Global Jewish Reflections | On Earth Day, Reflecting on My Roots in Jewish Ukraine

For JDC volunteer Alla Krishtal in Poltava, Ukraine, Earth Day is a chance to both remember her family's history and write the next chapter of her own Jewish story.

By Alla Krishtal - JDC Volunteer; Poltava, Ukraine | April 22, 2021

For JDC volunteer Alla Krishtal in Poltava, Ukraine, Earth Day is a chance to both remember her family's history and write the next chapter of her own Jewish story.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Accidents of fate aren’t always accidental, as I learned when I became part of the JDC volunteer center in my hometown of Poltava, Ukraine.

Alla Krishtal is a graduate of Metsuda, the JDC leadership program in Ukraine.

I loved my first experience volunteering, when a friend invited me to join her in handing out balloons in the city center to help bring a smile to pedestrians. That was the spark that pushed me to attend youth club events and eventually participate in Metsuda, JDC’s leadership program in Ukraine. Even as I became more and more involved in the Jewish community, it took years for my mom to confide a family secret: My grandmother was Jewish.

I don’t know what compelled me to ask my mother about our Jewish roots, but when I did, my mom suddenly became sad and quickly disappeared into the next room, returning with a jewelry box. When I opened it, I saw earrings and a pendant with rubies. Mom told me the jewelry belonged to her great-grandmother — these heirlooms were all that was left after my grandmother’s whole family was shot during the Holocaust. Miraculously, my grandmother survived and was then adopted by a Ukrainian family.

After her childhood trauma, all my grandmother had left of her family was this jewelry, and she nearly took her Jewish identity to the grave, revealing her story to my mother only on her deathbed. My mom promised to keep my grandmother’s secret, but when I found my place in the Jewish community, she realized my grandmother’s story was my birthright, too. Now I proudly wear my family’s jewelry on Jewish holidays.

When we volunteer, we have the chance to live our Jewish values like compassion, mercy, and patience.

I’m so grateful my Jewish story is so different from my grandmother’s. Through programs like Metsuda, I’ve learned so much — how to correct my mistakes, how to stay united as one Jewish people, how to make my voice heard but also listen, and of course, the importance of tikkun olam (repairing the world). We all have the power to change the world, and it’s our choice to decide in which direction we should change it. When we volunteer, we have the chance to live our Jewish values like compassion, mercy, and patience.

I’m very passionate about a wide variety of volunteer initiatives, but my work with eco-friendly and environmentally conscious projects is very close to my heart. In Poltava, we don’t have a waste recycling plant; instead, garbage is collected and placed in a huge dump just opposite a beautiful old forest. If you walk there, you’ll see trees and bushes covered with plastic and broken glass — for me, it’s impossible to look at it without crying.

My volunteer friends and I knew we couldn’t build a recycling plant ourselves, so we decided to focus on what we could perhaps control — public opinion. We organized an “eco-show,” a chance to teach people in our city about recycling by creating art from garbage and presenting our work at a city festival. We also mobilized some local volunteers to clean up garbage and beautify our public spaces. A few years since we began our work, I’m proud to share that many members of the Jewish community have joined us in sorting garbage, using reusable shopping bags, and volunteering at cleanup events. We’ve all become more eco-conscious and environmentally responsible.

Alla, right, heads up the JDC-supported youth and teen club in Poltava, Ukraine, a chapter of the Active Jewish Teens (AJT) network.

Judaism teaches us to take care of G-d’s creations, and for me, this belief animates my own environmentalism. If we are to take care of our own souls and bodies, then surely we must also care for nature, treating the land that feeds us and keeps us alive with reverence and respect.

All of us can live without another bottle of soda or branded blouse, but without the air we breathe, we’d be lost. Earth Day, which we celebrate each April 22, is a chance to remember that the health of our planet is the health of our future children and grandchildren. So much is at stake, and we must seize every opportunity to remember our responsibility and care for the gifts we’ve received from G-d.

I’m proud the Jewish community has provided me with a mechanism for making positive change in my hometown. Here in Poltava, we are a family of caring, like-minded people — we support each other, rescue each other in difficult times, and rejoice together in times of celebration.

I wish my grandmother had lived to see me write my bright new chapter of our family’s Jewish story.

Alla Krishtal, 27, is the head of the youth and teen club at the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava, Ukraine. A graduate of JDC’s Metsuda leadership program, she’s also a community volunteer.

The Poltava teen club is a chapter of JDC’s Active Jewish Teens (AJT) network.

AJT was founded in 2014 by local teens and JDC, in partnership with BBYO, the world’s largest pluralistic Jewish teen movement. Today, AJT is powered by a partnership with the Genesis Philanthropy Group and is part of the global BBYO movement. Across the former Soviet Union, more than 3,200 Jewish teenagers participate in AJT teen clubs in 63 cities.

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