In Ukraine, Celebrating Volunteerism This Tu Bishvat

Nearly 100 years ago, JDC helped care for Yulia R.'s family — and today, she gives back to her community as a JDC volunteer.

By Yulia R. - JDC Volunteer; Rivne, Ukraine | January 5, 2024

Passionate about serving her fellow Jews, Yulia R. (pictured here, in a hat she knitted for children with cancer) found her life's purpose at the JDC-supported Hesed Besht social welfare center in Rivne, Ukraine.

Tu Bishvat celebrates the renewal of life, as well as the support we give to those who need our care. Yulia R., a JDC volunteer in Rivne, Ukraine, lives these values each and every day. When she began volunteering at her local JDC-supported Hesed Besht social welfare center — knitting hats and warm clothes for fellow community members — Yulia fully embraced her Jewish identity. Now that it’s Tu Bishvat, she reflects on the power of volunteerism, her intergenerational JDC story, and how she’s cultivating new life for Ukraine’s Jews despite the ongoing conflict. 

As part of her JDC volunteer efforts, Yulia crochets and knits winter clothing for Rivne’s poorest Jews.

“We warm those who cannot warm themselves.”

That was our slogan and our mission: In the brutal cold of Ukrainian winters, we would deliver warmth to Jews without heat.

And so we knitted. I’m good at crocheting and knitting, so we made socks, hats, and more for our Jewish community, particularly our seniors. We knitted funny hats for children who had cancer — kids confined to the hospital for months on end, undergoing very difficult procedures. Many of the children had lost their hair, but with our knitted caps, they could cover their heads if and when they wanted to. 

Then our activities expanded, and we began to knit toys for children born prematurely. We visited maternity hospitals and made them wool clothing and little blankets. Whatever item anyone needed to feel better, we knitted it. 

Volunteering was my door to Jewish life. With my yarn and needles, I attempted to reconnect with my Jewish origins, my Jewish roots. I guess for many people it’s the other way around; first, Jewish life, then volunteering. But it was only later that I got more involved in Jewish rituals and holiday celebrations. 

I wouldn’t have done it any differently. I developed my own Shabbat practice — lighting Shabbat candles is now something I take seriously. I learned to bake challah, and now I bake it with great pleasure. I use a Ukrainian-Jewish calendar, and now I know all the Jewish holidays and Jewish fast days, along with their meaning and history. I even read Hebrew texts — I mean, I don’t read them fluently, but at least I’ve broken ground.

Volunteering with JDC has also connected me to my family’s history, the history of Ukraine’s Jews, and even the history of Jews around the world. 

You see, the story of Ukraine’s Jews is my story, too. It’s one of joy, but also near-oblivion. Somehow, we survived — and we still survive. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we were finally allowed to shape our own lives, and we’ve done that for years now thanks, in large part, to JDC.

Yulia wearing one of the many “funny hats” she knits for children.

I first heard about JDC from my grandfather. He came from a proud Jewish family — large, with many children. They spoke Yiddish. He told me about how JDC had saved his family from starvation in the early 1930s. Thanks to JDC, the family was able to access food, employment, and other essentials. 

Just thinking about his story gives me goosebumps. Today, JDC is a powerful partner; it is an organization that develops life-saving projects, all very different, but all aimed at strengthening Jewish life, supporting everyone in their needs, and building a strong volunteer network. Miraculously, I get to participate in the very organization that saved my family’s life. 

That’s one reason I volunteer. But there are others.

It’s difficult to imagine any Jewish community without volunteerism. It’s always been a cornerstone of Jewish tradition. As Jews, we’re called to do good deeds, help others, give and take equally, and take with gratitude. Jewish scripture expresses this idea. It’s woven into everyday life. Perhaps this is why I can’t imagine the Jewish community any other way.

And with JDC, we’ve taken this timeless value and adapted it to the 21st century. Knitting hats and socks may sound quaint, but my volunteering efforts also involve cutting-edge technology. I’m thinking of another JDC program — JOINTECH. 

The goal of JOINTECH is expressed in its name. This program is a chance for seniors to join vibrant Jewish life, participate in the community, and access life-saving services no matter the circumstances: natural disasters, pandemics, man-made crises, anything. And it all happens using the latest technology — smartphones specially designed for the elderly. 

Smartphones are a window on the world for isolated seniors. As a JOINTECH volunteer, I teach seniors how to use them. The first goal is to get them comfortable navigating the screen. With a single keystroke, they can access exercise classes, social clubs, Jewish celebrations, Kabbalat Shabbat celebrations, consultations with medical professionals, and more. All of this is vitally necessary for Jewish seniors, even more so now with the ongoing crisis. 

But JOINTECH is about so much more than equipping seniors with smartphones –– it’s about delivering innovative and technological care solutions, a chance at meaningful Jewish life, and even employment opportunities (through a program called JOINTECH Talent) to those who need it most.

For the elderly, there’s always that first obstacle we have to overcome: a lack of confidence. In the beginning, the most diligent and responsible come with notebooks. They write down step-by-step instructions, saying again and again, “I won’t remember it. I won’t be able to do it.” Later on, in two months or so, there’s a breakthrough. It turns out they don’t need their notes, that the smartphone opens up opportunities rather than anxieties. 

Plus, they have me — I’m always by their side. And they ask lots of questions. They want to find Jewish recipes, read the news, and listen to their favorite music. They want to text and call their relatives. Whatever the question, I answer it. 

It’s difficult to imagine any Jewish community without volunteerism. It’s woven into everyday life.

Small successes lead to bigger ones. It’s so rewarding to see an elderly woman press the “Club” button on her smartphone. Her face shines when she sees that it works, that there’s a lecturer or fitness instructor on screen and that her closest friends are there, too. 

Though they embrace the future through JOINTECH, our elderly rediscover their past, too –– the parts of themselves they thought they’d forgotten or lost. When one of my seniors sends me their favorite piece of music, it’s rewarding. This music could be from the 1950s, a rare recording they found on YouTube. It’s touching. 

They teach me, too. I’m in awe of and grateful for their wisdom. I admire their patience and the spark of life they often do not notice in themselves. JDC projects like JOINTECH strengthen the community so that we do not exist as isolated individuals, but as one body that builds Jewish life and safeguards it for the future –– a global effort. 

It’s like we’re growing something new from the soil beneath our feet. And now it’s Tu Bishvat, a time when we celebrate nature’s renewal. We celebrate the resources we each carry inside of us, year-round, seeds of resilience, of support, of joy. We also remember that sometimes we need help cultivating these seeds.

JOINTECH is based on a similar idea — that we’re cultivating something new. In this case, we’re cultivating new skills among the elderly and, along the way, Jewish life and community. These seniors have experienced a lot. Some of them endured World War II, and all lived through the end of the Soviet Union. All of them have had to adjust to a new world. 

If they could do that, well, they can do anything — even something new. In the beginning, I support them, just like saplings need support. Then, the young trees grow into big, strong trees that shade and shelter others. To nurture life and pass it on — that’s what Tu Bishvat is all about. 

Years ago, JDC nurtured and sheltered my family. Because of that, I’m here today, volunteering with JDC, passing it on. I’m deeply grateful to the Jews from different countries who, despite living thousands of miles away, understand us like no one else. They respond to our needs and give Ukraine’s Jews the chance to live — to live with dignity, to live our Jewishness, to keep it, strengthen it, celebrate it, and pass it on for the future.

Yulia R. is a JDC volunteer in Rivne, Ukraine.

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