This Chanukah, Celebrating the Warmth and Light of Jewish Life in Ukraine

An innovative device is lighting the way this Chanukah season for Larissa S., an elderly Jew living in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

By Larissa S. - JDC Client | December 7, 2023

Before receiving her EcoFlow device, Larissa S. (pictured above, with the EcoFlow) had to endure the winter cold during near-constant blackouts.

In the dark of a brutal Ukrainian winter, Larissa S., must often endure blackouts –– living without heat or light.  At 84, Larissa was born into a dark time — the Second World War — and today she’s living through the crisis in Ukraine. But in recent years, she’s found help and hope through the JDC-supported Hesed Michael social welfare center in Zaporizhzhia. With an innovative new winter survival tool, JDC is quite literally bringing light and warmth to Larissa this Chanukah.

My life has been marked by two crises — but only one has left a scar.  

It was World War II. My whole family was escaping in freight cars to Kharkiv, and it was at that very moment they started bombing us. My mother grabbed me and my sister and we jumped out of the car. Mama fell to the ground with me in her arms. I hit my head on a stone, and I was left with a scar that I’ve carried my entire life.  

My childhood was difficult and poor. Before we fled Dnipro, we lived in some barracks, huddled together with 15 other families. I still remember the taste of frozen potatoes, their coldness and their sweetness. We ate that very often, and it was never enough for us. 

But through it all, we somehow carved out a Jewish life. Mama never missed Yom Kippur, praying for the souls of our departed relatives, nor did she miss Passover. Through friends, she found out what dates Passover fell on. In those days, we had no Jewish calendars. We only had each other.  

I also had my Jewish ancestors. Mama told me about my grandmother Rachel and my grandfather. They were very religious. My grandfather went to synagogue and my grandmother loved Passover, following all of the holiday’s intricate traditions. I never managed to meet my grandparents, but I know them through my mother’s stories. 

I carried these scars and these stories into my adulthood. I got married, had children, and eventually, my children had children. Then, my husband got sick. 

When my husband died, I was in complete despair and didn’t understand how I could continue to live. He and I were one, and his death was a great shock to me. Gradually, the pain was replaced by complete indifference to life — not even my grandchildren could lift my spirits. Nothing made me happy. I would lie in bed for hours just looking at the ceiling.  

One day, an old friend visited me and said, “Get up! I’ll take you to where you can get help. You’ll be a volunteer.” And so, in 2006, I walked through the doors of my JDC-supported Hesed Michael social welfare center here in Zaprozhzhia.  

In the beginning, I still felt sad. But without expecting it, while working in the Hesed library, club programs, and volunteering with other seniors, I was brought to my senses. I can now say with confidence that Hesed isn’t just a foundation, it’s a shelter for lonely hearts like me — a place where elderly Jews are given a second life after experiencing grief. 

At the Hesed, I felt true support. This community, this place, became the meaning of life for me because it helped me overcome the pain of losing my spouse. 

Even before the pandemic, I could not have imagined my life without JDC or Hesed, because every day I saw their work firsthand: the Shabat programming, the social programs for the elderly and young, and so much else. But as soon as the pandemic appeared to be ending — just as we began to look forward to in-person activities — the crisis in our country began.  

On February 24, 2022, I was at home. When it became clear that it all had begun, I became very scared, because I know very well what conflict is and what it entails. I know firsthand that these kinds of situations destroy human lives, rob children of their childhood, and prevent them from learning normally. I still had my scars.  

But I also found myself asking, “How could this happen to us?” 

Today, the sirens have become routine, and I no longer react to them so sharply. But each of us is scared: We don’t know where the world is going. I still have my emergency backpack, where I’ve gathered everything I need. Against all odds, I’ve adapted to this life. 

There is no other way. You need to live somehow. 

And with JDC and Hesed nearby, it’s undeniably easier to live through these difficulties. Of course, JDC donors help me a lot, and I am grateful that they allow me to survive. They provide me food, medicine, financial support, Jewish life, and more.  

This help is always important because our living conditions are very difficult, regardless of the season. But during winter, everything gets worse. Basic necessities get extremely expensive — the cost of food, the cost of utilities. Frequent shellings mean frequent blackouts — hours and hours of cold and darkness. The most important thing, the only thing to do during a Ukraine winter, is not to freeze and not to get sick. A lot of money is spent on medications in the winter: Conflicts come and go, but sickness never ceases. 

Thanks to JDC, this winter is different because they’ve brought me a miracle device: It’s called EcoFlow. 

There is no gas in my house, so I use an electric stove. But what happens if there’s a blackout? Then I’m unable to cook. Plus, without light you can’t charge your phone or measure your blood pressure. Last winter, I sat without light or heat for eight hours. For someone my age, that’s dangerous. 

That’s why EcoFlow is life-saving. Put simply, this device is basically a portable generator that powers crucial utilities when blackouts happen. With the flick of a button, I can connect my electric kettle to the EcoFlow station, charge my phone, my flashlight, and even measure my blood pressure!   

At Hesed Michael, I felt true support. This community, this place, has become the meaning of life for me because it helped me overcome the pain of losing my spouse.

This device is so easy to use, and when JDC brought it to my home, they sat down with me and taught me how to use it.  

With EcoFlow, I know I can endure any blackout. It’s still scary, but less so. I can sit back, drink tea, heat a meal, and always be in touch with my son. He’s sick and he lives on his own, and I can warm some food for him when there is no light or heat. I feel at ease with EcoFlow. 

And as profound as this tool has been, it’s just one small piece of the help I receive. Where would we be without JDC and those who support it? I’m 84 years old and I have experienced a lot in my life, but I have never experienced such colossal help as JDC has given me. 

On Chanukah, we expect a miracle. Well, I’ve found one: JDC gives us light every day — the light of Jewish life, Jewish assistance, and literal light through devices like EcoFlow. JDC has become that light in the darkness for me, pulling me out of a state of complete despair and truly making a miracle happen in my life.  

I believe and hope that Chanukah will once again give us hope for a brighter future, because we have been struggling for this a long time now. I want the light to finally defeat the darkness and for our grandchildren to live in peace. 

Larissa S.,84, is a JDC client in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. 

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