“A Light in the Darkness”: Celebrating My Jewish Community This Chanukah Season

Ukrainian winters are brutally cold, but Ella A. finds strength, hope, and warmth in her Jewish community this Chanukah — and all year round.

By Ella A. - JDC Volunteer & Client; Kharkiv, Ukraine | December 13, 2023

Ella A. (seated) teaches a weaving class at the JDC-supported Hesed Shaare Tikva social welfare center in Odesa — just one of the many JDC programs that connect her to Jewish life.

Ella A. always knew she was Jewish. But growing up in Ukraine during the time of the Soviet Union, she only knew bits and pieces of her Jewish roots. An unfortunate event, and a chance meeting, would bring Ella to the JDC-supported Hesed Shaare Tikva social welfare center in Kharkiv, where she would discover the supportive and vibrant Jewish community she’d always wanted. This Chanukah, Ella writes about how this very community — along with JDC — has been there for her in the darkest of times and lit the way on her Jewish journey. 

Ella A. rides the bike she received from volunteers at the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC).

I’ll start with a joke: A man was once given a kippah and, following some “wise” advice, put it on in case of trouble. The man was not a Jew. One day, his car broke down, and no one stopped to help him. He remembered the kippah, put it on, and his problems disappeared: At that very moment, a car stopped. It was a Jewish family.  

In a world that’s often hostile to Jews, we are there for each other — in fact, our mutual support is sometimes all we can count on. And for people like me, who grew up in the Soviet Union and didn’t have much a Jewish childhood, this support is a return to ourselves. Put another way, I’ve “put on my kippah,” and I’ll never go back. 

This Chanukah, I trace the route that led me here, to my Jewish life. As children, my sister and I collected information about our Jewish past, bit by bit. My grandmother told us she’d been born on Chanukah, and I knew Anne Frank had mentioned Chanukah in her famous diary — but that’s all I knew. 

We’d also heard the story of our great-grandfather Yevel. He was religious. During the Second World War, when it was time to evacuate, he refused. But when his granddaughter came running from the train station, begging him to leave, he agreed. The one thing he brought with him? His favorite seder plate. 

Growing up with these rich stories and traditions — however piecemeal, however obscure — it now seems inevitable I’d take my own first steps on my Jewish journey, a journey that began with my sister. 

She’d read Sholom Aleichem — one of Ukraine’s most famous authors and playwrights, who was also Jewish — and so was connected to a Yiddish world we never knew firsthand. To get more in touch with our Jewishness, we started attending Hebrew classes at Kharkiv’s Israeli Cultural Center. Thankfully, we weren’t there the night someone shattered the window with a Molotov cocktail. 

We returned to the center the next day. Soot coated the classroom, and we did our best to help clean up. While dusting off the books, we met a woman who would lead us much further on our path to Jewish life. She had thrown herself into Jewish life, and for my sister, was the first link in a string of events: Torah study, a wedding under the chuppah, and more. 

This woman also brought me to JDC — specifically, our city’s JDC-supported Hesed Shaare Tikva social welfare center. I already knew about Hesed, as they had cared for my great-aunt after her stroke. Before, my mother and I had been her primary caregivers, taking turns living with my great-aunt, but when I became a mother, my hands were completely full. 

JDC gave us that Jewish mutual support we couldn’t have lived without. And when I went to Hesed again, I felt that same sense of community. It was like one big family where everyone watches out for each other. 

More than just food, medicine, and other life-saving necessities, the team at JDC gave us something even more profound: They helped us rediscover our history, our culture, and each other — a fuller embrace of Jewish life than the bits and pieces my sister and I had gathered as children.

Now I pass all this on to my own daughters. It was perhaps my proudest moment as a Jewish mother when they lit their first Shabbat candles at Shaare Tikva during Shavuot, in 2010. Now we light candles almost every Friday.

Then, on February 24, 2022, JDC’s help became more important than I could have ever imagined. 

