Patkin’s Action comes to aid of post-Soviet Jews

If the poor and elderly are society’s most vulnerable, then the poor and elderly Jews of the former Soviet Union are among the most defenseless anywhere.

But they do have a champion: Judy Kent Patkin ’57, longtime executive director of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry.

Judy Kent Patkin '57, executive director of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry, meets with 90-year-old Zelda in the Ukranian city of Krivoy Rog. Zelda is a recipient of food support from the Adopt-a-Bubbe program. Photograph courtesy of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry.

Recognizing her 36 years of social justice efforts on behalf of the Waltham, Mass.-based organization, Patkin received the college’s highest alumni honor, the Benjamin Mays Medal, during the Alumni Awards Ceremony on Reunion Saturday.

The group’s name be Action for Soviet Jewry, but the prefix “post” was added after the 1991 fall of the USSR. But only the name has changed — not so much the suffering that Action tries to manage.

Ukraine is a good example of the bad situation facing elderly Jews.

In Ukraine, the Jewish population was two million before World War II and the Holocaust. After the fall of the Soviet Union, where anti-semitism was national policy, some 30,000 remaining Jews immigrated to Israel and elsewhere, leaving about 70,000 in Ukraine today.

The Jews in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries who didn’t or couldn’t leave are often poor pensioners in need of outside support just to meet basic food and medical needs.

In March, Patkin and other Action leaders traveled to nine cities in Ukraine and Belarus.

Judy Kent Patkin '57, recipient of the Benjamin E. Mays Award at Reunion, discusses the work of her group, Action for Post-Soviet Jewry, on Saturday morning of Reunion. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College.

The trip’s goal was to check in on field organizers and clients who provide and receive support through Action’s various programs, including its “Adopt a Bubbe” effort, which provides food for elderly Jews. (Bubbe is Yiddish for “grandmother” while zayde means “grandfather.”)

“We met a woman who sleeps with an ax out of fear.”

In a Reunion talk given Saturday morning to classmates and others Reunion goers, Patkin described the trip, matter of factly and with little emotion explaining various situations that ranged from horrible to hopeful.

Anti-Semitism? “Worse in the more nationalistic western Ukraine, less in the east,” she said. “Easter is sometimes still a time to beat up Jews. We met a woman who sleeps with an ax out of fear.”

Isolation? “Some of the apartment buildings where they live have no elevators, so the elderly don’t leave their apartments.”

Chaim was a guest at an Action-sponsored "warm house" gathering in Mariupol, Ukraine, that provides a good meal and healthful socializing. "As long as you live, I live," he told Patkin. Photograph courtesy of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry.

Elder abuse? “One of our clients gave up her apartment to her son and his wife when they married,” Patkin said. “Then the son died and the wife took over, and forced her to live in a hovel.”

Governmental support? The state does provide pensions, but the amount is not really enough to live on. If pensions ever increase (usually motivated by a political election), then shop prices increase the next day too. “It’s a very corrupt state,” Patkin said.

But there’s always hope.

Though elderly Jews in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries are often isolated — relatives having died or immigrated to Israel — hopeful reunions and reconnection still take place.

Patkin told a story about a woman in Kirovograd who has never stopped trying to find her few remaining family members.

All she’s had to go on are a few photographs, her memories and a scrap of paper from 1904, certified by a rabbi, that listed her family members. She used that paper list to discover and find a cousin who lives in Kiev.

After first disbelieving her, the cousin agreed to a visit, arriving at her door with two bags of food in his hands.

“Their lives are hard but they take pride in their Jewish traditions,” Patkin said of the elderly Jews of post-Soviet societies. “They have a never-ending spirit to rebuild what was lost.”