FaithZette

Charity Connects the Young and Old to Improve Jewish Lives

A largely forgotten minority has a fighting chance, thanks to the dedication of Christians Care International

Aliyah, or Jewish immigration to Israel, has long been a cornerstone of building a strong and vibrant Jewish state. While it peaked in the early 1990s, aliyah remains vital to Israel’s sustainability and continued success in a very hostile part of the globe.

More than 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU) have made aliyah, bringing their many talents to help build the Jewish state. Yet aliyah from the FSU is not just about what Jewish immigrants to Israel gain — a new place in the Jewish homeland — but also what they escape.

Anti-Semitism has plagued the Jews of the former Soviet Union for centuries, and it continues to this day. More than 1 million Jews still live in the FSU, most of whom endure endemic anti-Semitism and discrimination, which traps them in a life of poverty, despair, and hopelessness.

“I felt so lonely and alone before entering the senior program,” said one woman.

Jewish children and the elderly there are among the most affected by poverty and deprivation. Tens of thousands of abused, neglected, and abandoned children languish in state-run institutions or struggle to survive in broken homes and on the streets. Many impoverished elderly Jews live isolated and alone, with little or no assistance, often having to choose between basic food and the medications they need to live.

Stepping in to improve and brighten the lives of these Jewish children and seniors is Christians Care International (CCI), a Christian ministry formed in 1991 that has helped more than 87,000 Jews make aliyah to Israel. It also cares for thousands of suffering, impoverished Jews in the FSU.

The organization was founded in 1991 by an English bus tour operator named Phil Hunter, who realized there was an urgent need to help as many Jews as possible from the FSU make aliyah to Israel. I came to know the founder through a series of documentary films I produced for the organization about the plight of Jews living in the FSU. A devout Christian, Phil Hunter became a father figure to me — teaching me more about Judaism than I ever learned from my own Jewish upbringing.

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Upon his death nearly a decade ago, his family asked if I would take on the responsibility of leading the organization and to help expand its mission. After much prayer, I took on the role and have worked ever since to build new bridges of love and understanding between Christians and the Jewish people. I believe it was God who led me on this path. How else could a Jewish man come to lead a Christian ministry?

Among its many life-saving programs is CCI’s Kalaniot Children’s Home in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, which houses and cares for severely abused, neglected, and abandoned Jewish children. The home provides the children with a safe, loving environment, 24-hour advanced therapeutic care, a world-class education, and the chance to connect with their Jewish heritage. Nearby, CCI also operates its senior-care services center, where poor, elderly Jews, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, come for their daily meals, psychological care, medical screening, brain-stimulating activities, humanitarian support, and Jewish observances.

To help provide purpose and belonging for both these vulnerable groups, CCI recently launched its “Healing Hearts” mentoring program, which pairs children from its Kalaniot children’s home with seniors at its senior center. CCI’s team of neuropsychologists on the ground in Ukraine oversees this program, which provides psychological, social, and health benefits to both the children and the seniors.

The seniors gain better overall physical and mental health by feeling valued and needed, while providing guidance and love to children who desperately need adult interaction and attention. The children simultaneously benefit by experiencing healthy interactions with adults; they feel a sense of love and belonging. They learn how to build trust in relationships.

The children and seniors meet regularly to participate together in Shabbat services, meals, art projects, discussions, music shows, and other enriching activities that stimulate the mind and warm the heart.

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Anna Markova, a Holocaust survivor, was recently paired with 10-year-old Andre, who was severely abused and neglected by his alcoholic father. The two have been seeing each other twice a week for the last month (they’re shown together, holding hands, in one of the pictures illustrating this story).

“I felt so lonely and alone before entering the senior program,” said Markova (whose comments have been translated from Russian). “I was wasting away on my pension of $70 a month. I had to choose each month whether to buy food, pay my electric bill or buy medicine I needed to keep me alive. I had lost hope — but that has changed since I was brought into the senior program. Now I eat my meals at the center and have a social life there as well.”

She continued, “One day my social worker asked me to become a mentor to a boy named Andre. I was nervous at first, as they told me he had suffered a great deal of abuse in his young life. After a few weeks together, we have become so close! He has become the grandson I have always dreamed about having. We laugh and share so much together. Andre has become an important part of my life. I love caring for him.”

Through the loving support of Christians from around the world, Christians Care International helps Jews in need to rise up and escape dire poverty — whether that’s through aliyah to Israel, or through its programs, which bring together the promise of youth with the wisdom and love of the elderly.

Don Horwitz is executive director of Christians Care International, which has offices in both the U.S. (Kensington, Maryland) and in the U.K. Learn more at www.ChristiansCare.org.