Answering the Call – From Israel to Ukraine

When a mother in distress called a JDC hotline, Pola Barkan was there to help.

By Pola Barkan - Director of Venture Development, Hackaveret | May 9, 2022

At a JDC hotline in Israel, Pola Barkan delivers life-saving aid and human connection to Ukraine's Jews.

Before the war in Ukraine began, Pola Barkan spent her days developing new social entrepreneurship ventures through her role at JDC’s Hackaveret hub in Lod, Israel. Then, when the Ukraine war broke out, she joined the JDC response team as a call-center operator, fielding calls from Jews in distress. This week, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, Pola describes a call with one mother, and how she did everything she could to bring her and her infant the life-saving aid they needed. 

She phoned, and I answered her call. She was breathless and frantic. 

I ask her to describe her needs. She told me she was in a basement shelter in Kharkiv, Ukraine with her one-month old, and the infant was running out of formula — the child desperately needed food. 

Never mind that it wasn’t her fault. Never mind that this was war, and that she was sheltering from gunshots and shelling. She still spoke with shame in her voice: She couldn’t feed her child. And I could relate to this because, like so many mothers, I too always question whether I’m doing my best. 

I alerted my manager that this request was urgent — and we worked like crazy to get her help. In the meantime, I tried to calm her and said we would respond immediately. I struggled to hold myself together. I was stressed, but I tried not to let her hear it in my voice. 

I thought about my own baby, Carmel, and what I’d do if I were in this mother’s position. In fact, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do — and if I could, I would have flown to Ukraine and given her the formula myself.

Pola answers a call at the JDC hotline in Lod, Israel.

That wasn’t on the table, of course. But the next best thing I could do was answer her call as part of JDC’s response team. 

This is my job as a staffer at the JDC call center in Israel — to help deliver immediate aid and human connection to tens of thousands of Jews across Ukraine. This mother’s call was just one of more than 52,000 that JDC has fielded since the war began over two months ago, and it almost felt like fate that I answered her call — that I, a mother to an infant myself, picked the phone up at the very moment she needed help.

The call center is almost always busy. From the second we open the lines, they ring all day. We answer the calls, and the on-the-ground team in Ukraine responds to their needs. We also have regular sessions with a trauma therapist, as this work affects us, too. The people we serve are in distress — and JDC ensures that we have the emotional support to help those on the ground. 

It was never a question for me to join JDC’s Ukraine response — in fact, it felt like a duty — and I started two weeks after returning from maternity leave. I am fluent in Russian, and my grandmother always taught me that this language was a gift, that I should use it. So when the war began, I knew she’d be proud I was.

I had heard about the Joint long before I answered this particular mother’s call. My family moved from the former Soviet Union to Israel in 1992, and they’d known about the organization even before then, before they lived openly Jewish lives. When I finished my MBA in Social Leadership, I wanted to be part of the Joint, because I’d heard about their life-saving global work — answering the call for the most vulnerable everywhere since 1914. 

That’s why I joined Hackaveret — the JDC center for social innovation in Lod — developing solutions for Israel’s most complex social problems. And that’s also why I joined the JDC call center, where I waited for the Ukraine team to tell me if that mother in Kharkiv would be okay.  

A few hours later, I received the message: “Pola, you did everything right. We reached the woman in Kharkiv. We gave her the formula. Her baby will survive.” 

Under shelling, under fire, the JDC team brought her baby food: I could breathe again. And with her child safe, I picked my daughter up from daycare, thankful that she, too, was safe. 

Under shelling, under fire, the JDC team brought her baby food: I could breathe again.

Here at the call center, distance doesn’t exist. I was in Israel and the mother was in Kharkiv, almost exactly 2,000 miles between us. But we had something in common, as mothers to young children — infants who depend on us. 

As mothers, we always try to do what’s best for our children. We’re willing to sacrifice everything for them, whatever it takes. And, in a sense, this is exactly what JDC has been doing for the most vulnerable people — in Ukraine and across the world — for more than a century.  

Now, as a mother, I understand why we need Mother’s Day, why we need one special day — at the very least — to celebrate the joy, the work, and the sacrifices of mothers everywhere.

And though I’m heartbroken that the war in Ukraine rages on, I’m glad I could help even that one mother, that woman who I’ll never meet, but whose child — thank G-d — will survive. 
Pola Barkan is a social entrepreneur and a JDC call-center operator, helping to deliver aid to thousands of Ukraine’s Jews. Pola serves as the director of venture development at Hackaveret, the Israeli Center for Social Innovation, founded by JDC and National Insurance Funds, and has a BA in Politics and Management and an MBA in Social Leadership from Ben-Gurion University. She is the mother of two daughters — Gefen, 3, and Carmel, 9.

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