TRIP TO ST. PETERSBURG
By Igor Feldblyum
If due to health reasons the recipient would not be able to come to the synagogue, a volunteer would deliver the stipend. After the distribution of the last stipend, a ledger sheet with signatures will be faxed to Am Ehad to confirm the delivery. After receiving the fax, an Am Echad volunteer will call the recipients to verify that they indeed received the stipend. This is a very transparent process that practically excludes mismanagement of the funds on any of the distribution stages.
I had to compare them with each other, and often it was difficult to decide against helping a particular person. But there was no doubt in my mind when I met Mrs. Meita R. (88 years old, deaf, with no money for hearing aid, and immobile) and her handicapped daughter. They had almost no food in the apartment, air of poverty was overpowering. It did not require a lot of imagination to guess how Am Echad's assistance would change the lives of Mrs. R and her daughter.
Ms. Sima L. was a high school teacher her whole life. She taught thousands of children, but there is nobody around now. She has no children of her own, and no close relatives. Now, at 76 years of age, she has no money for her heart medicine. She takes it once a week instead of twice a day. And yet, when I offered her Am Ehad's assistance, she refused, saying that there are many others that are in a much worse situation than she is. Unfortunately, it is true. At this moment, we identified and confirmed over thirty potential recipients of Am Echad assistance. They don't know it, but their lives may become a bit easier. It depends on us.
Meetings at Hesed Avraham
Funded by Joint Distribution Committee, Hesed Avraham is a Jewish Welfare Center for handicapped and elderly people. It provides services such as distribution of medical equipment, medical consultations, home care, cultural programs, etc. Although it does not provide any financial assistance, its work (almost entirely performed by volunteers, elderly themselves) is extremely valuable. Hesed Avraham maintains a database for elderly and handicapped Jews in St.-Petersburg, with almost 37,000 names in it. The information in this database (age, health condition, relatives, and income) was recently verified. Mr. Leonid Kolton, the Center's Director, kindly agreed to share this information with Am Echad. This allowed us to short list about 130 people with the smallest income and with no relatives to support them. This list will be further checked and verified by in-house visits performed by two people employed by Am Echad at a minimal cost. This verification procedure will ensure that the most needy people will be helped first. Also, we discussed a so-called "Supermarket" program: once a month Hesed Avraham will be delivering a food package to Am Echad's recipients. The food products will be chosen by the recipients and will be purchased at wholesale prices; its cost will be deducted from the amount of a monthly stipend.
Meetings with potential recipients
If meetings with Rabbi Pewsner and Mr. Kolton and their staff were very satisfying, visiting potential recipients of Am Echad's assistance was emotionally difficult. None of them knew a real reason for my visit. Although everyone I've met would be considered in the US as living in poverty,
Grand Choral Synagogue of St.-Petersburg
When the idea to establish Am Echad as a vehicle to provide assistance to elderly Jews in Russia came up, I shared it with some friends, and the response was very positive. In a very short time, ten American families pledged their support to Am Echad. It became obvious, that as more people would learn about this initiative there would be many more American Jews who would want to join others in helping elderly Jews in Russia.
In order to identify the initial recipients of Am Echad's support, and to establish a safe delivery mechanism of the financial assistance, a trip to St.-Petersburg, Russia became a necessity. Since we already had a commitment of ten initial sponsors, it was a justifiable expense. That's why in February 2000 I spent six days in St.-Petersburg, meeting with elderly Jews, and with religious and civil Jewish organizations.
This article is a report on what was accomplished during this trip.
Meetings at St.-Petersburg Synagogue
One of the most important tasks was to establish a reliable, safe, and effective mechanism of regular money transfers to the recipients of our assistance. We considered a number of various approaches, and decided that the best one would be to do it through an established Jewish non-profit organization that would not ask for its "cut" in return. St.-Petersburg Synagogue fit the bill perfectly. The Chief Rabbi of St.-Petersburg, Menachem-Mendel Pewzner, agreed to allow Am Echad to deposit funds into the synagogue's account in Brooklyn, NY. The amount of each monthly deposit would be equal to the sum of all stipends to be delivered to the recipients. Than, an assigned synagogue's employee will call the recipients and ask them to come to receive the stipend in the synagogue, where they would sign in a ledger sheet.