN a few weeks after her return. “This was fantastic to see. Odessa has the biggest JCC in the former Soviet Union. There are also kosher restaurants and a Jewish Agency for Israel summer camp for Jewish youth who have recently discovered their Jewish roots.”

The mission included a three-day visit to Israel, where the group visited an absorption center for immigrants from Ethiopia in Mevaseret Zion in the Jerusalem hills. There they met Knesset Member Shlomo Molla, who described his own harrowing journey from Ethiopia to Israel in the mid-’80s.

They also paid a visit to an enrichment program for children at risk, and ORT Israel, which operates dozens of high schools and colleges in Israel with a focus on science and technology.

“I can’t put into words how I feel about Israel and the support federation provides there,” Grutman said. “The growth and technological advancements I’ve seen since I first visited Israel in 1981 is just amazing. Without our support Israel would not be the country that it is.”

The mission helps serve as a reminder that the Jewish community is still helping maintain and save lives around the world, said Monmouth federation president Joseph Hollander of Holmdel.

“This is our collective responsibility and what tzedaka is all about. Sheryl was our community’s eyes in Moscow, and in Israel — a country born of our collective responsibility,” Hollander said. “The federation campaign continues to be a living metaphor of why social justice, ‘Jewish-style,’ is always our concern.”

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