Global Jewish Reflections | In Ukraine, Planting Seeds for a Jewish Future on Tu Bishvat

For Marina Kucherenko — the volunteer coordinator in Melitopol, Ukraine — Tu Bishvat is a chance to reflect on the progress her Jewish community has made since the fall of the Soviet Union.

By Marina Kucherenko - Volunteer Coordinator; Melitopol, Ukraine | January 29, 2021

Working as the coordinator of her city's JDC volunteer center, Marina (center) is committed to revitalizing Jewish life in Melitopol, Ukraine.

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

During the Second World War, my grandfather Naum was shot because he was a Jew. His surviving daughters — my mother Lidia and her sister Mara — hid their Jewish identity to make it through decades of communist rule. It wasn’t until I was an adult myself that I heard how my grandfather died.

Now, nearly 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, I proudly participate in my city’s Jewish life, helping to organize food for the elderly, aid for children, virtual holiday celebrations, and more. My work helps ensure that Jews here in Melitopol, Ukraine — a small city just inland from the Black Sea — can both remember our history and look with confidence to the future.

It reminds me of Tu Bishvat. Sometimes called “the new year for trees,” Tu Bishvat is a chance to celebrate growth and honor the natural world. After slavery and exile in Egypt, the Jews returned to the land of their mothers and fathers, only to find desert all around them — a land laid low after numerous battles. But somehow they found it in themselves to revive the formerly green terrain and make the desert bloom. 

As the holiday approaches, I think about the roots my grandfather planted, and I hope my own story would make him proud. Tu Bishvat gives us the chance to think about what we’re revitalizing and reviving, just as our ancestors did. It’s also a chance to recognize the seeds cultivated with us in mind — an opportunity to return to our roots.

Marina, far left, poses for a photo with other JDC volunteers in Melitopol.

I’m a choreographer by training, and when Jewish life began to develop in Melitopol after Ukraine’s independence in 1991, my mother invited me to the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center to try to revive Jewish dancing. In Soviet times, we never learned “shtetl” dancing, but in studying it, I began to connect more deeply with Jewish culture and with the dances of our mothers and grandmothers. At first it was hard, as I had to collect the music and the movements step-by-step, but it came to captivate me. Now, I try to learn something new and teach something unique to our Jewish dance team each and every day. My Jewish education, and theirs, is a kind of rediscovery, green shoots poking up from the soil.

Today, our Hesed’s “Maayan” Jewish dance team features about 90 participants from five different age groups, and we perform more than 40 dance routines that I’ve choreographed. In 2009, we celebrated our 10-year anniversary with a special show called “Me and My Jewry.” I performed an original vocal and dance number called “A Long Road to Summer,” which I dedicated to the memory of my grandfather and all the other murdered Jews of Melitopol.

I’m planting roots of my own, too, through my work as the coordinator for our city’s JDC-supported volunteer center. My team and I are committed to creating an intergenerational caring community that helps our elderly, supports Jewish children and families, and develops Jewish life in Melitopol. I’m grateful that JDC is our steadfast partner in this work, continuing to provide guidance, especially during this difficult time when we must quickly adapt our operations and begin working in new ways.

Each new project is a seed we plant for the future.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and I love seeing the tangible results of our work. During the pandemic, we’ve launched all sorts of new initiatives — assembling furniture for the needy, collecting Jewish recipes, holding online Shabbats, sewing masks, delivering matzah, and much more. Each new project is a seed we plant for the future.

I get a special kind of joy when I see intergenerational projects come together, like “Matana Metuka,” a campaign to deliver jars of apple jam to lonely and isolated elderly Jews. When one volunteer told us his garden was full of fallen apples, the community jumped into action. Volunteers washed and cut the apples and cooked the jam, members of our children’s programs decorated jars in a lively holiday theme, and teens delivered the gifts to JDC clients before Rosh Hashanah. When we talk about the power of community, that’s what I mean — everyone coming together to help those in need.

As part of her volunteer work, Marina runs programs for elderly Jews in Melitopol.

One of my favorite COVID-era volunteer initiatives brought “balcony gardens” full of herbs like dill, parsley, and basil to some of our most vulnerable elderly, ensuring they’d have access to fresh vegetables and nutritious food. Cultivating organic food, even in urban environments, is popular all over the world, but it took the pandemic to give us the idea that we could do it, too. Growing herbs on a windowsill doesn’t take much time or money, but it greatly benefits our clients, who can now have vitamin-rich food year-round. 

“The gift wasn’t just beautiful but useful, too,” an elderly woman named Tamara Bondarenko told me. “It’s important that you take care of us in difficult times. Thank you.”

That’s what it’s all about for me. All of my work in the Jewish community is oriented around the idea that we can unite together to revive the traditions and vibrancy of Jewish life, even in this place that suffered so much for so long. Today, about 70 years after my grandfather’s murder, hundreds of Jews here in Melitopol actively work to build a Jewish future, looking ahead with optimism and trust that the years to come will hold blessing.

Those are the seeds we’re planting — not just dill, parsley, and basil but community, hope, and faith, too. This Tu Bishvat, I’m remembering that we have spent decades planting good deeds into the fertile soil of our beloved Jewish community. Now we’re sowing, collecting the fruits of our labor together.

Marina Kucherenko is the coordinator for JDC’s volunteer center in Melitopol — one of 44 such centers across the former Soviet Union generously supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group and other JDC donors.

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