This December, Do More Than Just Remember the Poor

By Michal Frank

The December holidays evoke joy, warmth, and brightness in the midst of cold, dark days. But behind the cheer of Christmas and Chanukah, and the general revelry we engage in as we approach a new year, there are stark reminders of the isolation and vulnerability that many people face.

The poor, the sick, and the elderly often find themselves struggling to meet their basic needs even as their neighbors, in places like America, celebrate by spending more than $600 billion during this period. This stark contrast is why the tradition of holiday generosity is so essential.

For many of us, the holidays offer hope even in times of challenge. Regardless of religious tradition, the end of the year prompts reflection; what have we accomplished this year and what are we anticipating for the next? We consider the happy moments as well as the darker ones we have experienced. A core value common to so many traditions is that symbolic acts are never enough — we must always take tangible action to help those who are less fortunate.

Indeed, as I travel regularly to the former Soviet Union, a region wracked by major socioeconomic challenges, I am comforted by how much can be done to alleviate suffering in the lives of people who face unprecedented struggles, and I am challenged by how much more there is to do.

Take, for example, the 8 percent of the world’s 65 and older population living in poverty. The World Health Organization expects this number to reach 16 percent of the population by 2050. And among them are impoverished Jewish seniors in the former Soviet Union who survived Soviet oppression, and in some cases the Holocaust, and now find themselves without resources or a safety net in what should be their golden years.

Like their neighbors, they face stagnant economies, a lack of robust social services, and uncertainty, especially in places like Ukraine where financial crisis and protracted instability have led to skyrocketing utility bills and widespread inflation.

That is why my organization and a multi-faith coalition of partners — including the Claims Conference, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), Jewish Federations including UJA-Federation of New York, and thousands of others — have spent $100 million this year on food, medicine, and homecare for 110,000 of these Jewish elderly, including 45,000 Holocaust survivors. Their needs are so acute, in fact, that together with the IFCJ, we have invested $26 million in the last two years on food and medicine alone through an incredible example of interfaith cooperation, the IFCJ Lifeline.

To date, the Lifeline has reached tens of thousands of impoverished Jewish elderly throughout the former Soviet Union, bringing them urgently needed food and medicine. And behind every figure is a story.

Galina is one of tens of thousands of poor elderly living in desperate need in the former Soviet Union, among the millions of seniors around the world living in poverty.

Consider Galina from Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, whose life has been filled with nothing but struggle. Separated from her family at the age of 10, she was able to secure a good education for herself, but lost her engineering job when the Soviet Union collapsed, and she was left to scrounge for menial jobs. Today, her monthly pension is only $40 a month — literally $1.32 a day. Stretching that money to meet her most basic needs, she only turns on the lights when it’s absolutely necessary. Without our aid, people like Galina are barely able to survive — forced to choose between food and medicine, or simply paying the electricity bill.

The scars carried by these people run deep, and the tragedy that they might face such challenges alone is all the more cruel. And yet there is something indescribably powerful in being part of the global effort to sustain people who would otherwise be left to face great suffering or loss of life. In these challenging times across the globe, such cooperation should be celebrated at this or any time of year.

While the holidays are often a time of tremendous giving and support of philanthropic initiatives, people like Galina need this sort of help every day. Indeed, it’s the constancy of our support that I find most heartening — the fact that people have chosen to extend the holiday spirit of generosity throughout all the days and months of the year

When I lit my Chanukah candles with my daughter this year, enjoyed Israeli sufganiyot (the traditional holiday doughnut), and the warm embrace of family and community, what I thought of most was my brothers and sisters from all faith traditions who are making this world a warmer place for those most in need.

Whether volunteering at a soup kitchen or putting aside a little gift money for a worthy cause, participating in clothing drives or making a family donation to a nonprofit that matches your values, there are so many ways to make a difference.

May our acts of kindness light up the night sky, serving as a beacon of hope and dignity for all those so desperately seeking a better tomorrow.

Michal Frank is the director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s former Soviet Union operation.

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