In Moldova, Volunteers Build Caring Community
October 9, 2020
As soon as Katya Rybak began celebrating Shabbat with lonely elderly JDC clients in her hometown of Chisinau, Moldova, the spark was lit within her.
And when she started working to integrate Jewish children with special needs into the programming of her city’s JDC teen club, she knew she was forever changed.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the smiles on their faces,” said Rybak, 19, one of more than 1,300 Moldovans who participate each year in the activities of Chisinau’s JDC-supported volunteer center, which launched in 2014. “Thanks to these projects, I wasn’t just Katya anymore — I became a volunteer confident she was capable of doing more and committed to the future of her Jewish community.”
Across the former Soviet Union, JDC volunteer initiatives reach more than 32,000 beneficiaries in over 40 cities; over 6,000 volunteers participate in at least one project each month.
Rybak is also an alumna of Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the JDC teen network in the former Soviet Union — in partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group and BBYO — that reaches more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers in over 60 cities. Today, three years after first joining AJT, she’s driven by a desire to improve the lives of Jews in Moldova, the landlocked former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine that is Europe’s poorest country.
When the Moldovan government declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rybak began cooking lunches with her parents, who run a restaurant in Chisinau — working with other volunteers to deliver meals like zeama (chicken soup) and mamaliga (cornmeal polenta) to clients of the city’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center.
“Whenever we’re cooking, I think of the people who will receive the food — isolated elderly Jews who probably feel all alone in the world sometimes,” she said. “I want to tell them: Please don’t worry. There will always be people ready to help you. After all, we learned it from you. You’ve taught us how to be a new generation of decent and kind people.”
Yakov Kerner, 69, is one of the elderly Jews who receive three hot lunches a week through Rybak’s volunteer initiative. A retired theoretical physicist with diabetes and hypertension, he now lives on a meager fixed income and relies on JDC assistance to pay for food and medicine and survive Moldova’s harsh winters.
Known in Chisinau as “the keeper of traditions,” Kerner has continued to participate in community programming during the pandemic, reading the weekly Torah portion as part of Zoom Shabbat gatherings.
“I always helped the Jewish community when my parents were alive, leading Shabbat services, giving lectures, and working with the special programs for elderly Jews with dementia,” he said. “Now I’m the one who needs help, and I’m deeply grateful to all the volunteers for their constant support. I wish Katya and her family the best of health, as this is the most important thing now.”
Oxana Rogulsky is the homecare coordinator at Chisinau’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, which serves more than 1,500 elderly Jews like Kerner.
For her, Rybak and Kerner’s intergenerational story is proof JDC’s investment in the former Soviet Union since the mid-1990s has paid off powerfully.
“We’ve been concentrating our efforts on building a caring community based on support and mutual responsibility, and I’m happy we’re starting to reap the fruit of our last few decades’ work,” Rogulsky said. “Katya’s project connects volunteerism and AJT, both of which are only a few years old, with our day-to-day work providing aid to the most vulnerable elderly and disabled Jews, giving us confidence in the future of our community.”
Since Rybak began her volunteer project in March 2020, two more restaurants have joined the initiative, tripling the number of days that meals can be delivered to vulnerable elderly Jews like Kerner.
“At a time when we often forget about words like honor, duty, and conscience, I’m excited that so many people my age are adding the word volunteer to their vocabulary,” Rybak said. “I’m grateful it didn’t take much to convince people to join in and do a good deed.”
And she’s sure this is just the start of her story.
“I can’t predict exactly what the future holds, but I know I’m definitely not going to stop volunteering,” she said. “My JDC experiences have helped me become who I am today, a leader who wants to continue to grow and develop. I promise my best is yet to come.”