In Odesa, This Jewish Elder Finds Her Home at JDC

Yelena Sorokina found a rich, vibrant Jewish life at her JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center.

By Yelena Sorokina - JDC Client & Volunteer | June 16, 2022

When she started volunteering at her local JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, Yelena Sorokina discovered the Jewish life she had always wanted.

For Yelena Sorokina, the war in Ukraine sparks memories of her family’s past — thoughts of displacement, conflict, and chaos. An elderly JDC client, Yelena discovered Jewish life through her JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Odesa, Ukraine. Throughout the war, JDC has continued to provide her with life-saving care and the support of  a larger Jewish community. Here, she reflects on her Jewish journey and why JDC’s support matters at this difficult time. 

I didn’t always live a Jewish life. 

My father’s family died during the Second World War, and my parents had to evacuate. As a result, I never knew my grandparents, and I didn’t really have a Jewish upbringing: The war erased my Jewish past. My entire adult life, I’ve been rediscovering what was lost, figuring out what Jewishness means for me. 

My Jewish life began when my best friend told me about someone she knew who was receiving help at our JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center here in Odesa. I started volunteering there, and since then, I haven’t looked back. 

Yelena (center) spends time at her JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center.

Hesed showed me what Jewish life looks like — and what it means for Jews to support each other. They brought me back to my Jewish roots. Through Hesed programs and clubs, I learned about Passover, Chanukah, and Purim. And it was at Hesed that I first celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat. It’s where I learned words like “kiddush” and “tzedakah.” 

Basically, Hesed is my life now. 

It’s impossible for me to choose a favorite Hesed program or activity — they’ve all been so valuable, in different ways. But if I had to pick, I’d say the Jewish holiday celebrations and concerts — the Hesed staff does an excellent job of  creating a festive atmosphere. 

I also enjoyed the Bead-Work club. There, we’d make wonderful things for our friends. If you go there now, you will see my art decorating the walls. I hope it will stay there for years to come, adding to the special atmosphere of Hesed — my Jewish home.

As a volunteer, I used to enjoy participating in the three-day Shabbat retreats. These celebrations were not only a token of appreciation for what we did as volunteers; they also energized us, making us want to do even more for the Jewish community. 

When the pandemic came, many of us, especially those with limited mobility like me, became isolated. It was challenging. 

But I couldn’t just do nothing. I wanted to give back. If you can help, why not? 

That’s why I gladly accepted the chance to become a JDC hotline operator. It enriched my life, as each day when I woke up, I knew my day would be meaningful: People needed me. It saved me, that work, during those hard COVID days. 

Since the war broke out, I haven’t been feeling well. My hips and knees have given me unbearable pain, and I think the conflict has made it worse. In this terrible time, I’m afraid of everything falling apart, of losing my electricity, gas, and water. It’s a horrible feeling. 

But JDC gives me hope. 

First and foremost, they give me material support. In addition to the food I regularly receive from JDC, I was able to celebrate Passover with a traditional seder meal. I even received my favorite food: canned tuna fish — a real treat! 

Yelena (left) displays the smartphone JDC gave her as part of its JOINTECH initiative.

And though I haven’t left my house in six months, and though I can barely get around my apartment, I can still socialize through Zoom calls, thanks to the smartphone JDC gave me. These interactions are literally life-saving, keeping me sane. 

I always used to have a “button phone,” and I never knew how to use that magic device — the smartphone. Now I attend Shabbat retreats and clubs, all online. My friends and I are never apart. And I always know the Zoom agenda for the week — University Without Borders, book club, and my favorite, Kabbalat Shabbat at 2 p.m. on Fridays, which normally attracts over 100 participants. Unbelievable! 

After these events, I feel like I’m in my element — a fish back in water, so to speak. I’m energized. And I know that life will go on. 

I also have my homecare worker, Galya, who is like family to me. Sometimes, I don’t even have to tell her what to buy or what to do — she just does it in advance. She comes a few times a week, purchases groceries, cleans my apartment, and spends time with me. 

When the war began, I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to come, and that I’d be completely alone. The air raid alerts — they’re terrible. But even war didn’t stop Galya. She still comes the same days of the week, at the same time. She gives me a sense of stability: I can rely on her. 

I cannot leave my third-floor apartment, but JDC is my arms and legs. Galya helps me live with dignity. They’re also my soul, filling me with warmth and gratitude. I know that, with them, I’m never alone. And without them, I wouldn’t live. 

I cannot leave my third-floor apartment, but JDC is my arms and legs. They’re also my soul, filling me with warmth and gratitude.

Despite the conflict, I’m still proud to be here, in Odesa, with its very special Jewish community. We live near the sea. We’re open and warm. We treat our guests like family.  We’re full of life. 

A few years ago, we welcomed different delegations of Jews from the U.S. and Israel into our Hesed. Together, we danced and sang. We felt no difference. And I thought, “Isn’t this wonderful?” It made me happy to be a part of this community. 

Now, my only hope is peace. Peace to all Jews and all people everywhere. We want to return to normal life, to enjoy the mornings, to wish each other “Shabbat Shalom.”

JDC has always been my salvation and now, amidst the ongoing war, it’s the reason I still wake up and thank G-d for life. I’m alone in my apartment, but I feel it. I feel that help all the time, from the people who are far away and who I’ll never meet: It keeps me alive. 

To them, to everyone, I wish peace, peace, peace.  

Yelena Sorokina lives in Odesa, Ukraine, where she volunteers at her city’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center and receives food, medicine, and homecare from JDC.

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