In July, Campaign Co-Chairs Don and Esther Schon, along with Chief Development Officer Marty Haberer, traveled to Tblisi, Georgia in the former Soviet Union as part of the JFNA Campaign Chairs & Directors Mission to witness Federation’s impact overseas. Among the many Federation-supported programs they visited were programs to revive Jewish culture among the nation’s youth.
The Jews of Georgia suffered decades of oppression, with religion and traditional observances outlawed by Soviet rule. When the regime fell, many families came forward, identifying themselves as Jewish but not knowing what it actually meant to be Jewish. With the financial support of Federation, synagogues were established and refurbished, and summer camp was started to teach teens what it means to be Jewish. Mission participants had an opportunity to experience these first hand.
“The teens were learning, ‘This is what Hebrew is. This is what the Jewish holidays are. This is what they mean.’ With Federation dollars, these programs are helping to reestablish the country’s Jewish heritage,” said Don.
The group also visited a dance society for youth that is preserving Georgian Jewish culture by teaching them traditional dance in traditional costumes.
“They had such pride in learning about their Judaism and amazing pride in their performance. People were so moved, they joined in and many were crying,” said Esther.
Through the American Joint Distribution Committee, the Schons met 88-year-old Maya, a client of Federation-supported Hesed, which provides poor elderly Jews with vital assistance, including food, medicine and medical care. When Maya was 10 years old, her father was arrested as an enemy of the state and exiled to the Vorkuta gulag for 10 years. Maya’s family was evicted from their large apartment in the city center and given one room in a communal apartment building, where Maya still lives today. The building has an open roof, no heat, hanging wires and a shared kitchen and bath. The bath has the only running water in the building, and there is no indoor toilet.
Maya remembers how hard her mother worked, sewing from morning until night, to put food on the table and to enable Maya to attend school. Maya studied education at Tbilisi State University and worked as a teacher of Russian language and literature for more than 40 years. Her monthly pension is $66, and she receives $40 per month from Hesed for groceries. Esther and Don visited with Maya in her home and brought her much-needed food.
“We saw many families and each had a disabled parent or child, were sick or old—they cannot go anywhere. They are stuck,” said Esther. “When the Soviet Union fell, inflation became so high and [the families’] meager pensions cannot cover even the most basic of needs. These families are dependent on the Joint and JAFI for food and other necessities.”
Through Federation’s annual campaign, our community allocated $175,000 to the JDC, which provides Meals on Wheels, medication, home care, home repairs, winter relief and laundry service for Maya and thousands like her every day.
“No other organization touches more lives than Federation, from Jews facing anti-Semitism throughout the world to our own community’s elderly who need vital services, and Federation spends their dollars incredibly well,” said Don.
As campaign chairs, the Schons are encouraging the entire Greater Phoenix Jewish community to give.
“The needs are so great that we need the entire community’s help to make a difference today and to help our children and grandchildren,” said Esther.