Mobilizing Volunteers to Serve the Neediest

September 22, 2022

After crossing the border into Moldova, Kristina Gladunova began volunteering at the JDC refugee camp where she and her daughter were living


When Kristina Gladunova boarded the bus that evacuated her from Ukraine, she couldn’t have imagined she’d soon be assisting JDC — the same organization that helped rescue her family.

Before the crisis, Gladunova was living in Odesa, raising her toddler daughter and working in marketing as a project manager. But soon after the first rockets fell, she left everything behind — her husband, her parents, and her job — to flee to safety at a JDC refugee center on the outskirts of Chișinău, Moldova.

That’s when she discovered a new purpose: volunteering to help her fellow refugees.

“In the beginning, I needed to act, to do something useful. I can’t sit still,” Gladunova said. “The second day I was here, I went to the JDC office and asked what I could do to help.”

Gladunova and her daughter are just two of the tens of thousands of refugees that JDC has assisted since the Feb. 24 invasion. As a volunteer, Gladunova paid it forward, playing a key role in coordinating logistics at the facility where she, too, was making a new home — figuring out room assignments and preparing for the buses that took other Ukrainian Jews to their next destinations.

“Every bus you sent to the airport, you felt like, ‘Check! Someone else made it,’” she said. “History has brought us Jews together — it’s in our blood now. Even on a global level, in different parts of the world, Jews help and support each other.”

That same sense of mutual responsibility powered Hanna Pysana — an artist and Jewish educator living in Odesa before the crisis and a graduate of JDC’s Metsuda leadership program — in her volunteer efforts.

When the conflict began, Pysana boarded a bus to safety in Moldova and quickly joined JDC’s humanitarian response — giving back to fellow refugees facing similar challenges.

“I volunteer because I’m human, just like them. I want to live — and I want to make sure they can, too,” Pysana said. “We are home for people right now, and our task as JDC is to provide people with a feeling of safety and the understanding that life goes on.”

The Ukraine emergency also catalyzed existing volunteers in European Jewish communities — people like Florentina Lavi in Bucharest. She has volunteered with her city’s JDC-supported Jewish Community Center (JCC) for years but took a few weeks off work shortly after the crisis began to take a more active role in the Romanian Jewish community’s refugee response.

“I’m also happy because I can give them a piece of happiness. That’s so important right now.”

“I try to help as much as I can. I listen to their stories, and I give them everything they need — even hugs, even kisses,” said Lavi, who put together aid packages for Ukrainians and helped to find them transportation and accommodation. “I have tears in my eyes, and it’s hard, but I’m also happy because I can give them a piece of happiness. That’s so important right now.”

Working to provide emotional, logistical, and educational support, JDC Entwine deployed volunteers who have played a key role in assisting refugees in countries like Poland and Hungary.

Volunteers helped to coordinate housing, meals, cultural activities, and more at JDC refugee camps like this one in Vadul lui Vodă, Moldova.

Early into the crisis, Entwine partnered with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), who led the creation of the Ukraine Volunteer Hub — a centralized address for those wanting to support Ukrainian refugees. Since March, nearly 100 skilled, Russian-speaking volunteers from North America have been placed at sites operated by JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI).

“Volunteers deployed through the Hub have brought critical expertise and capacity, and they’ve helped JDC meet the extraordinary needs on the ground,” said Shaun Hoffman, Entwine’s executive director. “This experience has provided important support in response to the crisis, but it’s also had a transformative impact on the Jewish identities of the volunteers, and they’ll bring that back to their home communities — it’s the value of global Jewish responsibility in action.”

And for one Entwine volunteer — Klementyna Poźniak, stationed in Krakow as a Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow — the work was especially personal.

Many volunteers were graduates of programs like Metsuda, JDC’s flagship leadership training initiative in the former Soviet Union.

A native of Poland, she has spent months assisting JCC Krakow in its efforts to house, feed, and provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainian refugees. Poźniak was also able to find housing for the family of an Entwine colleague originally from Kyiv — the kind of interconnected humanitarian response that “shows the strength of our global community,” she said.

For Poźniak and other volunteers, each individual action — every article of clothing provided, every hotel room secured for a refugee family — adds up to a powerful large-scale response.

“It’s still amazing to me that I get to do this. I’ve always seen JDC as the 9-1-1 of the Jewish world, and it’s very humbling to be just one cog in that machine,” she said. “What we’re doing here may seem like a drop in the bucket, but each drop creates a ripple, and you never know where that will lead.”

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