Bringing a Sweet New Year to Families in the Crimea

Six-year-old Vika, her sister Vera, 11, and her mom, Olga celebrated their very first Rosh Hashanah last year.

Since then, they’ve come to call the Jewish community in Feodosiya, their native town in the Crimea, a second home. For this single-parent family, Jewish life has become a much-needed anchor in their otherwise tumultuous existence. This year they couldn’t be more excited to visit their local Hesed social welfare center for communal festivities and honey cake.

Olga grew up under communism, when religious practices were outlawed and Jewish life was hushed for decades. She never learned any Jewish history or traditions in her home as a child; when she became a mom, she had none to pass on to her daughters.

But last spring Olga brought the girls to an educational program at the local JDC-supported Hesed, an outpost of JDC’s network of welfare centers that ensure the critical needs of impoverished Jews for food, medicine, winter relief, and community are met. To help this and other local Jewish communities rebuild across the region, JDC creates programming that engages and educates community members, strengthens their commitment and connection to Jewish life, and assists them on the path to self-sufficiency.

The local staff welcomed Olga and the girls—and they haven’t missed a lesson, community event, or Shabbat or holiday celebration since!

“Vika loves the Hesed. She’s usually a shy and introverted girl but when she’s there she is at ease, talking openly, connecting with other children her age, dancing and singing,” Olga explains. “She’s become more sociable, active, and inquisitive. She is interested in everything she learns.”

What is more, the family has taken what they’ve picked up back home, where they now celebrate every Jewish holiday with pride. “We prepare for Jewish holidays together: for Purim I made the girls’ costumes myself; for Pesach the girls prepared hand-made art projects. The holidays keep our spirits high.”

Olga does everything she can to provide a sense of comfort and stability for Vika and Vera, who’ve never known their father. Life is extremely hard for this young family, living literally hand-to-mouth on the miniscule monthly allocation the state provides to single mothers.

Olga’s struggle is comparable to those of tens of thousands of families across the former Soviet Union (FSU) countries, which still lack social safety nets for their poor. Many rely on insufficient state assistance as their primary or only income while they struggle to live in a climate of rising food prices, expensive and often unavailable medicine, and inaccessible social services. To make matters worse, unemployment, underemployment, and inflation force them even deeper into poverty.

Olga and her girls experience this first-hand. Olga is not able to find a permanent job, so she’s turned to the Jewish community for material help. They rely on the JDC’sfood program—a card they can use to purchase groceries at a chain of local supermarkets—to have enough to eat through the month. Last winter they received warm clothing through JDC’s SOS emergency relief program.

These services are part of the crucial IFCJ-JDC Partnership for Children in the FSU, which seeks to meet the material, health, social, and spiritual needs of the region’s at-risk Jewish children. In 2011, the Partnership served nearly 30,000 children in 1,185 locations across the former Soviet Union (FSU)—from major cities and small towns to the region’s farthest, most desolate areas. In larger cities, Jewish Family Services offers material and social support to families, while Jewish Community Centers run vibrant cultural and educational programming. In smaller communities, like Feodosiya, JDC’s Heseds facilitate both relief services and activities that revitalize Jewish life.

“When Vika received her winter boots from the Hesed, she wore them around the house for a week. They are the first brand-new shoes she’s ever had,” Olga recalls.

“Thanks to JDC, we know our material and spiritual needs are always taken care of.”

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