Loving Your Neighbor

by Yoram Dori

Va’ahavta lare’echa kamocha (“Love your neighbor as yourself” – Leviticus 19:18) is one of the golden rules in the Bible. It is also one of the basic precepts on which I and thousands of others like me were brought up from childhood. Sometimes I had the feeling that it was another brick in the wall of self-assurance that we are, indeed a chosen people – different from others – somehow better and more ethical.

A recent Limmud FSU conference in Odessa taught me that there is sometimes a tangible meaning to the overworked expression. During the course of the conference I was asked to join a “home visit.” At first, I was not too clear about what was implied. What was the connection between Limmud and home visits? Were we going to visit young Odessa Jews in their homes and give them a dose of Judaism? It looked odd to me but I thought I would go along with the flow. It seemed to be a distinguished group and I was sure it would not be a waste of time.

The group included Rabbi Menachem HaCohen, Vice-chair of the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Greg Schneider, its Executive Vice-President, Baruch Shub, also a Vice-chair of the Claims Conference and chair of the Organization of Jewish Partisans, together with his wife Nelly, both of them Holocaust survivors – she jumped from a train on the way to the Belzec death camp. (Incidentally, both of their sons were fighter pilots in the Israel Airforce and are now pilots with El Al,) Shira Genish, deputy head of operations in the Former Soviet Union of the American Joint Distribution Committee and Chaim Chesler, the tireless founder of Limmud FSU.

The purpose of the visit becomes clear when I understand that Ganish’s organization, the “Joint,” runs the extensive Hessed (in Hebrew, “mercy, loving-kindness, charity”) network of social relief and welfare in the FSU, which is massively supported by the Claims Conference. Schneider explained that the Claims Conference invests 100 million dollars a year throughout the FSU to bring succor to some 88,000 needy Holocaust survivors. It is the Claims Conference, headed by Rabbi Julius Berman, and the Joint run by Steven Schwaiger, the Executive Vice-President, that provide the life-line for the remaining Jewish Holocaust survivors in Ukraine. Most of the funds come from the German government with whom the Claims Conference came to an agreement that Holocaust survivors in Ukraine would get the same support as those in Western Europe. In practical terms this means 24 hours of weekly help for those in dire need and ten hours for those whose situation is better.

Hessed home visit in Odessa; (l-r) Shira Genish, Rabbi Menachem HaCohen, Fania Galenter, Greg Schneider, Chaim Chesler

We were joined in our minivan by a group of Hessed staff members and it was soon evident that this was no picnic on which we were embarking, but a mission that tugged at the heart strings. The first person we visited was 91 year-old Fania Galenter. We climbed a long flight of steps in an old building with no elevator, and entered a small clean and tidy apartment, where the old lady told us her life story. Following the Nazi invasion, as a young woman she was deported from Odessa together with her sister and nephew. When she returned home after the war, she found that her whole family had been murdered. Today she is nearly blind, and has a heart condition which requires constant medication. Her state pension is $313 a month of which she pays $30 in rent. “How do you manage?” I ask her, “Only thanks to Hessed,” she replies. A social worker visits her daily and brings her food, clothes and medicines.

Greg Schneider and Baruch Shub on Hessed home visit in Odessa

Sobered by the experience but also proud to have witnessed the help given, we make our way to the next Hessed “client.” Vera Parschukova is younger – only 84 – but medically she is in a far worse condition. She can barely walk, is totally blind in one eye and has a series of other medical conditions that require a massive amount of medications. Like Fania, she lives at the top of an old and decrepit building that can only be reached by a circular iron staircase that even I have problem in mounting. She receives a state pension of $109 of which over $30 goes in rent. I gather up courage and ask if I might see her bathroom. The Hessed staffer smiles wryly and asks if I am really sure I want to see it. When I answer in the affirmative she pushes aside a curtain in a corner of the room. There is a wooden stool and a bucket beside it. “I stand Vera on the stool and pour water from the bucket over her head,” I am told. What do non-Jewish elderly Ukrainians do? I ask innocently. “They are envious and ask – ‘why were we not born Jewish?’”

As one who has often heard criticisms of the Claims Conference, here I was witness to a totally different picture. I am reminded of another golden Hebrew expression, this time from the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin, Kol hametzil nefesh me’israel ke’elu hitzil olam umlo’o. “Whoever saves one life it is as if they have saved the entire world.” That day, Limmud managed to open a small window for me on the real meaning of the word Hessed and why we might, indeed, be the chosen people.

Yoram Dori is Senior Advisor to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.

Translation by Asher Weill.