In Ukraine, My Jewish Life is a Source of Strength

Amidst war, Svetlana found hope and support at her JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center.

By Svetlana - JDC Client | July 27, 2022

With her JDC smartphone – part of JDC's JOINTECH initiative – Svetlana enjoys a world of Jewish life from the safety of her home.

Born at the end of World War II, Svetlana inherited a world rocked by chaos and conflict. Now living her golden years in Odesa, Ukraine, Svetlana endures the chaos and conflict of a different crisis. Thankfully, though, she doesn’t have to go it alone. In this post, Svetlana reflects on her Jewish journey — and how her local JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center has been such a source of strength and comfort in these difficult times.

Even before I knew what it was, Jewishness was part of my life. It was always there, in the recipes and stories and family lore — present, but in the background. It would be years before things snapped into focus, and I embraced Jewish life for myself; when I did, JDC was a large part of that story. 

World War II destroyed so much of our Jewish life here in Ukraine. And now, while a different conflict rages on, my Jewish life is my support. 

My father was Jewish, but I never knew my grandparents. They were killed in Babi Yar in Kyiv — one of the largest massacres during the Holocaust. My parents’ story, however, is a little different. They fell madly in love when they were both 18, but soon after, they were sent to labor camps in Germany. 

That was 1942. Three years later, I was born. 

My childhood wasn’t filled with Jewish traditions. My father was always busy trying to earn a living for the family. But there was always Jewish food: My mother’s chicken soup and gefilte fish always made my dad happy, and I learned those recipes from her. When I make these dishes, I carry Jewish life into the present. I literally make it for myself. 

Svetlana found a vibrant Jewish life at her local JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center.

Like my parents, I, too, married young. I moved with my husband to Odesa and we had a son — Anatoliy.  We lived in Odesa for 38 happy years, until my husband passed away. 

Time also passed. My son grew up and my health declined. On my small pension, I didn’t know how I was going to survive, and I had no clue where to turn for help. With the cost of surgery and other medical bills, I simply couldn’t afford to live. 

Until his death, my father had been a client at the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Kyiv. A friend urged me to contact the Hesed in Odesa. At first, I thought, “It isn’t time yet. I’ll try to cope by myself.” I didn’t want help — I wanted to be independent. 

But I’m glad I listened to my friend. From the moment I stepped into Hesed, my life changed forever. I found so much more than “help”: I found the Jewish life I’d wanted for so long. I went there for Jewish holidays and festivals, various hobby groups, Shabbat retreats, and so much more. 

Hesed became my second home: my Jewish home.

When Hesed offered me to become the hostess of a Warm Home, a JDC program where people open their homes to elderly Jews for lunches and meet-ups, I didn’t give it a second thought. I knew it was my duty to do this in memory of my grandparents. Until his last day, my father blamed himself for their deaths. He believed he hadn’t convinced them to leave Kyiv in time. 

The Warm Home gave me the chance to honor my grandparents, to give back in their memory, and to connect with those who are still alive and have so much to offer. 

I hosted a Warm Home for over 11 years. During our weekly gatherings, up to 20 people would sit around my living-room table, drink tea and eat sandwiches, talk about our lives, and host soloists from the Hesed choir. Amidst the ongoing crisis, these memories bring me back to my normal life. 

My JDC smartphone helps, too.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, that’s what links me to my peers and helps me forget all my difficulties. Thanks to JDC’s JOINTECH program, my smartphone connects me to a world of Jewish life from the safety of my home. I’ve even memorized the online schedule. With the touch of my finger, I can access clubs, stimulating classes through University Without Borders, and my favorite, Kabbalat Shabbat — attended by more than 150 of my friends and neighbors!

As I’ve gotten older and less mobile, JDC helps me with homecare, supplies for personal hygiene, and rehabilitation equipment. They also gave me a bank card that I can use to purchase food and medicine and pay for my utilities. Without JDC, I would have to spend my entire pension on bills, and would be left with next to nothing for food, medicine, and other necessities. 

From the moment I stepped into Hesed, my life changed forever: I found the Jewish life I had wanted for so long.

I always look forward to my homecare worker Lena’s visits. I find it difficult to move around my apartment, so the most important thing she does for me is help me keep it clean. In a sense, Lena brings with her the feeling I tried to create in my Warm Home — the feeling of a cozy space, a home that smells of chicken soup and babka, the smells of my Jewish childhood. 

Without Lena’s help, without JDC, life would be just unbearable. And amidst the fear I’ve felt since Feb. 24, JDC’s help is more essential than ever. My one hope is that all of us can live in peace.

Thanks to JDC and my homecare worker, I feel cared for, despite everything happening outside. I know I can buy food and medicine, and that my house will be a clean and welcoming space. My deepest thanks go out to everyone who supports Jewish seniors like me. 

Because of you, we live.

Svetlana, 76, is a JDC client in Odesa, Ukraine, receiving food, medicine, and homecare.

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