Celebrating Food Security (and Challah) in Sumy, Ukraine

With challah in hand, Alla Z. feeds her hunger for Jewish life — and remains connected to her Jewish past.

By Alla Z. - JDC Client; Sumy, Ukraine | July 10, 2023

Alla Z. (far right) plays Jenga with her friends at the JDC-supported Hesed Haim social welfare center in Sumy, Ukraine.

Last year, Alla Z., 87, evacuated from Sumy, Ukraine, for the second time in her life. With JDC’s help, she was able to return and throw herself back into her Jewish community at the city’s JDC-supported Hesed Haim social welfare center. In this post, Alla discusses her childhood during the Second World War, the Ukraine crisis, and why programs like JDC’s Food Security Project help keep her alive — and feed her soul, too. 

Alla Z. (left) holds a fresh loaf of challah with Galina Z., Food Security Project coordinator at Sumy’s Hesed Haim.

I woke up to the roar of engines. That day, I was with my daughter, and we saw tanks on the road near our house. There were so many. From that day on, our city was surrounded — sirens buzzed, people fled, and we hid in a bomb shelter. 

The decision to evacuate was made in the early days of the crisis. My son-in-law took us on the long route from Sumy to Cherkasy, where we lived for two months. It was scary and difficult. Up until that day, I never thought I’d experience such horrors again. 

Because, you see, this wasn’t the first time I’d evacuated from my home city. 

When World War II began, I was only 4, living with my mother in occupied Sumy.  Remembering that catastrophic time, I can still see the Nazi camp for prisoners. I see the barbed wire fence, the outstretched hands, the prisoners begging for food: It was a terrible, terrible sight. 

My childhood was complicated, but it wasn’t unhappy. I had good friends. I had fun. My family had food and shelter — everything necessary for life. 

On Fridays, my mother and I would visit my grandparents. They always lit two candles — for beauty’s sake, I thought — and my grandmother treated me to a braided bread I’d never had anywhere else. Sometimes, she would make me unleavened bread — also something I’d only eaten with them. I wasn’t even allowed to eat it outside, in the yard. 

Of course, I now know my grandparents were doing their best to live a Jewish life — not an easy thing to do in the midst of war. 

“Soon, they will come for you and give you yellow stars,” a neighbor often told my mother, referring to the yellow stars Nazis required Jews to wear. We lived with this fear everyday. 

One day, a man told my mother there would be a raid on the Jews. My mother and I, along with my aunt and 1-year-old cousin, left our apartment in the dead of night, as it was incredibly unsafe for us to stay there. We crossed the border and miraculously evacuated to safety.   

After the liberation of Sumy, we returned to the city — and somehow, we moved forward. 

I grew up, went to university, and became a math teacher, a career that spanned four decades. Since childhood, I’d been good with numbers and I enjoyed it, too. I had so many wonderful students and I still keep in touch with many of them to this day.

When I retired, JDC entered my life. My friends invited me to Sumy’s JDC-supported Hesed Haim social welfare center. When I stepped through the doors that first time, I immediately found friends, a sense of care, and new hobbies for my husband and me. Pretty soon, we began attending Jewish holidays and classes. Life sparkled with new colors — it became diverse, interesting, and most importantly, Jewish.  

I’m glad that my Jewish family has taken care of and accepted me. For years, my husband and I were active participants in the Hesed’s day center, a space for elderly Jews to socialize. Even when my husband died, I continued to participate. Widowed and alone, I found support in my friends — because of them, I haven’t withdrawn into myself. I keep on living. 

That’s why, when I returned to Sumy after those two long months away, I knew JDC would be there for me again. Thanks to their assistance, I’m provided with everything I need — food, medicine, homecare, and Jewish friends and community. I’m not afraid of hunger, cold, or loneliness. 

Now I have a huge circle of friends and am always busy. This year alone, I attended Chanukah and Purim celebrations and went to synagogue on Pesach. I visited with the artists of our local Jewish Youth Theater. I live a vibrant life. And I have a purpose: JDC welcomes me as a grandmother, a friend, and a community member. We’re one big family. 

None of this would be possible without my JDC homecare worker, Lena. She does so much more than just cook or clean — she’s a friend who visits with me and listens. With Lena’s help, I cook Jewish dishes on holidays, though I regret never having learned how to bake challah.

But thanks to JDC’s Food Security Project, I don’t have to. Each week, JDC volunteers bake and deliver challah right to my doorstep, just in time for Shabbat. Now that I have my challah, every Shabbat feels like a real Shabbat. I know that JDC has put a terrific amount of effort, love, and care into it — just like my grandmother did when I was a little girl. 

I know that JDC puts a terrific amount of effort, love, and care into the challah — just like my grandmother did when I was a little girl.

All Jews are responsible for each other — we live by these words, and they are not empty: We feel them every minute. I know there are so many Jews around the world whom I’ll never meet, Jews who work tirelessly to help people like me. And I, in turn, want to be useful to my community as much as I can — volunteering, attending events, and delivering advice (or a delicious pie!).  

I am so grateful to all who support Hesed, JDC, the Claims Conference (which assists Holocaust survivors like me), and programs like the Food Security Project. I sometimes think it’s a pity that, due to age and the current crisis, people like me have to rely on others. But I always feel respected and dignified and I wouldn’t have found my way back to my beloved Jewish community any other way.

Despite these terrible circumstances, life goes on — Jewish life, that is. No crisis can separate us from each other. 

Alla Z., 87, is a JDC client in Sumy, Ukraine. 

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