JDC is My Sukkah: In Odesa, Finding Jewish Relief and Community During the Ukraine Crisis

This Sukkot, Anetta V., 80, finds joy, strength, and shelter in her vibrant Jewish community.

By Anetta V. - JDC Client & Volunteer; Odesa, Ukraine | October 4, 2023

For the past two decades, Anetta V. (center) has found a strong sense of purpose and support at the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Odesa, Ukraine.

Because of her grandparents, Anetta V., 80, grew up surrounded by Jewish traditions and customs. But when they passed away, Anetta was cut off from the Jewish life she cherished — that is, until she connected with the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Odesa, Ukraine. Anetta became a Hesed volunteer and then a JDC client herself, delivering and receiving life-saving support. As we celebrate Sukkot, Anettta reflects on the ways JDC has given her a sense of strength, joy, and shelter throughout the Ukraine crisis. 

Anetta V.

At first, my childhood was a Jewish childhood. 

I can still see my grandparents walking to synagogue, cooking traditional Jewish dishes, baking matzah in an old-style furnace, and teaching me how to do kapparot with a chicken — a Yom Kippur atonement ritual in which that bird is slaughtered, waved over the head, and then donated to the hungry. Every Passover, my grandfather would put on his tallis (prayer shawl) and pray, and my brother and I would go to our door and call out for Elijah the prophet. 

In a world that was changing so rapidly, my grandparents took refuge in these Jewish rituals. But when they passed away, my Jewish life stopped, and I was separated from the very traditions that had given my life meaning. Still, life went on, as it always does, and I finished school, continued my studies, and began my adulthood. 

For 47 years, I worked as a nurse, mostly in the emergency unit. And in my Soviet life, Jewish community was nowhere to be found. 

All of that would change when my mother grew old. She became a client of the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center here in Odesa. After my mother’s death in 2003, and after witnessing all of the incredible work Hesed was doing, I decided to become a Hesed volunteer myself. 

This was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s always been important for me to know that I’m needed. I am 80, but age does not matter. The main thing is that I feel young at heart. If there are people who, at this particular moment, are more vulnerable than me, I’m here to help. 

At Hesed, I delivered food (including matzah on Passover) and assisted caseworkers with clients. During the worst of the pandemic, I became one of the first volunteers to work at the Hesed call center, regularly checking in on more than 60 elderly clients and assessing their needs. With the Ukraine crisis still raging on, this call center is needed more than ever, and I remain a hotline volunteer to this day.

Anetta V. (center, in purple) volunteering at the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Odesa.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also followed in my mother’s footsteps: Now I’m a JDC client just as she was, receiving care and Jewish community from the very organization that kept my mother alive and well. 

It would be difficult to list all of the ways that Hesed makes my life more livable. I receive food, medicine, and winter survival assistance — a comforter, flashlight, help paying for utilities, and more. Above all, I have a wonderful JDC homecare worker, Tanya. 

Tanya is like a daughter to me. Due to my health, sometimes I feel dizzy and weak. She brings me groceries and medication from the pharmacy, goes to the bank to pay my utility bills, and cleans my apartment. When I feel up to it, we go on walks together. And most importantly, Tanya gives me a sense of safety and security, a reminder that I matter: I never feel alone when I’m with her. 

I can’t imagine what I’d do without Tanya or Hesed now, as we endure another year of this conflict. To this day, I still think about February 24, 2022, when the crisis began. I was at home, and I was afraid — but I made a decision from the very beginning that I wasn’t going anywhere. I told myself, “This is my apartment, my city, my community. I am here and I will do whatever I can for the Jews around me. In this way, I will feel stronger.” 

Twenty months later, I can’t say that the situation has gotten any easier. My emotions reflect the stop-and-start pace of the shellings. When the city is bombed, I get very scared. When there’s a break between missiles, I feel better. When the siren starts, my whole body shakes. When it’s over, I feel OK. But no matter what’s going on … it feels as if I’m waiting for something bad to happen each minute.  

I’ve kept my sanity by participating in all kinds of online and in-person programs through Hesed. I particularly enjoy the “University Without Borders,” an intellectually stimulating seminar that features brilliant speakers and intelligent discussion. And, of course, I never miss our weekly online Shabbat celebrations. There is something sacred about lighting candles together. Just picture it: More than 100 Jews all across Odesa and Ukraine — some even joining in from Israel — lighting the candles and saying the prayers. It gives me hope.  

When the siren goes off and the fear begins, I know I can take shelter in the very thing my grandparents passed down to me: Jewish life and community. 

When the sirens go off and the fear begins, I know I can take shelter in the very thing my grandparents gave me: Jewish life and community.

What is JDC for me? It’s my sukkah, my shelter, my shield. It’s a place where I reconnect to Judaism. It is there, in that sukkah we’ve built together, that I’ve finally returned to my Jewish roots after so long a break. And it’s there, in that refuge, that I recollect and reconnect with my Jewish childhood: my grandfather in his tallis, my grandmother at the old-style furnace, and my brother and I calling out for Elijah. All of this has happened because of JDC. 

The Jewish people have had a long history, with chapters both happy and sad. We have to be proud of all of it. For millennia, we’ve preserved this history and passed it down. That’s exactly what Hesed and JDC are doing now.

In the sukkah we’ve built, we share our joy and our pain. We build this shelter for the elderly, the vulnerable, the young, and for the future.

From my grandparents to me. From me to you. From generation to generation.

Anetta V., 80, is a JDC client and Hesed volunteer in Odesa, Ukraine.

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