Global Jewish Reflections | Hesed Was My Home. When Jewish Life Moved Online, I Followed.

Kharkiv volunteer Irina Kalashnikova discusses the power of tzedakah and global Jewish responsibility, connecting these Jewish values to the Torah portion of Vakaykhel-Pekudei.

By Irina Kalashnikova - Hesed Volunteer; Kharkiv, Ukraine | March 12, 2021

Irina Kalashnikova, 73, is a JDC client and a volunteer at the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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

The JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in my hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine is much more than a gathering place — it’s a lifeline, community, and second home.

I worked for 32 years as a researcher at the State Scientific Center for Medicines, and after I retired, I became a JDC client. I was always grateful to receive support from the Jewish community, especially the short-term homecare assistance that was so critical to me after my double hip replacement.

Irina Kalashnikova

A few years ago, I realized I had more to give my community. That’s when I began volunteering with Hesed, regularly conducting Torah study groups in our Hesed library. When COVID-19 came to Ukraine, I surprised myself and reinvented my classes online. Now I record weekly videos on the Torah portion and lead live Zoom programs on the Jewish holidays. I really love to study Torah — for me, there’s so much wisdom to be found in its words.

I grew up in a wonderful, loving Jewish family. Though I was born two years after the Holocaust ended, the horrors of war still loomed large for my parents Evgeny Yakovlevich and Debora Borisovna. They lived in Kharkiv before the Germans came and worked at a research institute, and during the war, they evacuated to faraway Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan. My maternal grandparents were not so lucky; with no chance to leave, they were shot by the Germans into the mass grave at the Drobytsky Yar ravine. If you stand in front of the memorial there, you’ll see their names. I think of them often.

It’s amazing to me that I have the chance, through JDC and Hesed, to live a robust, vibrant Jewish life.

It’s amazing to me that I have the chance, through JDC and Hesed, to live a robust, vibrant Jewish life just a few generations removed from my grandparents’ tragic deaths and decades of oppressive Soviet rule. Before the pandemic, I loved to participate in Shabbaton retreats for volunteers and attend various concerts, lectures, and other programs organized by Hesed. I was always grateful for the wide variety of activities organized for us elderly Jews (everything from sports tournaments and dance classes to knitting lessons and cooking demonstrations!), and I’m glad that hasn’t stopped during the pandemic — it’s just shifted online.

To prepare for my Hesed video reflections, I very carefully read through the text of the weekly parsha (Torah portion) several times. Then I search the internet for the commentary of various famous rabbis, as I want to compose my text with our tradition’s sages in mind. I try to see the connection between the ancient text and our present-day lives, both to draw out its lessons and draw in potential viewers, involving them in Jewish education and Torah study.

Irina Kalashnikova poses for a photo with her son.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, discusses the strict observance of Shabbat and the types of work prohibited on the sabbath. I instantly saw the connection to my own life at Hesed: We, too, are learning to follow the rules of Shabbat. Before the pandemic, we met in person and now, each Friday, we have an online “Model Shabbat,” where we light candles, sing the prayers, eat challah, drink wine, and discuss traditions. It’s a great program because it encourages our community members to bring this wonderful holiday into their homes, not just to celebrate Shabbat at Hesed.

The Torah portion also talks about voluntary donations and “transparent accountability for their use,” which I see as connected to the Jewish commitment to tzedakah (charity). When we give to those in need, we join in with the many Jews over the centuries who have continued the spiritual construction of the House of G-d.

Living here in Kharkiv, I know how important donations from Jews around the world are for  building the community I love so deeply. With these gifts, many elderly people are literally saved from loneliness. At Hesed, they can find friends, nurture their hobbies and talents, and learn together and from each other. In these difficult times, this support is more valuable than ever.

I’m so grateful to everyone who helps us; their generosity today is connected to the biblical stories we read in the Torah and to our collective Jewish work of living out G-d’s love and care for us by helping each other.

Irina Kalashnikova, 73, is a JDC client and a volunteer at the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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