This Father’s Day, Dreaming of Jewish Life for My Daughter

Father's Day is a chance for Vitalii N. to imagine a better future for his daughter.

By Vitalii N. - Director of Hesed Club Programs, JCC Halom; Kyiv, Ukraine | June 16, 2023

Even amidst the Ukraine crisis, Vitalii N. has given his daughter Polya a vibrant Jewish life at the JDC-supported Halom Jewish Community Center (JCC).

On Feb. 24, 2022, Vitalii N.’s daughter was only 3 years old, and his first priority was keeping her safe. Now, as the head of Hesed club programs at the JDC-supported Halom Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kyiv, Ukraine, Vitalii delivers aid and coordinates Jewish programming to isolated and elderly Jews. As we approach Father’s Day, Vitalii reflects on how his Jewish life gave him the strength and resilience to be the best father he could be. 

Polya plays piano at the Halom JCC in Kyiv, Ukraine.

When Polya was born, the doctors placed her on my chest, and she rested there for several hours. I was the first person she ever saw, and I will remember that moment as long as I live.

I’d been dreaming of having a child for a long time, and I thank G-d for bringing Polya into this world. She was born in the winter, and I was born in the winter. She is an Aquarius, and I am an Aquarius. She was my biggest dream.

At the start of the crisis, Polya had just turned 3. Our situation was very difficult –– the most difficult thing was explaining to Polya that the crisis had begun. So I made up a fairytale: I told her the explosions were thunder, that sometimes the sky gets angry and we need to hide from it. 

But as the crisis evolved, so did Polya. She now understands that it’s not the sound of thunder she’s hearing –– she knows we’re living through a time of conflict.

At the beginning of the crisis, we evacuated to the countryside, where we stayed for a few months. In a strange way, this change was good for Polya –– a city child, she got to be outside. She saw cows and horses for the first time in her life. She also saw roe deer and hares in the fields –– again, all for the first time, and not in a zoo. She helped our neighbors feed the cows, piglets, and hens.

My grandparents were children during World War II, and when I was young, they told me what they had experienced. Their stories seemed both unimaginable and horrific. I sought out more information in books and movies. I even had nightmares about the war. Yet, these were only dreams, a fantasy of how I’d behave under such impossible conditions. 

When we faced it, when my family and everyone faced this crisis as our new reality, it was nothing like I’d imagined –– it was far scarier. 

I never thought my Polya would live through such times. She’s never done anything bad to anyone –– she’s only just opened her eyes to see this world and witness what’s happening. Still, I don’t watch the news when she’s next to me. If she hears me listening to it, she asks me to switch it off. It terrifies her.

One man told me he was a child during WWII and they hid him. He didn’t understand why, but he was a Jew and they were hiding him from the Nazis. 

I have to hide my child from rockets, drones, and explosions. This isn’t normal. Sometimes she gets impatient. After all, she wants to play –– she’s only 4. Nevertheless, she understands the situation now. She misses her grandparents. My Polya misses the sea. She loves the sea. She has gone to the seaside each year, until now.

She knows it isn’t normal that we have a place in our apartment where we hide during air alarms (as there’s no bomb shelter on our block). If an air alarm sounds –– these things going on in the air above us sometimes happen right over our building –– she knows where to hide and how to behave. 

Vitalii N. at a local Kyiv playground with Polya.

When the crisis started, Polya was still in diapers. We had left all of this –– her food, her clothes, her diapers –– behind when we evacuated. And we just couldn’t find them in the rural area. Sometimes, we didn’t even have money for basic purchases.

Thanks to JDC, we started receiving aid through Halom. We got clothes, medication, and other assistance. It kept us afloat. And because of this support, I could focus on helping others.

I always say that my job is very important to me –– it’s important because it allows me to be in the community. It’s culture, tradition, Jewish life. Here are people I don’t need to explain anything to; they understand everything because they are my people. And I can’t separate my family from the community –– indeed, the elderly Jews I work with have become my second family. 

As a relatively new father, I receive so much guidance from the elderly people in the community, many of whom are grandparents and even great-grandparents. On a typical day, someone, maybe a parent themselves, says, “We’ve got some toys left. Do you need them?”

My Jewish journey really began at Halom. It was at the JCC that I began studying Torah more deeply. Every Friday to this day, I study the week’s portion with a group of people, and it’s in these portions that I get guidance from G-d.

Halom has also been my creative outlet. I’m an actor and director by training. I get to develop programs and implement activities. It’s a form of expression –– not unlike acting and directing. But the most gratifying part is that people need these programs. 

To my mind, Halom has become more necessary than ever, because it’s a hub of help and information for those living amidst the crisis. Everyone gets what they need: psychological support, material support, cultural enrichment –– always free of charge.

I love that Polya has what I didn’t as a child. My relatives were afraid because many of them had suffered and lost their lives for being Jews. They went through WWII, the camps, Soviet times — but at Halom, Polya experiences Jewishness out in the open, unafraid. 

“Halom” is Hebrew for “dream.” I also have a dream, a dream that my daughter will have brothers and sisters. I want her to be a happy child, a child who can choose her path in life. 

I love that Polya has what I didn’t as a child. At Halom, she experiences Jewishness out in the open, unafraid.

To be a good father, you have to listen to your child. Many parents want their children to reach up to their height –– to be more like them. But I think we should squat next to our children, look them in the eyes, take their hand, and ask what they want and how they see things. Your child has their own personality, and you’re helping them stand on their own feet.

When your child understands you, and you understand them, you grow together. Not only they develop, but you develop along with them. 

In the midst of a crisis, you decide what matters. I’m something of a collector. I love old postcards, antique things. My wife knits and does crafts. We have lots of books. 

None of that mattered on Feb. 24. On that day, I knew what mattered and I knew what to rescue. It was my family. It was my Polya.  

She was my biggest dream. 

Vitalii N. is the director of Hesed club programs at the JDC-supported Halom Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kyiv, Ukraine. 

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories