From the President: Letter from Odessa

Today we are in Odessa. Who could believe that this beautiful city, filled with culture and favored by the beautiful sea air, was not two months ago a site of terror. Shootings in the streets stopped life as the citizens knew it. You can still see the fear in the faces and the uncertainty of the future they face.

Our first stop is the Beit Grand JCC. It was closed during the worst days but opened again as soon as possible. I could see why it was important when we went inside. It is a center for community members of all ages. The seniors' social activities happen every day, and it gives them a place to gather. On this day they danced and sang for us and gathered us into their dancing circle. The teens showed us their photography exhibit, the results of a class they took taught by professional photographers. This a place for everyone, for every age -- from the very young to the young at heart. This building and the activities it offers would be the envy of any of our own communities.

The Hesed offices are there as well. The director showed us a map of his territory of responsibility. The distances are far, but the numbers served are sometimes one and sometimes many. It is with pride I see our mission served so well in spite of the difficult logistics. Our clients live about 10 years longer than average. They are confronting greater needs. Medicine and doctors are in short supply. There is more trauma in all age groups from the recent conflicts. On top of all that, government support has disappeared.

JDC's offices are in the building, and we had the opportunity to meet the staff -- a remarkable group who never stopped thinking about their work even as their own lives were threatened. They speak of their work, but also of the future, when even more responsibilities could fall on the local community.

Our next stop was Warm Homes and volunteer coordinator Olga's lovely apartment. Every few weeks, she gathers the dozen or more of her group who are volunteers to share stories of their experiences and their lives. Some of them are former JDC professionals and others are retired women (and one man) who just want to help their community.

Through the day, we met with individuals and other organizations who are making a difference in the lives of the people of their city. It is a wonderful reflection of the people of Odessa and Ukraine that they understand community and want to share in the responsibility of helping those in need.

We were all stunned at the reports of the plane shot down. Truthfully, it put fear in our hearts knowing we were all flying the next day -- to say nothing of the reaction of our families. It is a real-life taste of the fears the people of the Ukraine, and Israel as well, must feel daily. The people around us conveyed to us the trauma they continue to experience. Let us not forget that even though everyone continues to try to live a normal life, this is a war zone.

As I leave Ukraine, I have a few parting thoughts. During our stay, we were all tracking the news from Israel. In the relative calm of Kiev and Odessa, it is easy for the world and for Jointniks to forget that this whole country is still so fragile and in need of our support. We can be so proud of our professionals. I witnessed the same dedication and resolve to put the clients first that I saw when I was in Israel after the last crisis. I am sure it will be apparent again this time. When they come face to face with danger to their home and family, they become soldiers in the JDC army in spite of their fears. We must constantly reach out to them and show them we care and understand and appreciate that they continually go above and beyond the call of duty on our behalf.

I have seen so much in a few days from every perspective -- human costs, economic impact, and political intelligence.

I will go home now with new resolve to tell the world how important JDC is to all those who need us for support, for community building, in good times and bad.

We are one JDC family.

Penny Blumenstein is the President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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