The Resilience of the Human Spirit: Visiting Ukraine with JDC

On a JDC Fly-In to Ukraine, Erin Zaikis discovered the country's dynamic Jewish community — and saw firsthand their strength and fortitude in the middle of the crisis.

By Erin Zaikis - JDC Board Member | May 14, 2024

Erin Zaikis (second from right) joined other members of a JDC Fly-In to Ukraine to learn about and experience the country's vibrant Jewish life.

Erin Zaikis — a JDC Entwine Global Leaders Initiative (GLI) board member — witnessed unbounded  hope in seemingly unimaginable conditions when she attended a recent JDC Fly-In to Ukraine, in partnership with the Jewish Funders Network (JFN). At a Jewish community celebration, home visit, and conversations at a JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, Zaikis spoke directly with Jews in Ukraine, and saw firsthand the work that JDC makes possible. In this post, Zaikis takes us through key moments from her trip — and in the process, reveals the unbreakable strength and fortitude of Ukraine’s Jews. 

Erin Zaikis

As I cross into Ukraine, the air is heavy — the sadness feels palpable. Driving through the eerily quiet countryside, I notice the empty churches and freshly dug graves with garlands of flowers laid atop each one. We stop at a building that has been bombed by a missile, its windows still covered with tarps. Somehow people are still living in it. A woman in her sixties stares down at us and shouts at us in despair: “Will you help us?” 

I met Inna, a 90-year-old woman in Lviv. She is a cancer survivor and is losing vision in one of her eyes. As we enter, she is standing with her walker, tennis balls placed at the bottom of it. Standing helps her speak louder, she says, and smiles, waving at us excitedly as we enter her living room. 

Inna hasn’t left her apartment for anything other than a handful of doctor appointments in the last four years, and yet she spends most days calling other elderly and homebound people, checking in on them and letting them know they aren’t forgotten. She helps arrange food and Purim box deliveries. She told me, “As long as I am here, I will support my community, which has supported me for so long.” As we leave, she presses two pieces of candy into my palm; we can’t leave a Ukrainian house empty-handed, she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. 

A woman who can’t afford to heat more than one room in her apartment wants to give me a treat. I walk out of her apartment, struck by the generosity I witness and the drive to keep going, in a conflict with seemingly no end in sight. In Ukraine it seems that life can take almost everything away from someone, but it can’t take away the fierce spirit of tenacity and perseverance in every person we meet.

Zaikis (left) with Oksana Galkevych (center), who oversees JDC’s humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

Men wearing aprons are volunteering in the kitchen together, cooking kasha and beets, hearty meals to be donated to seniors in the community. They wave and smile sheepishly at us. They don’t speak English and we don’t speak Ukrainian, but there’s a common understanding here: These men are healing by being together in community and doing something for others. 

We visit a group of elderly people preparing crafts and costumes for Purim. Some members of this group are Holocaust survivors. Now they live through another trauma, having been displaced from other cities in Ukraine, unsafe to go back to now or maybe ever. An older man comes up to us with his cell phone. He wants to show us where he is from, but I notice it’s actually a cell phone video of a bombed apartment building in eastern Ukraine that he can never return to. He starts to sob and turns his back, not wanting anyone to see. A friend comforts him, patting his back as the tears fall down this man’s face.

Five women have formed a small choir group and sing songs in Ukrainian, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. A woman in her seventies with smudged glasses over her big crinkly eyes and bright magenta lipstick locks eyes and marches towards me, grabbing my hands, inviting me to dance. In that moment, I see unadulterated joy. A broad smile, and a sparkle in her eye, she suddenly looks much younger. We grab more people, forming a chain, singing, spinning in a circle, only stopping when we are tired and dizzy. Just for a minute, it feels like we are in any community center back home, singing and dancing together. 

Throughout my time in Ukraine, I’ve met people in conditions that I thought were impossible for humans to endure for a few days, let alone years. I am learning about the resilience of the human spirit. It’s been over two years, and yet, in these moments of joy and pride, you can see that the Ukrainian spirit endures. 

In a conflict like this, you see the worst of humanity, but you also get to see the very best. Inna, the men cooking, the gentleman showing me his home, my new Ukrainian dance partner. Once you are here, you become a part of these people’s stories, and they become a part of yours — a global Jewish family. Just as they take care of one another, we do not forget our obligation to take care of them. 

It’s been over two years, and yet, in these moments of joy and pride, you can see that the Ukrainian spirit endures.

I think back to the woman who poked her head out of the window. “Will you help us?” 

I am coming back to a world which has seemingly moved on from this conflict. Though it no longer dominates the headlines, the pain and unknown future continues for millions like this woman who need and deserve our help. That’s why I strongly encourage you to see the work for yourself and join JDC’s next fly-in to Ukraine on June 23-25. You can learn more here.

We must continue to support organizations like JDC that are doing work on the ground to support the resilient Ukrainian people as they rebuild their lives. We have an obligation to bear witness and do what we can to donate, support, and raise awareness. 

Erin Zaikis is a JDC Board Member through JDC Entwine’s Global Leaders Initiative (GLI), based in Boston. She is also a Forbes 30 Under 30 for Social Impact and TedX speaker, and the founder ofSundara, a public health nonprofit that recycles hotel soap across India. While in India, she first learned about JDC’s work and has been traveling around the world to learn more ever since. 

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