Global Jewish Reflections | “Zikaron” in Action: A JDC Volunteer Reflects on Memory and Service

As Shavuot approaches, JDC volunteer Ishai Sinelnikov reflects on his work in local Jewish cemeteries.

By Ishai Sinelnikov - JDC Volunteer | May 13, 2021

As Shavuot approaches, JDC volunteer Ishai Sinelnikov reflects on his work in local Jewish cemeteries.

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

When he joined JDC’s Maagal volunteer center in Moscow, Ishai Sinelnikov committed himself to global Jewish responsibility. As Shavuot approaches, and we say yizkor, a traditional mourning service recited by those who have lost a loved one, Ishai reflects on his work volunteering in local Jewish cemeteries. 

I grew up in a secular family. Though my parents raised me in the Soviet Union, they had a global outlook; they taught us to value all people, no matter their race, nationality, or religion. This openness to the world has shaped my Jewish journey. 

That journey began 18 years ago, when I was 25, in the midst of my career in media and television. I went from being more of a spiritual Jew to one observing more Jewish rituals and traditions, and I found myself ready to commit myself to the Jewish world.   

Ishai Sikelnikov is a JDC volunteer in Moscow, Russia.

Back then, we didn’t have a volunteer center in Moscow — we just did good deeds without making a big deal out of it. For a long time, I took care of an elderly woman and volunteered at a hospice. Most rewarding, though, was cleaning the Jewish cemeteries.

A few years ago, I began researching more formal volunteer initiatives in Moscow; that’s how I discovered JDC’s Maagal volunteer center. This was the first center of its kind, and it opened in 2014. My first volunteer activity was “Zikaron,” translated as “remembrance” — a project to clean up Jewish cemeteries, just as I’d been doing independently for some time.

This was fate; I threw myself into Maagal. We do so many good deeds — food and medicine delivery, call centers, technical support. But even now, “Zikaron” remains my most important volunteer activity. 

I had one experience that stands out as a turning point in my community service career, and my Jewish journey more fully. 

Six years ago, I was caring for a 93-year-old grandmother. She had a health condition that prevented her from raising her arms. One day, she fainted on the floor while frying some herring. When she awoke, she couldn’t reach over to turn off the heat or get up to call someone. The smoke was terrible and so was the smell — it alarmed the neighbors, who called the firefighters.

When I arrived, I rushed over to help the old woman, bracing for the worst. But lo and behold, she was smiling and ordering the firefighters and doctors around, like the person I knew her to be— a strong Jewish woman. She was grateful and not in shock. Later, when I helped her get into bed, she teared up in gratitude

There’s a popular Russian proverb by the poet Nikolai Tikhonov: “If you make nails from these people (i.e., Russians), they will be the strongest in the world.” In that old woman’s apartment, I saw what we, the Jewish people, are made of.

JDC keeps us strong. They provide lifesaving support for those in need and unite the Jewish world.

JDC keeps us strong. They provide lifesaving support for those in need and unite the Jewish world in helping the most vulnerable among us. They allow us to honor the most important mitzvah — ahavat israel, “to love the Jewish people” — and love all humanity, too. 

For that reason, JDC and Maagal’s work is priceless. Secular and religious, young and old, JDC unites us Jews, no matter where you’re from or who you are. Sometimes I look at our volunteer group and marvel at the differences between us. Still, we are like one, joined by our desire to help others and save lives. 

I’ve noticed that even secular volunteers are now more interested in Jewish tradition. And in the spirit of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the moment when the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, I’m always happy to share my knowledge with them.

That’s also JDC’s work: drawing people closer to Jewish life. 

Shavuot is ahead of us, commemorating the revelation of the Torah, and on that day we recite the yizkor, a prayer that commemorates those we’ve lost and must remember. Each time I open the cemetery gates and tend to the gravestones, I, too, remember.

Not all Jews read the Torah, but the Torah was given to all Jews. And JDC, through its spirit of volunteerism, helps us to embrace the Torah’s most sacred teachings about service, mutual responsibility, and memory.  

Good deeds, after all, lead us to G-d.

Following a 15-year career in media and television, Ishai Sinelnikov, 43, was inspired to serve the Jewish community after volunteering with JDC.

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