A frail 73-year-old woman living in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, Zhanna Bessmertnaya struggles today to survive on a monthly pension of $82. “We’ve all lived such hard lives here,” she says.

“We survived Nazism, and living under Communism was not easy, especially if you were Jewish. But the hardest thing in life is the loneliness … to stay at home alone … to see nobody … to have no friends.”

Zhanna speaks for the 177,000 elderly Jews throughout the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe whose life and dignity depend on the critical assis¬tance provided by the Jewish community with JDC support. These elderly Jews—among the poorest in the world—would be forced to choose between going hungry and going without medicine, between liv¬ing in darkness and freezing without heat.

Zhanna receives a food debit card to pur¬chase groceries at the supermarket, medi¬cines, and shoes and clothing. But it is the human companionship accompanying these services that truly lights up her life.

“When I enter Hesed, it is an indescrib¬able feeling,” she says of the local JDC-supported social welfare center she attends daily. “It is seeing all my friends that I love … it is a home that unites us all and lets us enjoy each other’s company.”

For Zhanna, this feeling of community is an antidote to her loneliness following a lifetime of hardship and loss.

Her mother escaped to the Urals with her son and twin daughters (toddlers Zhanna and Kira) during World War II, working long hours in a hospital laundry to keep her young family from starving.

Though Zhanna’s early-adult career at a Dnepropetrovsk photo studio showed promise, at age 28 a severe illness left her incapacitated and dependent on a state dis¬ability allowance. Neither she nor her twin sister ever married, and they became each other’s only support when their mother died in 1992.

Hesed Menachem opened two years lat¬er, and Zhanna and Kira were among the first to receive help. They also became ac¬tive volunteers, having found a new loving family in their Jewish community. Since Kira’s death in 2009, Hesed is Zhanna’s saving grace.

Each day she leaves her lonely apartment to immerse herself in Hesed activities and to share the community’s warmth with others, escorting special needs children to Hesed programs and making wellness calls to the homebound.

“It is my little way of giving back to Hesed,” says Zhanna, “for how much they have given to me.”

This article is reprinted with permission from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The programs of the JDC, like those that helped Zhanna, are funded in part by the generosity of the Tidewater Jewish community through gifts to the UJFT's annual campaign. Every dollar we raise makes a significant difference to real people like Zhanna—at home, in Israel, and in 70 countries around the world. To make your gift, click here.

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