World Refugee Day: A Jewish Recipe from One Woman Making a New “Warm Home” in Ukraine

In honor of World Refugee Day, we share the story of Meri Zegelman, an Internally Displaced Person in Ukraine, who has become a vital member of her new home community in Kharkiv. Plus one of her recipes!

June 16, 2020

Meri Zegelman, an Internally Displaced Person in Ukraine who was helped by JDC, shows off some of her cooking.

World Refugee Day

Together with her husband Leonid, Meri Zegelman was forced to flee Luhansk in summer 2014 to escape the conflict there. Thinking the violence wouldn’t last long, they left the city with only a small bag of clothes and some key documents. When they arrived in Kharkiv, JDC — through the city’s Hesed social welfare center — helped them rent an apartment, where they still live. 

Living in Luhansk, Meri was a fixture of community life, hosting a “Warm Home” — a JDC program that brings together elderly Jews for meals, conversation, and community connection — and participating in many other community events. Even as she built a new life with Leonid in Kharkiv, she jumped right into the Jewish community, spearheading a Warm Home specifically for other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Donetsk and Luhansk.

‘Thanks to JDC and Hesed, we still feel like Jews and still feel needed.’

Meri Zegelman

“The Hesed in Luhansk was our second home, and everyone there felt like a relative. When we had to run, it felt like we lost two homes, not just our apartment,” Meri said. “But when we came to the Hesed in Kharkiv, we immediately found ourselves among like-minded people — new friends, a new home with a real Jewish spirit. Jews always support each other, and thanks to JDC and Hesed, we still feel like Jews and still feel needed. Hesed is our life.”

Before the quarantine, the Warm Home group met at Kharkiv’s Hesed Shaare Tikva, as the owner of the Zegelmans’ rented apartment didn’t permit parties at their apartment. The group met regularly, celebrating birthdays and Jewish holidays, and sharing life together. Meri and Leonid also actively participated in volunteer seminars and Hesed field trips and activities. Meri also gave lectures at the day center, sharing her knowledge with other elderly Jews.

‘Unfortunately, since March, we’re all forced to stay in our apartments and no one goes out, which can be very traumatic to the psyche. Everyone misses participating in their beloved Hesed activities,’ Meri said. ‘But Warm Home still operates. Now it’s by telephone and online, and it helps us not to feel so lonely.’

Warm Home participants tell Meri about their worries, knowing she’ll understand and support them in whatever they’re going through. Meri works hard to find common ground with everyone, using humor to inspire optimism and keep her friends in good spirits.

In addition to Warm Home, Meri leads an online ‘Jewish Cuisine’ cooking class on the Hesed’s Facebook, sharing her recipes and teaching her friends how to cook her signature dishes.

Meri (top right) leads a Zoom session for her Warm Home group.

‘It’s important to me that Jewish traditions are not forgotten. Knowing how people miss our in-person classes and the warm family feeling we’ve had at Hesed for so many years, I decided to share my recipes so Jews who were unfamiliar could get to know the hallmarks of Jewish cooking,’ she said. ‘More importantly, activities like this help us continue to be part of the Jewish community without leaving our houses during this period of quarantine.’

For Meri, it’s a way to give back.

‘When we ran away from the shelling in Luhansk six years ago, we were so lucky the Kharkiv Jewish community took us in. It wasn’t just what we physically received from Hesed and JDC — clothes, assistance paying rent, medicines — but the moral support. We knew we weren’t alone, which helped us not to fall into despair in that first, most difficult time,’ she said. ‘Now, because of the virus, we — like all other elderly — are cut off from the world. It’s great that JDC and Hesed have moved their activities online and I’m glad to do my part. Still, I believe this quarantine will soon end and we’ll be able to come to our beloved Hesed Shaare Tikva.’

Meri was happy to share her favorite recipe with the global JDC community.

Kreplach (Jewish Dumplings)