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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building Roots That Help Local Charities Grow

For MTThe network delivers USDA surplus food to people across the former Soviet Union.
Not far from the Ukrainian town where he grew up, Eli Livshitz met a pair of pensioners who somehow managed to live on nothing.

Sitting in their dingy one-room apartment in eastern Ukraine, the couple rattled off the myriad expenses they had to meet each month: $10 for rent, $5 for heating, some $2 for electricity, another $2 or $3 for the basic foodstuffs that comprise their diet -- bread, cucumbers, potatoes.

Their combined pension: $16.

"I asked them, 'But how do you survive?'" he recalled. "They simply said, 'We don't know.'"

Livshitz's organization, the Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network, is trying to help millions like them in Russia and Ukraine by providing food, clothing and medical care while trying to help local institutions become self-sufficient.

The New York-based charity was founded in 1992 by an American rabbi with Ukrainian roots to help the poor in the former Soviet Union.

As one of a handful of global charities that delivers surplus food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, GJARN has since delivered 5.4 million kilograms of food to more than 2 million people.

The organization also works to revitalize Jewish communities that had been suffocated by decades of communism, but humanitarian assistance is delivered to all in need, irrespective of religion or ethnicity.

The grateful letters GJARN receives from aid recipients betray just how desperate many are.

"Your food package broke the ice of despair that was on my heart, and your warmth and kindness reached our distant, Godforsaken village where we old collective farmers while away the last days of our lives," wrote one pensioner.

"We're talking about hard-working, educated people -- teachers, farmers, engineers -- who worked their entire lives and now have next to nothing," said Livshitz, who left Ukraine a decade ago to study at a rabbinical college in New Jersey before coming to Moscow to become GJARN's country director for Russia.

Aid programs enable scores to survive without resorting to selling family heirlooms or vegetables or army medals on muddy street corners, as the couple Livshitz met in Ukraine did to make ends meet.

The charity reaches needy people in some of Russia's poorest regions, including the destitute Far East and Far North, where GJARN recently distributed 2,000 tons of USDA apples.

But even in and around Moscow, many people are barely scraping by.

"Life in most places doesn't resemble what goes on within the Garden Ring. Just half an hour outside of Moscow, you'll find a different world," said Korey Hartwich, deputy director at the Moscow office. "We've done a lot, but there's still a tremendous need."

At the Etel-Bikur Holim's daily soup kitchen in Moscow, sacks full of lentils, buckwheat, peas, condensed milk and other goods distributed by GJARN are piled up in the kitchen and help feed some 150 pensioners from the city's Jewish community who turn up daily for lunch.

Here, the clientele is a heady mix that includes former Soviet military officers, journalists and actors -- all of whom receive pensions of less than $50 per month.

"These people are like family to me, and I treat them the way I would treat my parents," said 60-year-old kitchen director Leonid Eichis.

Most are proud and make the best of their lot. Before lunch, a spry 83-year-old former athlete leads a mixed group in stretches and leg-lifts.

The walls are lined with photos of the veterans in their younger days, and many still sport their colorful Soviet medals on their chests.

Vera Lipovetskaya, a one-time fixture of Moscow's Jewish theater circuit before Stalin shut it down, still carries at 80 an air of the sophistication and glamour that made her a star more than half a century ago.

Wearing a smart blue dress and bright red lipstick, she eagerly pulls out a stash of magazine articles about her acting days to show anyone who betrays an interest.

"We come here as much for the socialization as the food," concedes Iosef Eselson, a former Olympic coach for the Soviet shooting team. "On weekends, when the kitchen doesn't work, we get depressed. The women say they've no need to put on their lipstick."

Getting food to everyone who needs it can be a tall order; Eichis estimates his kitchen reaches about 1,000 of the nearly 30,000 Jewish pensioners who have expressed interest.

But getting local charities to tackle the task is also part of GJARN's mission. Livshitz said the group has helped set up soup kitchens in St. Petersburg and Samara, but only once did the local communities agree to undertake the day-to-day operation.

"We said we'd sponsor the kitchens and donate the food, but they had to keep it going," he said.

GJARN's other mission is renewing Jewish communities, which Livshitz says are undergoing a mini-renaissance.

And while he doesn't gloss over the residue of the anti-Semitism that has long existed in Russian society, Livshitz says the organization has run into very few problems among the broader community.

"Based on my experience, I've every reason to believe our activities help in weakening whatever anti-Semitism is out there, " he said.

For more information or to contribute visit www.globaljewish.org (English) or www.gjarn.org(Russian).