Strangers in Their Home: A Visit to Tbilisi

In Tbilisi, Georgia, hot meals are served at the JDC-supported Hesed to destitute elderly Jews. Photo by  James Nubile; courtesy JDC.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, hot meals are served at the JDC-supported Hesed to destitute elderly Jews. Photo by James Nubile; courtesy JDC.

On the heels of Passover, we should be reminded that thousands of Jews are still on a journey from slavery.

by Joy Sisisky

I recently had the pleasure and privilege to spend a week visiting the Jewish community in Tbilisi, Georgia. If you don’t know where it is, don’t worry – neither did I until a few weeks ago. The Republic of Georgia is situated on the Black Sea bordering Russia to the north and Turkey, Armenia and Azebaijan to the south. A Jewish community of more than 10,000 lives peacefully among the people nestled between the big city and Caucasus.

I was with a group of 10 other young professionals in our 20’s and 30’s from across the United States, all Jewish and devoted, like myself, to building a vibrant global Jewish community across generations. Besides some sightseeing and wine tasting, the greater part of our time was spent volunteering in the Jewish community and mostly on home visits. We were traveling with JDC Entwine – the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)’s movement for young Jewish leaders, influencers, and advocates- to experience first hand how largest Jewish humanitarian organization provides rescue and relief to the world’s poorest Jews as well as revitalization of Jewish life.

Like other Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, many of the people we met are those who chose to stay or were left behind by family and friends who have emigrated to Israel and beyond. They tend to be the most vulnerable – the sick, the elderly, the poor and destitute.

Our traditional Passover celebration recalls our journey from slavery to freedom. We are encouraged to welcome the stranger into our homes. On the 14 home-visits our group made in Tbilisi and in the periphery in Kutaisi and Rustavi, the tables were turned and we were in fact the strangers welcomed into their homes. And, those homes were crumbling, literally.

All stayed warm with small cast iron wood-burning stoves. Hardly any of the families we visited had electricity, running water or toilets. They all faced serious financial difficulty as well as physical and psychological complications that often left them unemployed, alone and hungry.

One family visit was particularly disturbing. A young mother and two small children were living in an abandoned school building. They were refugees from Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia that was de-facto separated from the country in the 1990’s. They slept together on a pull-out couch in a small cornered off room with an oven, two chairs, table and hutch. The concrete walls were decaying and dangerously close to making their home uninhabitable. I brought the children a backpack filled with games, crayons, construction paper and stickers. They had no idea what they were or what to do with them. When we arrived, they had been playing with scrap metal in the main living area which was completely bare except for a coiled box-spring with no mattress.

Through the Hesed social welfare center, JDC provides this family and others like them food cards, winter relief, medical assistance, home repairs, hygiene supplies as well as opportunities to participate in Jewish life through Shabbatons, family camps and day center activities. For many families, the Hesed is where you go when there is nowhere else left for you in the world, a place where everyone is welcome – it is the community.

As strangers in their home, they were at once welcoming to us but also seemed relieved knowing that they were not forgotten. We were surprised to confront such abject poverty, particularly in the Jewish community. We were also amazed by the warmth of these families who were eager to share very intimate moments of both vulnerability and optimism with us in the privacy of their homes.

On the heels of Passover, we should be reminded that thousands of Jews are still on a journey from slavery. Let’s challenge ourselves to think about economic, social, religious and political inequalities, about health and well-being and all of the injustice we see in our world. Let us continue to reach out to those who remain chained and help make this world a better place from our position of strength and abundance. As the famous Jewish poet and activist Emma Lazarus said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

Joy Sisisky is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York. She serves as the National Co-Chair of the JDC Entwine Steering Committee, a group of young Jewish leaders who seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues. She is also a former JDC Ralph I. Goldman Fellow in International Jewish Service having lived and worked in Jewish communities in Ukraine and Ethiopia.