For seven years, Sandy and Edgar Snyder have visited Russia with their SOS program, which gives emergency aide to Jews who have fallen through the cracks of the system.
With the global economic downturn, those cracks are splitting wider, Edgar Snyder said in a Sunday phone call from Yekaterinburg, a Russian city east of the Ural Mountains.
“The recession has hit big-time in Russia,” said Snyder, the well-known western Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer and philanthropist within the Jewish community.
When the Snyders last visited two years ago, rising oil prices were filling government coffers, and the country seemed to have made a complete turnaround from a financial crisis, in 1998.
Over the past year, though, the drop in commodities prices made by the global recession hit Russia harder than most other major economies. The state statistics agency recently said the economy declined 10.9 percent in the second quarter compared with a year ago, and the state finance minister predicted inflation could hit 14 percent in Russia this year.
That means the monthly pension many elderly Russians receive — some less than $300 a month — doesn’t go as far in covering food, rent and utilities, let alone emergencies.
“If you don’t have private money, if you’re living off of a pension, in this country,” Snyder said, “you can find yourself not able to get necessary medicine.”
Snyder sits on the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which helps administer the SOS Program in Russia through its Hesed Welfare Centers.
The Hesed program is a Jewish community building effort where welfare clients become trained volunteers who in turn help other clients by bringing them food, offering home care and running day centers for the elderly. JDC created the Hesed program in 1993, five years after being invited back to the former Soviet Union after a 50-year hiatus.
During those five years, the Soviet Union collapsed, forcing a transition from a fully socialized system to a public-private model, leaving a vacuum in many areas of care.
The Hesed program soon expanded to thousands of communities across Russia, including Yekaterinburg, a city of around 1.3 million people roughly 1,000 miles east of Moscow. Around 15,000 Jews live in the city and 40,000 Jews live in the surrounding region, where the manufacturing sector represents the largest segment of the economy.
Sometimes, though, the Hesed welfare centers aren’t enough.
The Snyder SOS Program provides small, one-time funds to people with emergency medical issues or home repair needs. It might be a few hundred dollars to buy diabetes medicine or to continue chemotherapy treatment; a new gas stove, or a refrigerator.
One client didn’t have clean drinking water because of rotted plumbing. When the Snyders visited, the woman brought out a box of items paid for by the sos fund: a showerhead, a spigot and other piping related items.
“She had tears in her eyes,” Snyder said.
Although the SOS program helps anyone in need, it focuses on the elderly. In Russia, the elderly is a misleading term: the average life expectancy for men is around 60 years old.
Snyder described a woman in her 50s who would be forced to spend her entire monthly pension on medical services without extra money from the fund. The woman made an impression on Snyder because she taught herself to speak perfect English.
“She had osteoporosis at the age of 50, and she was almost blind,” he said, “but she spoke beautiful English.”
In late 2008, the SOS program gave nearly $32,000 to 112 people. The stories are simple, but numerous: a new washing machine for a family of six living in a two-bedroom apartment, eye surgery for a former book store clerk and librarian.
The Snyders travel to Moscow and the Ural Mountain region every few years on these fact-finding missions: to meet the beneficiaries of the program, to thank the workers who implement the funds and to learn what needs still exist in Jewish communities abroad.
These trips inspire complicated emotions: joy in seeing the fruits of the program, exhaustion from traveling, sadness in witnessing misery and gratitude for the comforts of home. Snyder noted that his father chose to immigrate to North America, not Ukraine.
With a different decision, “I would have been brought up living as a Jew in these countries,” Snyder said, “and faced with the issues that these people are faced with.”
The Snyders feel frustrated by increasing needs at a time of declining funds.
“What’s happened in the world, and especially in Russia: The needs have dramatically increased,” he said. “Believe me, we don’t have enough money to supply all of those needs. We’re just catching the people that apply for our loans.”
Like most nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, the JDC is facing “severe funding problems,” said Snyder.
“They’re making Sophie’s Choices every day of the week over here,” he said.
He suggested similar challenges at home. After starting the program in Russia, the Snyders set up a similar SOS Program in Pittsburgh through the Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
Seeing the situation in Russia first-hand gives Snyder information to bring back to Pittsburgh, he said. For the past four years, Snyder has chaired the United Jewish Federation’s Israel and World Jewry Commission, which allocates a portion of the capital campaign for overseas needs.
“I believe this provides me with credibility … I’m experiencing it in some small way,” he said about the trips, which the Snyders pay for out of pocket.
Despite the stories of hardship and illness, which he tells with a catch in his voice, Snyder insists Russia is a hopeful country for Jews. After decades of oppression, Judaism is experiencing a rebirth, he said. Communal life is improving as attendance at Jewish community centers and summer camps rises and more people happily indentify as Jewish.
Walking in the streets, he said, “I see optimistic people. This is not a depressing place.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)