Moving Mountains Together: A Volunteer’s Story in Ukraine

With his community by his side, Grisha G. realized there was nothing he couldn't do for his fellow Jews.

By Grisha G. - JDC Volunteer | May 18, 2023

Grisha G. reads a reprinted edition of a JDC Passover Haggadah — originally released in 1991 as part of Operation Passover, an effort that helped thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union reconnect with Jewish life.

Grisha G. wears many hats: From food delivery to trauma support to work with children and the elderly, he volunteers alongside his friends, working day and night to meet the diverse needs of his community. When the Ukraine crisis began, Grisha helped lead volunteer efforts in his native Odesa, Ukraine. Today he lives in Kyiv, and he’s still dedicated to helping his fellow Jews access the joy of community despite ongoing uncertainty.  

Grisha G. leads a Shabbat program at the JDC-supported Beit Grand JCC in Odesa.

When we study the history of the Jewish people, there’s this joke: They tried to defeat us, they failed, let’s eat. I understand now that those were old stories — our job these days is to write a new one.

After the first explosions on Feb. 24, 2022, it was like we had to put all of our knowledge about volunteering into action.  I said, “I can’t stay at home. Let’s do something. Let’s deliver something. I can’t drive, but I’ll learn.” 

So, I turned my apartment into a volunteer hub. I invited my friends to move in with me –– those who lived next to critical infrastructure and were vulnerable to shelling. I tried to protect them, stay safe, and, if possible, help. 

At first, there were just three or four of us; later, other volunteers joined. And in a month, it was a well-oiled machine with its headquarters at Odesa’s JDC-supported Beit Grand Jewish Community Center (JCC). Today we’re still engaged in this work, delivering food and offering emotional support to those who need it most. 

Our volunteer initiatives reach a huge number of people: delivering humanitarian aid packages, working online with the elderly, developing programs for children, both offline and virtually, partnering with at-risk families. I’m always giving lectures, teaching classes, and conducting training sessions.

We also help our community members process their stress and trauma. I’m a psychologist by training, and I use what’s called a “return to yourself” technique. This practice helps people understand what they’re really feeling each moment, both physically and emotionally. 

“What are you feeling now?” I’ll ask.  

That’s when the person wakes up. They pause and start speaking about themselves. Then, if they’re ready to go deeper, we continue. If not, we finish the session. It’s crucial to know when to stop and when to go on. 

When people start telling me, “What keeps me going is this, what keeps me going is that,” I stop them and ask, “But who are the people who hold space for you?” And I ask myself the same question: “Who’s helping me?” 

The answer is my nearest and dearest, my little circle who I can always come to and just be. 

Sometimes I just want to be a little kid. I don’t want to do anything, just sit and cry and hug and eat. It’s cool that I have my people. I feel their strength so deeply these days — and then I use this strength to help my clients. 

More than a year later, I can’t say I’ve gotten used to this crisis. My reaction to the air-raid sirens hasn’t changed much. They still make me anxious, and I stop and shudder for a minute. It’ll never go away as long as there are air alarms. 

Body awareness is the most important thing for me now: I sit down and realize that I’m all right, I’m safe. It helps me. I don’t hide. And when I notice that some of my friends need support, I help them return to themselves and feel grounded. We all have trauma, but if we always reacted to the sirens the way we used to in the earliest days, we wouldn’t be able to live our lives. 

JDC also helps us live. In many ways, they have always supported my projects. I’m always like, “I’ve got a new idea!” and they’re like, “Go ahead!” and I’m like, “Stop … you mean we’re all good? I can wait.” “Nope,” they say. “No need to wait. You can get started!” 

Thanks to JDC’s support, a crazy amount of things have been done: camps, seminars, Shabbatons, new aid initiatives.

Thanks to this support and help, a crazy amount of things have been done — camps, seminars, Shabbatons, new aid initiatives sparked by emerging needs … it’s amazing. 

For me, volunteering is the freedom to act. If you like to chat, go and find someone who needs someone to talk to. If you’re great at working with your hands, we need people who can work with their hands. You love working with kids? OK, there are a lot of children’s programs. 

When I see young people, my friends, who don’t just talk the talk, but walk the walk, I understand that we can move mountains together. 

Grisha G. is a JDC volunteer from Odesa, Ukraine. He now lives in Kyiv, where he works for the JDC-supported Halom JCC.

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