Born a Jointnik: A Reflection on Family and a Lifetime Connection to JDC
Growing up, Dasha Dolgova encountered JDC each day. But it wasn't until she was older that she joined the organization that had given her family so much.
By Daria Dolgova - PR Coordinator, JDC Moscow | July 19, 2021
Growing up Jewish in Yaroslavl, Russia, Dasha Dolgova encountered JDC each day — in her Jewish community, at home, and in the streets, where homecare workers and volunteers brought food and more to elderly Jews and at-risk families. But it wasn’t until she was older that Dasha realized her life’s mission: to join the organization that had given her family so much. In this piece, Dasha reflects on her family history, its JDC connection, and what inspired her to become a Jointnik once and for all.
One of my favorite books is Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Like the ghosts in his novel, I believe our ancestors are spirits, always lingering among us — guiding us and guarding us. Magical realism is how I make sense of the fact that my dreams and goals have come true in a frighteningly acute manner. What else can it be?
It’s May 9, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the “Great Victory,” the day the Nazis surrendered. I’m standing in the center of a big square, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who’ve all come to watch a performance my team has put together in honor of Victory Day. I’m looking at the faces of veterans — soldiers, nurses, children of the war, but all I’m seeing is my grandfather. It takes all I’ve got not to cry in front of them, while “Poklonimsya velikim tem godam” (“Take a Bow to Honor Those Years”) plays in the background. In the staff tent some 20 meters away, underneath scripts, to-do lists, badges, artists’ names, and spare batteries for the walkie-talkies, lays a portrait of my grandpa, safely resting after I marched with it in Bessmertny Polk (The Immortal Regiment), a major event that marks Victory Day. Even here, he is with me.
My story kept going. In 2017, when I was planning my first visit to Israel with Birthright, I started to research my family tree, asking so many questions only to learn there weren’t many people left to give me answers. After visiting Yad Vashem, something shifted in my chest; I came back from Israel not quite myself. A colleague of mine — back then, I was an event manager at the Yaroslavl Millennium Concert Hall — looked at me and said, “Of course you look different: You visited the Holy Land.” But back at home, living in a province with just one small synagogue, what could I really do with all of my new passion and emotions?
Though a small city, Yaroslavl has a cozy little synagogue. When you walk inside, the first thing you see is a plaque with the words: “This synagogue was built with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.” Every time I saw it as a teen, I wondered: What is this “JDC” and how powerful must it be to help build something so big? Aside from the synagogue, Yaroslavl’s Jewish community also has a Sunday school and our JDC-supported social welfare center, Hesed Rachel. I’m proud to say that, at different times in my life, I was a part of each aspect of Yaroslavl’s Jewish life. And the connection is deeper than just volunteering or attending events: Once upon a time, JDC directly supported me and my family.
If you say to any Russian, “Oh, those ‘90s,” they will get the context in a heartbeat. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, so much was in turmoil, and my family had its own strife, too. In 1996, my grandma died. I have very little memory of her, but I’m told that my green eyes and passion for medicine is her legacy. Together with my grandpa, she lived in Bryansk, and after her death, my parents asked him to move in with us here in Yaroslavl. My dad was a composer and my mom, an actress — they were proud to work at the theater, but sometimes our financial struggles forced us to borrow money from our neighbors for a loaf of bread
That’s when JDC came to the rescue.
Do you remember the taste of your favorite treat? Just imagine for a minute: What did your childhood taste like? For me, it is sguschenka (condensed milk). I was only able to get my hands on it (and soon unable to keep them off!) when JDC delivered its food packages. I always anticipated that day, which could only be compared to New Year’s Eve, the most magical holiday of all in Russian culture. I vividly remember being agitated from the early morning, asking my mom every two seconds when we could go to collect the bag of goods — which, from my 5- or 6-year-old perspective, seemed like a half year’s-worth supply of food.
Aside from food assistance, JDC also provided my grandfather with homecare support. Two different women would come to take care of him, and one of them, Oksana, became our dear friend. Though she was Russian Orthodox and religious, she was always comfortable with grandpa fasting on Yom Kippur. She even stayed for our Passover Seder and ate matzah and chicken broth with us.
My grandpa Rafail never talked about the war. All I knew was that his entire family perished in the Holocaust — mom, dad, sisters, brother, his brother’s wife, and their 5-year-old daughter. He never said their names. It was only after his death that I learned them: Tsipoira, Alter Moshe, Zelde, Rochl, Avrom Michl, Reizl, and Chasya. All of them were killed in the Volozhin ghetto in 1941 and 1942, at the hands of the Nazis. Grandpa survived because he was across the country, fighting in the Red Army. I once found a letter in his belongings, in which his neighbor from home writes: “I’m sorry to say this, but all of your family was killed. You have nobody left.”
He kept this story to himself until his final days, but now, every Holocaust Remembrance Day, I tell it to the world and read that letter to remind myself where I come from. I feel them — Tsipoira, Alter Moshe, Zelde, Rochl, Avrom Michl, Reizl, Chasya, and so many others standing behind me — like the many generations of the Buendía family in Marquez’s novel.
One day, inspired by my trip to Israel, I said to myself that I needed to put my skills as a public relations specialist to use working for a charity organization. A former colleague shared a link to a vacancy at JDC’s Moscow office, and all at once it became clear: the plaque on the wall of Yaroslavl’s synagogue, Oksana making my grandpa a bowl of kletsky soup, a month’s worth of groceries for a struggling family with nowhere else to turn.
In an instant, I knew that JDC was the place for me.
My family is a perfect example of people who were lucky enough not to live out of necessity, but passion: musicians, actors, directors, doctors. I have found myself in my writing — not for my sake, but for others … doing what I love for people in need of help, just like my family once did.
As a JDC professional, I live in balance, with a mission and sense of belonging to something greater than myself.
Now, as a JDC professional, I live in balance, with a mission and sense of belonging to something greater than myself, something global and entirely good. Volunteerism, a Jewish future, leadership, tikkun olam, and other values, are now the foundation for my life. Each day, as I give back to the community that once helped me, I remind myself to be thankful for what I have, to continue to tell my grandfather’s story, and to honor the circle of life.
Like I said, all my ideas come true in a bizarre, acute way. If that’s not magical realism, then what is?
A talented writer with a passion for literary fiction, Dasha Dolgova serves as the PR coordinator for JDC’s Moscow office. Dasha is a 2020 alumna of JDC’s Knafaim leadership program and attended a JDC Entwine Global Leaders trip to Morocco in 2019. When she’s not organizing video shoots and interviews, you can find Dasha reading Jorge Luis Borges, Anton Chekhov, or writing her own work.