JFNA Tbilisi mission: No Jew should be left behind

Maya, 88, is one of many seniors in Tbilisi, Georgia, who receives assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Through Hesed, a JDC program, she receives food and a home health aid. Photos courtesy of Don Schon

Maya, 88, is one of many seniors in Tbilisi, Georgia, who receives assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Through Hesed, a JDC program, she receives food and a home health aide. Photos courtesy of Don Schon

Esther and Don Schon, 2015 chairs of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix’s annual campaign, and Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, are currently on the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Campaign Chairs & Directors Mission to Tbilisi, Georgia and Israel. Here, Don Schon reports from the mission.

Organized Jewish life in Tbilisi, Georgia has had some notable successes. We visited an Ashkenazic synagogue that was newly reconstructed to its traditional structure and function with donated local money.

Ashkenazic synagogue

Ashkenazic synagogue

Sephardic synagogue

Sephardic synagogue

They have services, a Hebrew school and daily minyan.

Tbilisi has a Jewish museum, constructed on the grounds of a former synagogue and in the ancient Jewish quarter and with government money and to celebrate its Jewish history.

In addition we visited the grand Sephardic Synagogue, large, maintained and functioning.

Georgian childrenToday we went to camp. The JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) has camp programs throughout the republics of the former Soviet Union. The camp is run by Israelis who come back year after year. For $1,100, a teenager gets two weeks of Jewish camp, where they are taught traditions, history and religious life skills.

We danced, we competed, we “twisted” and we ate with these incredible 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. They often come from families with Jewish history from one parent or both, but with little Jewish knowledge. Once these kids make the effort to attend some Jewish events, they become eligible for camp. It was a glorious experience.

Marty Haberer

Marty Haberer, chief development officer of the Jewish Community Association of Greater Phoenix, joins the dance.

Esther buys food for Maya.

Esther buys food for Maya.

Tbilisi also has a Jewish Center which houses Hillel, programs for the elderly, youth programs and Hesed. Through Hesed we met Maya Bartkulashvili. Maya is 88 and home bound. Her family, a product of communist persecution, lived, and Maya still does, in one room. She has no kitchen nor toilet. There is a communal kitchen for six apartments with an old bathtub as the only water source for the building. There is no indoor toilet in the building. The building is from the 19th century, not maintained and with no heat. Maya uses a hot plate for warmth and received disabling burns by tripping on it. Her pension is $66 per month from which she has to buy all she needs. Hesed, a JDC program, shops for her and provides a home health aide. Hesed is able to allot her $40 per month for food. We bought her food, chocolate and a rare delicacy, bananas.

Then we saw the “kids.” Teens performed traditional Georgian Jewish dance in traditional costumes.

Georgian dancers2We watched in amazement as these children from a very poor rural area over an hour away danced their hearts away and then danced with us. All of this is possible because of North American Jewish dollars donated to JDC and the Jewish Agency. We all had tears of joy as we watched the amazing things our dollars do and tears of sadness for all the needs we saw for which no dollars are available.

Jews take care of Jews. No Jew should be left behind as we are responsible to each other. Our Phoenix Jewish community has clearly started these tasks. We help fund these programs big time through our Federation campaign dollars. Esther and I will come home with the determination to take our tasks to the next level.

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