Intentional Accidents: A Hesed Director Reflects on Her Life’s Calling

Hesed Nefesh Director Svetlana Moskvitina reflects on a life of service, Jewish mutual responsibility, and the path that brought her back to Poltava, Ukraine.

By Svetlana Moskvitina - Hesed Nefesh Director; Poltava, Ukraine | September 1, 2021

Svetlana Moskvitina, second from right, serves as the director of the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava, Ukraine.

At first, it seemed a happy accident that Svetlana Moskvitina became director of the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Poltava, Ukraine. But in retrospect, bigger forces were at play. Here, Moskvitina reflects on a life of service, Jewish mutual responsibility, and the path that brought her back to Poltava.

Everything that happens to me seems accidental, but even accidents are never really accidental: Fate, too, has a hand in things. 

Years ago, I saw an ad for a training program at the Bat-Khan Jewish Women’s School in Dnipro. My family decided that I should go there, that my future lay in Jewish education and away from Poltava, my family’s hometown.

If you don’t know where you come from, you cannot know where you’re going. I come from Poltava. My family’s history is steeped here; both my maternal great-grandparents grew up here, and their children, too. They walked the same streets I walk. 

Svetlana Moskvitina

As a child, I listened to my grandparents’ Holocaust stories, about their evacuation to Uzbekistan. To my young ears, these were scary tales, but they luckily had a happy ending. My grandmother once told me that the Nazis led one of her brothers to be shot. Suddenly, the guard trembled and offered my brother a deal: He’d give my brother a two-minute head-start to run away, but after that he would start shooting. 

He fled as fast as he could, sprinting with all his might. The Nazis shot at him but did not hit him.

He survived. For several months, he lived in a swamp. Fear surrounded him, but thoughts of family strengthened his resolve. And then he returned home. 

That he lived is an accident of chance — a miracle, in other words. Like the rest of my family, he is a survivor: a proud Poltava Jew. 

When I went to Dnipiro, I took my Poltava history with me and immersed myself in Jewish life. I learned Jewish traditions and studied Torah. It was my first time being given the tools to truly comprehend the wisdom and heritage of our people.

That year, home for the holidays, my mother and I lit Shabbat candles for the first time. She cried, remembering her grandparents, who had been religious. In Soviet times, when her grandfather died, her grandmother buried him with his tallit (prayer shawl)tefillin (phylacteries), and siddur (prayer book). It was important to remember. 

And there we were, my mother and I, remembering as Shabbat candles flickered on the table. It was a kind of healing.

Our Jewish community has an unusually soulful atmosphere. Even in the most severe frost, we are warm.

After graduation, I started teaching. I taught at my alma mater, helping girls from cities in Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan develop their Jewish identity and feel connected to our Jewish community. One day at school, I “accidentally” passed a classroom in which there were Jewish children with special needs. But there are no accidents, and so I made a decision: I wanted to work with them, and that’s when I started volunteering for a rehabilitation center and spending every Shabbat there. 

And then, in 2014, another would-be accident: I was offered an interview for the position of director of Hesed Nefesh, Poltava’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center. Since then, I’ve led the Hesed, and I feel like all the accidents along the way brought me here.

I love Poltava. Our Jewish community has an unusually soulful atmosphere. Even in the most severe frost, we are warm. And if you visit us, you will feel this and never forget. 

Poltava has made great contributions to global Jewish history, too. Israel’s second president was born here, and the first female rabbi in Germany was a woman from Poltava. Poltava Jews work in organizations in Kharkiv, Moscow, Minsk, and elsewhere. Ours is a tight-knit community with a global outlook. 

That’s why I’m proud to be a Jewish leader here in Poltava. I always knew that I’d return, building its Jewish future and caring for its past. I get to do that at Hesed Nefesh.

The JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center helps to coordinate care and cultural activities for Poltava’s Jews.

One of our main priorities is helping elderly people and people with disabilities. At the same time  it’s also important to cultivate young Jewish leadership. We need to maintain a continuity of Jewish life in Poltava, from one generation to the next. 

That’s why we prioritize intergenerational contact. In 2018, we held a Shabbaton where both teenagers and elderly participants were madrichim (counselors). Then we spearheaded “Back to the Future,” a program that pairs teenagers with elderly JDC clients for regular conversation. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, this project continues online, helping to alleviate the social isolation that all of us feel. 

When I think of our lifesaving work, I see Vera Aleksandrovna. At almost 90 years old, Vera, a lifelong resident of Poltava, embodies the strength of spirit that is a hallmark of our community. From a very young age, Vera has faced adversity. When she was a little girl, much of her family was killed in pogroms, and her father was banished to a Stalinist camp. 

During the war, Vera and her mother evacuated to Orsk, Russia. On the way there, they were bombed, and a shell fragment killed one of Vera’s good friends. Once they reached Orsk, her mother got very sick, and Vera had to walk 7 kilometers each day just to bring her food. She braved the winter night, carrying a torch, watching for wolves that prowled the snowy steppe.

After the war, she returned to Poltava and discovered that the Nazis had reduced it to ash. 

Out of the rubble, Vera built a Jewish life. She became an announcer at the Poltava Regional Radio, and then a volunteer at a local center for veterans. Since 2003, she’s served as editor of Hatikva, the newspaper of Poltava’s Hesed. I admire Vera’s steadfastness, her spirit, her beauty of soul. She makes me proud to be from Poltava, and proud that I stayed.

Svetlana Moskvitina, left, is also a Kaplan Leadership Initiative fellow.

Vera, and so many others, have benefited from JDC’s lifesaving work. For almost three decades, JDC has supported Poltava’s Jewish community. Thanks to JDC, our elderly community members live dignified lives, confident that they are never alone. Like Vera, many live past 90 years, still active and enjoying life. In Ukraine, not every elderly person can say this. 

JDC not only preserves and supports — it develops, inspires, and stimulates. Every day, Hesed Nefesh helps us to create a Jewish future in Poltava. JDC invests in youth programs that respond to the needs, desires, and dreams of Poltava’s youngest Jewish community members.

That’s a serious investment in the future, and one that pays dividends every day. 

The pandemic has thrown major obstacles in our path. Our main challenge has been moving our programs online without losing their warmth, their soulfulness. The pandemic has taught us that live communication is invaluable.

Not all accidents are happy accidents, though. During this period, when I was physically and emotionally exhausted, I contracted COVID-19. The disease dragged on for a month. My lungs never felt like they had enough oxygen. But my team was professional, responsive, and supportive. They carried me through this difficult period, back to health. 

In normal times, leading an organization is a huge responsibility; doing so during a pandemic is triply challenging. COVID-19 isn’t just a physical ordeal, it’s an emotional one, too. It was valuable for me to realize that we are a team and can go through any difficulty together. We have grown stronger not in spite, but because of the challenges this pandemic has posed.

All of us, every Jew, is bound to each other by invisible threads. It’s like twins who feel each other at a distance: If it’s bad for one, it’ll be bad for the other. Our strength is in unity and family. If one family member is in trouble, will we abandon them? Will not a brother help a brother, a sister a sister? 

That’s what family is. And thanks to JDC, and all the accidents that brought me here, those threads are bound ever tighter.

Svetlana Moskvitina is a Kaplan Leadership Initiative fellow and the director of the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava, Ukraine.

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