Mercy and Mutual Support: One Volunteer’s Journey in Ukraine

For Jews facing shelling, destruction, and chaos, Anna P. is there to protect and lift them up.

By Anna P. - JDC Volunteer; Kharkiv, Ukraine | June 5, 2024

Anna P. (right) visits with an elderly client in Poltava during a three-day volunteer retreat organized by the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC).

When the Ukraine crisis began, Anna P. was in her hometown of Kharkiv — the country’s second-largest city and one that has been particularly hard-hit by the conflict. Soon, she discovered she could volunteer and help her fellow Jews and found a newfound sense of purpose. Through the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC), Anna recently attended a three-day volunteer retreat, an experience that empowered her to go above and beyond for Jews in need. In this reflection, Anna takes us through her journey, from her childhood in Jewish Kharkiv to her volunteer work today. 

Volunteers bake cookies at the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava during a three-day volunteer retreat.

King David once said that the Jewish people are distinguished by three things: mercy, modesty, and mutual support. At the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC) here in Kharkiv, I try to live that last quality — mutual support — each and every day. 

Helping one’s neighbor and charity are the most important components of Jewish life and a foundation that holds up the world. When you volunteer, you feel energized by the people you help and the people you work with — in fact, you feel you have a purpose in this life. 

How did I become a volunteer in my Jewish community? I’d say it was my mother’s mother Lydia who passed this passion down to me. Babushka Lydia instilled in me all the Jewish traditions and was involved in my Jewish upbringing. Most of my friends had Jewish roots and were raised in Jewish families — a broader community I relied on and cherished. 

It was my grandmother Lydia and my community that made me proud to be Jewish. 

Today, I feel this sense of community most strongly at Beit Dan, and a large part of my Jewish life involves my 15-year-old son Nikita. We live near Beit Dan, so it’s convenient for Nikita and me to visit. He attends Shabbat celebrations at the teen club, as well as youth seminars and camps. 

Basically, Beit Dan is our second family, a place where Jews create a sense of home. Beit Dan offers so many activities that it’s hard to choose a favorite. You get to do what most interests you, whether that’s art classes, leadership seminars, Shabbat retreats, holiday celebrations, volunteering, and so much more. 

And since the Ukraine crisis began, I’ve needed Beit Dan more than ever.  

It all began on that day I’ll never forget — February 24th, 2022. My family was at home, scared, confused, and wondering what to do. Our city was particularly hard-hit, and I knew I needed to protect my son. Soon, we made the difficult decision to evacuate by train to Lviv. Nearly two weeks later, we crossed over into Poland, where we officially became refugees. We stayed there until October 2022. Finally, when we felt it was right, we decided to return to Kharkiv.

Anna (center) visits with Zinaida S., an elderly JDC client in Poltava, during the three-day volunteer retreat.

Back home, I knew I needed to do something for my community. Through Beit Dan, I’ve tried putting King David’s words into action — I became a volunteer and offered my fellow Jews the mutual support they needed to survive. 

My role involves delivering humanitarian assistance — basic necessities everyone needs — to our community’s most vulnerable members. And in all the time I’ve done this work, I’d say the highlight has been Beit Dan’s recent three-day volunteer retreat, held here in Kharkiv and nearby Poltava, about two hours away.

The main goal of this retreat was to attract those who want to help, but don’t necessarily know how to do it. Many retreat participants were new to volunteering, and Beit Dan wanted to give them the chance to learn more, get to know each other, and try their hand at helping out. 

The retreat was organized in three parts. The first day, we focused on getting to know each other, learning more about the Jewish community of Kharkiv and celebrating Shabbat together. On the second day, we answered the question “What is a volunteer?” as well as worked with an art therapist to think about how volunteers can build resilience in times of crisis. And on the third and final day, we visited the JDC-supported Hesed Nefesh social welfare center in Poltava, where we took a master class in baking cookies for elderly Jews — as well as participated in art classes, like candle-making and pastel painting. Afterwards, we delivered the cookies we’d baked to homebound seniors and got to spend time with them and hear their stories. 

These stories were difficult. Our fellow Jews had faced shelling, destruction, winter cold, a lack of medicine, and stores without food and other necessities. Indeed, we had a lot in common with these Jews — we, too, had endured a similar nightmare back in Kharkiv. Some volunteers felt so connected to the Poltava Jewish community that they decided to stay there after the retreat and get to know it even better. 

That was the best part of this whole experience — the retreat not only brought together us volunteers, but Jews from across the country and across generations. It affirmed what I already knew was true: Beit Dan, like JDC more broadly, empowers us to give our best to each other. 

This retreat affirmed what I already knew: Beit Dan, like JDC more broadly, empowers us to give our best to each other.

The retreat taught me a lot of practical skills I’ve applied to my own volunteer work. I learned how to most effectively serve the elderly — the best way to start a conversation, for instance — and why it’s important to listen to them, hear their stories, and assess their needs.

My one wish for those who support Beit Dan is that they’ll give and receive one of the other three qualities King David identifies: mercy. In every generation, no matter what difficulties Jews experienced, it has been thanks to mercy that we’ve managed to survive.

And we need mercy these days like we’ve never needed it before. 

We also need mutual support. It is said in the Torah that Jews can receive help by helping their neighbors, each and every day. Everyone holds each other up. 

I’m grateful to Beit Dan and JDC for helping us do this sacred work.

Anna P. is a JDC volunteer in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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