Traveling to Kiev with JDC

Rebecca Neuwirth

Before leaving for Kiev, someone told me that the city was beautiful, all orthodox churches and Dostoyevsky. And in JDC reports, I read about the immense poverty and dire living conditions of families with troubled children and the elderly.

Not surprisingly, on the first day of our staff mission in Kiev, it seems all of this is true. A city of contradictions, a vast city, vital, sad, moving, with a future that is very uncertain.

Blocks of deteriorating Soviet housing greet us on the wide, crowded road from Kiev’s Boryspil airport. And the onion spires of orthodox churches poke their golden heads up across the Dnipro River. Next to them is a statue that symbolizes to me the alternate reality here: an impressive Soviet take on the Statue of Liberty, much larger than the original. Mother Motherland is armed not with a book and torch, but with a powerful shield and sword.

The statue pays tribute to the Soviet heroes of World War II, a stark contrast to the small memorial erected by the Jewish community next to a pit grown over with grass and trees. This stands for the other side of that war -- Babi Yar, or the Holocaust by bullets, as our host explains. In this ravine, now grown over with trees and greenery, almost 40,000 Jews – men, women, and children – were shot, one-by-one, in 1941 – one of the earliest exterminations. Altogether, some 100,000 or more people were killed at the site, Jews and others.

I am amazed by how Jews were able to resettle here after the war, and yet they did – many had little choice. Today the estimate is that 100,000 Jews live in the Kiev region alone. JDC is helping over 12,000 of them to survive.

We visit the tiny apartment, home of a mother whose 13-year-old daughter, Ivanna, has a severe case of cerebral palsy. This is our first home visit and will be perhaps the most impactful for me of the entire trip.

The daughter is bent over in her wheelchair, but she is staring at us and smiling – clearly excited to have company.

I am honestly more concerned about the mother. She is completely isolated in her apartment of 13 years, her loneliness broken only by a dog and cat, whose smells strongly permeate the tiny room. She says she has no contact with her neighbors and that they sometimes look askew at her because of her “Jewish nationality.” Still, she looks very young, with a petite frame, a glittery sweater, dyed orange hair, and sad eyes. As she speaks to us, she plays tenderly with Ivanna’s long braids. We say that Ivanna is lucky to have her, and she looks down and smiles sadly and says she isn’t so sure.

We see a picture of her mother, the grandmother of the family, who helps with Ivanna’s rehabilitation activities, many made possible by JDC. The photo has captured her in the midst of doing what seems like a dance in place and it looks to me that she has more of a sparkle in her eye than her daughter.

Visits, medicine and food from the JDC social worker also break the loneliness. And as much as JDC is providing for physical sustenance, I feel that it is this emotional support and connection to an accepting and embracing community that is even more vital.

I recognize of course that it is a drop in a vast bucket of misery, not in the life of this family - where JDC is actually providing a very tangible measure of hope and community, but in the larger picture. How many more Ivannas are hidden away in this housing bloc – or in the identical blocs surrounding it and scattered across this city?

Nevertheless, for Jews, who have suffered more than most here, it is immensely heartwarming to know that JDC is seeking them out and extending a hand of help and warmth. The visit is deeply appreciated. Ivanna lights up and her mother is happier too by the time we leave.

What is amazing is to witness the reconstitution of a Jewish community after 70 years of neglect – and to understand that thanks in no small part to JDC’s immense influence in these formative years, this new emerging community is characterized by a central ethic of caring and a sense of responsibility. I am impressed by the visible attraction of the amazing young people we meet to the work of JDC. They are beautiful, smart, highly capable, and one after another, in private conversations where I try to understand their attraction to this work – they tell me how moved they are by being part of a larger community that is helping others.

One of our young guides recently discovered her Jewish roots and tells me what it means to her to meet up with some of the Jewish “babushkas.” She feels like they are the grandmothers she never had, and she tells me that she loves it when they ask her questions and insist that she sit down and eat. I see her in action, and she is kind with the old people we visit, but also jokes around with them and I’m amazed by the sense of warmth and family that pervades this makeshift gatherings.

Another young woman we meet, a very smart and well-spoken tour guide, tells us that she found out that she was Jewish when she was 14, but that it was her interaction with Hesed, JDC’s welfare operation for the elderly, that really made her feel she wanted to belong to this community and that started her on a journey of education and exploration.

On the walk back from Babi Yar, another of these young women tells me that she loves her work and being connected to the Jewish community because she feels that she is “part of something big and good.”  I love that description for its simplicity.

I love the idea as well that by visiting, even we guests become part of this community, if only briefly. It is important to me that the visits are not about voyeurism, though they certainly include a new appreciation for the tribulations of living in poverty for the weakest in society. But the visits are more -- they test who we are. The clients are not embarrassed, they are proud, and it is us in a certain way who is put on the spot – trying to emerge into this new reality, figuring out questions to ask and reaching inside ourselves for warmth to share.

And though this is not service in the traditional sense, I feel vividly in the visit with Ivanna and her mother and the others we see over the course of the three day trip, that we are actively engaged in something good. We are actively building a sense of global Jewish caring and community from the other side of the world.

The impressive JDC Kiev director, Amir, introduces the group to his work in Ukraine over lunch at the King David restaurant in the beautiful reconstructed Brodsky synagogue. A handsome man, surprisingly young, he speaks with gravitas about how JDC requires young people like himself to make very tough decisions on a daily basis about the welfare of individuals. How to allocate scarce resources when the needs are so great? How to balance between basic welfare and programs that create long term outlook?

He is immensely resourceful. When he came to Ukraine, he tells us that social workers didn’t even exist, and it was JDC that in essence started the training programs needed to sensitize and prepare individuals to help. He has established a huge network now, but one that has retained its humanity and its ability to adjust to individual needs, to think creatively about new challenges.

Amir asks us to take in the next few days with our hearts and our minds. Though he is very even tempered, his passion and commitment to this work are totally apparent. His beautiful wife, who is there with their three small children, tells us that life is not always fun, but that it is meaningful in Kiev, and that this drives them to stay.

No experience drives home the message quite like this visit that the work in the field, the work of one individual and the many who report to him, and the many more who depend on this network, are tied in integrally to the self-understanding of a global Jewish community, and that the values of American Jews and others are reflected immediately on the ground in real lives in a city some 5000 miles away. 

As we build JDC's Ambassadors program, we are focusing on the concept that this is philanthropy that changes lives. Yes, it changes the lives of Ivanna and her mother and tens of thousands more like them. But it also leaves us altered... or it doesn't leave us at all.

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