The Russia House

Immigrants from former Soviet Union find home away from home in former Jerusalem hotel.

Russian woman (photo credit: Miriam Alster)
Russian woman
(photo credit: Miriam Alster)
More than two dozen children, all dressed in Purim costumes, roam the halls of the Diplomat Hotel delivering Purim baskets, filled with goodies, to the more than 500 Russian speaking residents here.
They knock on the doors and, with a shy giggle, wish the residents a happy Purim.
They hand over hot-pink shopping bags from the Rami Levy supermarket chain replete with three kinds of smoked fish, coffee and other treats. The residents smile, often showing glinting gold teeth, and thank the children in heavily-accented Hebrew. A few even give the kids candy in return.
The project, now in its 16th year, is the brainchild of Miriam Steiner and Jane Medved, both of whom live in the nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka. They raise money for the project, among mostly English-speaking women, and Rami Levy donates the goods at cost. Steiner says that this year, donations were down and they had to cut back on how much they could buy. Still, she says, it’s nice to give the residents some Purim happiness.
“These people live in our neighborhood and we should be aware of them,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “Many of these people are very lonely. Some of them can’t get out and they live in hotel rooms that were never meant to be permanent homes.”
In fact, Purim is one of the few times that neighborhood residents have any contact with the Diplomat Hotel, tucked behind the glittering new façade of the US Consulate in Arnona in southeastern Jerusalem. A steep paved path leads to the hotel. During the day, you can often see residents, some of them dragging a personal shopping cart on wheels behind them. They’re off to the Mahane Yehuda market across town to buy fruits and vegetables.
Inside the hotel, a visitor feels they have arrived in Russia. All of the notices on the bulletin boards are in Russian, the front desk clerk speaks Russian, and it is the lingua franca throughout the building. Most of the residents have only rudimentary Hebrew, despite living in Jerusalem for many years.
Nearby kibbutz
In Room 506, Berta Greishin, 82, tends to her luxurious plants. A large pink vine climbs to the ceiling and on the floor are bright-red geraniums in pots. Greishin, a former English teacher, is quite happy with her life in her room in the hotel with a beautiful view of the green hills belonging to the nearby Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.
“I have a big room and everything I need here,” she tells The Report with a gentle smile. “I have a bedroom, a kitchen, and a sitting room. So what if it’s all the same room?” Greishin moved to Israel from the Ukraine in 1996 with her son and his family, who now live in Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv. She was originally placed in the Hotel Ram near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. The Ram was emptied in 2000, along with several smaller absorption centers and she was moved here.
Until she became ill with diabetes two years ago, she participated in many of the activities offered by the staff of the hotel, which is run by the Ministry of Absorption.
She says she has more than 500 photos of various day trips she enjoyed under their auspices. The hotel also offers an ulpan to learn Hebrew, and a computer group. There is a small grocery store in the building, although residents who are mobile enough prefer to shop in Mahane Yehuda.
Greishin has a home health-care worker 28 hours per week, paid for partly by the government and partly by money she receives as Holocaust reparations from the German government. Her helper shops, cooks and cleans. Greishin says she drinks a lot of freshly-squeezed vegetable juices and has two separate juicers to make them.
Sheltered housing
“The Diplomat is a type of sheltered housing,” says Alice Jonah, the former cultural director and a longtime volunteer. “There is a guard at the desk, someone always at reception and we have two social workers who are here to help the residents. In exchange for all that, they pay a very reasonable rent.”
The monthly rent, including electricity and water, is 1,100 shekels ($290) per month, of which 750 shekels is covered by the government.
The balance is a fraction of what it would cost to rent an apartment – particularly in this middle-class Jerusalem neighborhood.
Some of the residents were living independently and returned to the Diplomat after a spouse died. Others have been here since they arrived in the 1990s. Jonah says there’s even a waiting list of about 30 people who would like to move here.
“It is very different now than it was in those early, heady days,” Jonah says. “Then there were a lot of families with children. At one point, there were 1,800 people living in 500 rooms. There was a feeling of newness and excitement.”
In the early years, says Jonah, she often made “matches” between families in nearby Talpiot and Arnona who were looking for child care, elderly care or household help. But today, 20 years later, there are no children and most of the residents are too old or too ill to work.
Some, like Greishin, spend their time reading. Her room is packed with large print English-language books and she recently received an electronic reader.
“I read like a madwoman,” she laughs. “I don’t have much else to do.” She says she occasionally visits the Russian-language library or the art room downstairs.
There are some issues that divide the residents. A section of the lobby is the “religious corner” with a picture of the former Lubavitcher rebbe beaming down from the wall.
A few dozen residents have become ultra-Orthodox since they arrived here, and a few have tried to impose an ultra- Orthodox lifestyle, such as turning the elevators into pre-programmed “Shabbat” elevators that stop on every floor, or insist that residents be banned from having pork in their rooms. So far they have not succeeded.
There have also been occasional tensions with neighbors. A bus stops outside the hotel eight times a day. If those times are not convenient, residents can walk up a steep hill to another bus stop. Nadia Livshitz, the cultural director at the hotel, says she tried to get the bus line from nearby East Talpiot to stop at the hotel as well.
“The residents there signed a petition not to stop here,” she says. “They said they didn’t want their buses to be crowded with Russians.”
But for the most part, life in the Diplomat is quiet.
“I never did anything for the State of Israel and yet the government gives me enough money to live on,” says Greishin. “I really have nothing to complain about.”