In Sumy, This Passionate Volunteer Serves His Jewish Community

After becoming displaced from his home in the east of Ukraine, Roman S. found a new life and purpose as a JDC volunteer.

By Roman S. - JDC Volunteer; Sumy, Ukraine | February 22, 2024

Roman S. (right) unloads firewood as part of his JDC volunteer efforts in Sumy, Ukraine — one of the many ways that he and his family have thrown themselves into Jewish life.

Roman S. has lived through two major crises. The first one took place in 2014, when he fled his home city in the east of Ukraine for Sumy and became an internally displaced person (IDP). Once there, he found the support of an entire warm and welcoming Jewish community. Ten years later, Roman is still in Sumy and living through the ongoing conflict that began on Feb. 24, 2022. He volunteers with Sumy’s JDC-supported Hesed Haim social welfare center, where community members can receive vital supplies, educational support, and a connection to a vibrant Jewish life. This is his story. 

Roman S.

When we were forced to leave home and resettle in Sumy in 2014, we thought it wouldn’t be for long. We were very wrong, and when this new crisis began in February 2022, we were no longer innocent: We already knew what this sort of turmoil felt like, and here in Sumy, we suddenly found ourselves at the conflict’s epicenter. 

I never thought we’d have to experience this kind of chaos again. Back in 2014, our family had been living happily in the east of Ukraine. While there, my parents were JDC clients, but my wife, daughter, and I weren’t that involved in the Jewish community. 

Everything changed in an instant. We were forced to flee our hometown, leaving behind everything we knew and nearly everyone we loved. 

We heard there was accommodation for internally displaced persons (IDPs) — this strange term we now call ourselves — in Sumy. That’s how we found ourselves in an empty house in a village on the city’s outskirts with practically no possessions — just three suitcases. We thought we’d have to leave for a maximum of two weeks. It’s been 10 years. 

Upon arriving in Sumy, the first thing we did was look for a Hesed where my father could receive care and spend time with other Jews. That’s how we found Hesed Haim. As it turned out, there weren’t just programs for my elderly father, but for me, my wife, and my daughter, too –– for all Jews and all ages.

The community welcomed us, and we were pleasantly surprised by how much everyone wanted to help. In such a short time, we had everything we needed to sustain our new life — clothes, food, linens, and utensils (someone even brought us a mixer), to name just a few things. Hesed Haim bought us a bed and included us in all the community programs. For the first time in my life, I truly felt like part of one large Jewish family. 

This feeling was something new. When I was a child, my parents never really spoke about Jewish life. I always knew my father was Jewish, not only because I have a Jewish surname, but also from relatives’ stories about life in my grandmother’s family. I didn’t have a chance to meet her, but I know that her family spoke Yiddish, and her sister graduated from a Jewish school. My father understood Yiddish, but didn’t speak it with me; instead, he translated the songs I listened to in Yiddish.

Hesed Haim was the first place my family and I fully embraced our Jewishness. Our daughter threw herself into the community. She made Jewish friends, filmed videos for Hesed Haim, and proudly served as a madricha (counselor) at Shabbat family retreats and children’s camps. Even when she went away to Kyiv for college, she came back to Sumy any chance she had — thanks to JDC and Hesed, this place has become her true home. 

But she wasn’t here on February 24th, 2022. That’s what made it so terrifying — having our family separated from each other at such a chaotic moment. She was back in Kyiv, riding the metro with her friend during the shelling. Thank God she got out of there safely.

When the crisis began, I felt no fear, just confusion and anger. My father was already bedridden at the time, and I understood that without medical assistance, we’d soon be in an impossible situation. We also couldn’t go down to a bomb shelter when the air alert sounded, because it’s difficult to carry a bedridden person up and down the stairs, so my wife, mother, and I stayed at home with him — above ground, exposed — during the alarms. We heard gunfire on the city streets, several blocks from our house. 

It was an uncanny echoing of 2014 — but this time, we understood that there was nowhere to run and that we could only rely on ourselves and help from JDC and Hesed Haim. At the first opportunity, when medical evacuations became a possibility, my wife and I insisted that my father be evacuated to Germany. 

When I was a child, my parents never really spoke about Jewish life: Hesed Haim was the first place my family and I fully embraced our Jewishness.

For my father — a Holocaust survivor — this was the third evacuation he’d experienced in his lifetime. He was very old and very weak when he left, and he died months later, not home in Ukraine but in Germany. 

For those of us still here in Sumy, it can be hard to feel safe. That’s precisely why our Jewish community needs a safe place like Hesed Haim.

Without the help of JDC and Hesed Haim all those years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to survive and live with dignity. That’s why I volunteer — it’s what motivates me now to help others. People depend on my help, just as my family once depended on the help of others. 

We all know that all Jews are responsible for each other. We often spoke about this at our meetings and events before the crisis. These days, we live it: Each of us has the chance to take responsibility for other people and make their lives a little better. Here in Sumy, we have the chance to put kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh into action.

Roman S. is a JDC volunteer in Sumy, Ukraine.

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