Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh. We say we Jews are responsible one for another. What does it mean?
In September, 10 adventuresome Philadelphians set out for Siberia and China to consider this question. Our Federation supports a cadre of poor elderly Jews in the region, whom we had not visited in some years. Our humanitarian work there is carried out admirably by our overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), whose caseload in the former Soviet Union is 165,000, including 30,000 needy children. We know that these are the poorest of the poor Jews in the world, lacking even the fraying social safety net that American seniors have. In Siberia alone the caseload is 5,000.
They are impoverished. Their flats are tidy, small and plain. Their clothes are mended; their food is meager. What they hunger for is company. Many of them are shut-ins, dependent solely on the homecare visits they receive twice a week for shopping, cleaning and conversation.
Budget cuts imposed both by Federation and JDC have resulted in less food and less personal contact. In the name of efficiency, recipients get supermarket debit cards rather than hand-delivered food packages. So when we visited Gitya, a retired, sight-impaired teacher, we heard both her gratitude for our help and her wistfulness about the reduction in personal visits.
Meeting a cadre of young entrepreneurs who are assuming responsibility for their community was inspiring, however. Vodka, volunteerism and values drew us together: discussions of what it means to be Jewish, what Israel means to us and our visions of a Jewish future filled hours of conversation. Similar talks with bright-eyed Hillel students could have occurred in our JCC's a world away. Some of them had been to Jewish camps and even Birthright.
Some 14,000 Jews live in the city of Khabarovsk alone. We learned, to our surprise, that dissidents were indeed shipped East, but thousands of Jews had also migrated to Siberia voluntarily, lured by the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, by economic opportunity and the chance to move far from the Pale. Now we were encouraged: Siberia today sees and seeks a Jewish future. Through JDC we are helping the Jews of Siberia to care for their needy and take charge of their future. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh.
We found a rich history of Jews helping other Jews in China, as well. There's more to the story of Jews and Chinese than Sunday dinners!
Jewish life in China once flourished, from the early Baghdadi Jews who came to Harbin as merchants. They later welcomed those who fled the pogroms of the Russian Empire, and the Austrians and Germans who flooded Shanghai seeking asylum during World War II. Harbin was once a mecca for 25,000 Jews, who lived comfortably and built numerous synagogues, schools and charities. How moving for us all to share the moment when Donald Berg discovered photos of his grandparents in the Harbin museum.
For me, an American Jew with four American-born grandparents, this part of the trip was profoundly moving. The added perspective of fellow traveler Rosa Auckburg, once a stateless refugee herself, allowed us to imagine this world in a wholly personal way. Serendipitously meeting the daughter of the Chinese consul to Vienna during World War II (who had quietly issued thousands of visas to Austrian Jews), viewing Shanghai through the eyes of a dozen non-Jewish Holocaust educators from China and Korea, visiting the site of the former Jewish ghetto and the JDC-run soup kitchen, all gave us a unique perspective on this chapter of Jewish history.
Ohel Moshe, once a Shanghai synagogue and now a Refugees' Museum, listed matter-of-factly the many countries, including our own, who rejected countless opportunities to rescue Jews. In contrast, the open port of Shanghai, which welcomed Jews, stands as a beacon. Jews ultimately suffered hardships alongside the Chinese during the Japanese occupation. They died of malnutrition and disease, but not of systemic persecution. Once-wealthy Viennese Jews ended up in soup lines with the others. But the Jews had helped each other. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh.
Posted on the wall of this synagogue-turned-museum is a thought from Elie Wiesel, reflecting lessons learned in this remote part of the world, as elsewhere:
"The past is in the present, but the future is in our hands."
If indeed we Jews are responsible for one another, it takes a personal visit like this Federation mission to remind us of our role globally — and our impact on the lives of others, whose faces we will never see.
Betsy Sheerr, a longtime communal leader, headed the recent mission to Siberia and China.