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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Center Plugs Social Services Gap

For older members of Moscow's Jewish community, the CHAMAH community center is more than just a center that meets material needs. It's a place to find companionship - and even enlightenment.

"This is a wonderful hospitable house," said Ida Liokumovich, 70, one of 360 older Muscovites who eat Sunday through Friday at the center on Butyrskaya Ulitsa.

"It's not the food that a person lives by," she said. "This is a cultural center where we can spend our time in an interesting way."

The free-lunch program, operating since September 1992, is one of several programs organized by CHAMAH for older people. The center also delivers meals to over 300 people who have trouble getting around, and visits 250 people at home to help out with things like the cleaning, washing and mending, and helping them bathe.

With pensions averaging 400 rubles ($16) a month, seniors without family support often face a difficult time. The center tries not to turn people away, and treats them as more than just aid cases. "They are surprised to learn that someone may be interested in them as just people," said Sofia Polyakova, coordinator of the home-visit program.

"We try to help everyone, no matter how ill that person is," said Polyakova, who supervises the program from a small office with just two telephone lines that are constantly busy. "Here we don't have the expression, 'That's your problem,'" she said, between answering phone calls.

CHAMAH is an abbreviation of a Hebrew phrase that is translated into English as "awarding many." It was founded as an illegal association in the 1950s by Jews in Samarkand in Uzbekistan who wanted their children to learn more about Jewish traditions - in defiance of the atheist government's restrictions on religion.

In the 1970s, most CHAMAH members emigrated either to Israel or the United States, where the organization continued functioning. In 1990, Dovid Karpov, now rabbi of the synagogue in Otradnoye, started a CHAMAH office in Moscow. There was a list of 25 needy people and five volunteers willing to help.

Nine years later, the organization spends $600,000 annually on its programs for two less protected social categories - elderly people and children.

Not all the visitors are Jewish. The center got a list from the Moscow city authorities of about 30 non-Jewish seniors who need help, and it offers help to them, too.

The center gets some interesting guests. Odessa native Yefim Shraibman, 102, has lived through both world wars and worked as a tailor for 70 years, until his boss retired him when he was 90. He has a 75-year-old son.

Rakhil Prager, a 75-year-old former sports doctor, insisted on offering his professional estimate of the lunch. "This is very healthy, vitamin-rich food," he said.

Most of the people visiting the center come from the intelligentsia, being doctors, professors, artists and scientists. Some of them even read lectures at the club situated upstairs above the canteen. They also go to see concerts and plays. The center's library of a thousand books provides Jewish literature and newspapers.

Other CHAMAH programs involve giving about 800 people second-hand clothes, diapers and food. There is also medical aid, the possibility of consultations with therapists, dentists and eye specialists, as well as help with prescription drugs.

Children's programs include a kindergarten for 85 children and primary school for 45 more, where they get an education - and a chance to learn more about Jewish culture.