I had woken to the ring of my alarm clock. Before waking the girls to go college, to school, to kindergarten, I needed a little time for myself. Then I received a call from my mother. She usually doesn’t call so early, so I was scared. And then she asked if I could hear it. “Hear what?” I asked. She had just heard explosions. 

At first, I couldn’t grasp the scale of the crisis. There was no fear then, just adrenaline. “It looks like it’s started,” my husband texted (he and my eldest daughter were away on a work trip).

Ella A. (far right) lights Shabbat candles with Jewish community members at Hesed Shaare Tikva in Kharkiv.

I went and picked up both grandmothers — my mother and my husband’s mother — so they could come live with us. That day, candles were lit in the hallway, a windowless room where everyone huddled together and listened to the explosions. We brought the dog in from the yard. 

The following weeks were reminiscent of books and films about the war from my childhood. It was as if I were living in an old black-and-white movie.

Public transportation wasn’t functioning in those early days. People gathered at bus stops. They waited for cars packed with humanitarian aid, but no one knew whether it would arrive. An airplane flew overhead, its engine rumbling louder and louder, lower and lower. The sky always seemed cloudy, so you couldn’t see the plane … you didn’t know what was about to happen. 

Late in the evenings, I would hear the sound of wheels. I knew this was a train to Lviv, in safer western Ukraine,  and pictured how crowded and scary it must have been. I suppressed  any thoughts of my own evacuation. Two grandmothers, a baby, two teenagers, four cats, and a dog: How could we leave? My mother was 5 years old when she evacuated from Kharkiv. Her grandfather, my great-grandfather died in the evacuation, and my other great-grandfather, too. I shuddered at the thought. 

We held on. By the end of March, my husband Aleksey and my daughter Lena somehow found their way back to Kharkiv. We were together at last — one family.

And my JDC family never left my side either. Through all of this chaos, JDC’s psychological support was perhaps their most important program. Anyone of any age could receive this help — when her kindergarten was closed, Lilya, my youngest, benefitted from trauma relief, too. It feels so important to me that JDC assistance — its material, spiritual, and psychological support — is accessible to all age groups. This mutual support encompasses all Jews, everywhere.

This matters, because I’ve often felt cut off not only from Jewish life, but the world entirely. My house is a half-hour walk from the nearest pharmacy. Public transportation is irregular, and with two elderly relative in need of medication, this distance is dangerous — especially in the winter.

That’s why our bicycle is literally life-saving. This bicycle was given to us by volunteers at the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC). It doesn’t require fuel (and thus money), and it gives us mobility, joy, and most importantly, freedom. Now I feel more confident. Thanks to JDC, we’re connected not only to the Jewish world, but the world more fully. 

Thanks to JDC, we’re connected not only to the Jewish world, but the world more fully.

Of course, I had to give back. Not long ago, I started volunteering at Hesed. I teach weaving and macrame classes at the day center, a place where elderly Jews can come and socialize. For my students — the elderly community members — these classes are a joy. I structure classes so that everyone leaves with a finished product: a hat, mittens, or something else to help survive the bitter cold. 

These classes are beneficial in another way. Fine motor skills boost cognition, in particular, memory. By creating this or that thing, they give their brain the chance to solve a complex problem — and, they get to enjoy the “solution” to that problem.

Icy roads, blackouts, the brutal cold: This is what we face every winter here in Ukraine. If you “live” through the Ukrainian summer, then you “survive” the Ukrainian winter. That is, you must constantly resist cold, blizzards, early twilight, and twilight thoughts. 

It’s a complicated time. The worst part is the uncertainty.

That’s why it is so good that Chanukah is in the winter —  in the darkest time of year, we add more and more candles to our menorahs, increasing our light as Jews. 

I am very grateful to Jews all over the world for their help and support. I admire the courage of people who defend their faith, remain Jews, and “wear their kippah” proudly — however they choose to express their Jewishness. They are a light in the darkness. And this Chanukah, I am profoundly thankful for the light that JDC brings.

Ella A. is a JDC volunteer and client living in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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