The Meaning of Jewish Mutual Aid: Saving Lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine

For Lubov S., saving Jewish lives is all in a day's work.

By Lubov S. - Social Worker; Kharkiv, Ukraine | May 22, 2023

Lubov S. (right) with her colleague, Faina P., at the JDC-supported Shaare Tikva Hesed social welfare center in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Kharkiv has been particularly hard-hit since the Ukraine crisis began. That’s why Lubov S. –– a social worker at the city’s JDC-supported Shaare Tikva Hesed social welfare center ––  remains so dedicated to her work: saving Jewish lives. For the last 25 years, Lubov and her colleagues have been a steadfast address for Jews seeking help, hope, and community — and when the conflict began, she was more needed than ever. Here is her story. 

Lubov S.

On February 24, 2022, we woke up as different people.

I don’t know how to explain what it’s like to look out your window and see something you’ve only watched in movies: when your daughter’s school is on fire, when your normal life comes to an end, when millions of people lose their livelihoods, homes, loved ones, and health — when your life simply ceases to exist. Chaos.

Since that day, my duties have changed dramatically. Before, we had a certain routine, but then our work turned into a round-the-clock job. Our only task was this: to literally save our clients’ lives.

I was used to calling the elderly Jews we serve on a regular basis, but every call turned into a crisis call, a cry for help. There were people who had lost their jobs in an instant, or who’d sustained damage to their homes … people who needed serious psychological support. I listened to them and worked hard to meet their needs. 

Everyone here has their own crisis story –– like the homecare workers who faced shelling or who spent the night with their elderly clients because they’re too distressed to be left alone. Our brave staff, despite the bombs, despite what’s happening in the city, travel by foot, on bicycles, and in cars to deliver help. 

This winter was one of the most difficult periods we’ve faced. Everyone was worried, and we didn’t know how we’d survive. After so much shelling, some of our clients had no glass left in their windows. Thankfully, we covered their windows and delivered blankets, heaters, winter clothing, and shoes.We also bought firewood, paid for heating and electricity, and provided anything else they needed to survive. 

I consider Kharkiv my home, and I stayed for several reasons. 

I’m pretty much my family’s caregiver. My mother is 72 and she suffers from a number of illnesses –– she can hardly move around the apartment. I also have a 17-year-old daughter. The day after the crisis began, I was standing in line for four hours, waiting for bread. Then it struck me: Not everyone has a daughter who can stand in line to get them bread.  Not everyone has a granddaughter who can go to the other end of the city just to get their medicine. I decided then and there that I needed to stay for those who had no one. 

When a Holocaust survivor tells you it was easier when they were younger, and they add that it was JDC — alongside our partners, like the Claims Conference — that helped them literally survive, those aren’t just some nice words. We really helped people through these terrible times.

The needs are still so great. The hardest thing about my job is that I don’t have 30 or 40 hours in a day — 24 hours isn’t enough. 

Still, I love being here. The Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC), where our Hesed is located, is really our second home. We spend most of our time here, and we understand that this home is saving people’s lives. All roads lead from here to the people we serve and back again –– routes of care and support. 

Now, with spring, it feels like life is coming back. It’s thrilling and immensely satisfying that children’s laughter will again be heard in the Beit Dan programs, that the elderly will come for our cultural events, and that we’ll see families in our building once more.

The Beit Dan JCC is really our second home: All roads lead from here to the people we serve and back again — routes of care and support.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve seen how neighbors help each other. One of my most precious memories is a story my grandmother told me of how she baked matzah when she was evacuated to Kyrgyzstan during World War II. When there was nothing to eat, my grandmother would bake matzah and give it away to the starving neighborhood children. But she wouldn’t just hand it out — she’d also tell the children stories and keep them company. 

For many years after, the children wrote to my grandmother — they wrote and said it was the matzah that saved them: She had saved their lives. 

That’s what Jewish mutual aid means to me. There’s this special feeling when Jews are together, supporting each other — and it’s what our clients have known and felt since the first days of this crisis.

They know that as long as there’s JDC, there will be life.

Lubov S. is a social worker in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 

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