Keeping Passover Spirit Alive in Ukraine
Against the backdrop of a crippling humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, JDC is ensuring that Passover continues uninterrupted for thousands of Jews at Hesed social welfare centers and JDC-supported Jewish Community Center on both sides of the ceasefire line throughout Ukraine.
Our volunteers and staff are holding a variety of Passover-related activities – from Seder feasts to matzah baking and Passover cooking workshops – and delivering nearly 48,000 free packages of matzah to needy Ukrainian Jews.
“As we engage in our annual Passover activities around Ukraine this year, we are reminded of the holiday’s timeless message of deliverance and our duty to ensure a small taste of hope and joy to those facing despair and an uncertain future,” said Michal Frank, Director of JDC’s Former Soviet Union operation.
In Donetsk and Lugansk, cities severely damaged during fighting and now under separatist control, JDC is holding matzah-baking classes for children, Seders (the traditional Passover feast) for the elderly, and workshops on Passover foods and customs.
In Mariupol, a rocket-stricken city just outside the rebel-held area, children will make matzah and a special women’s Seder will be conducted. Similar events will take place in Zaporozhie, Artyomovsk, Kramatorsk, and Krovoy Rog.
Away from the frontlines, thousands of Jews – including hundreds of displaced Jews making new homes away from the separatist-controlled east – will also attend Passover activities.
In Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa, Seders for the elderly will be held at “Warm Homes” – apartments or other facilities where groups of seniors gather together to socialize, engage in cultural activities, and celebrate holidays. Kiev’s Beiteinu Center will include families at risk and displaced Jews in a special Passover picnic.
In Dnepropetrovsk, a special “Pesach University” is being organized to teach young people how to conduct a Seder.
And in Odessa, Passover cooking classes with be part of Seder activities at the Beit Grand JCC while in other cities in the region – Nikolayev, Kherson, and Kirovograd – visits by young volunteers to isolated elderly and the displaced will be part of communitywide festivities.
Since the crisis in Ukraine began, JDC has deployed emergency services assisting thousands of Jews caught up in the conflict, including: extra food, medicine, and medical care; crisis-related home repairs; extra winter items such as warm bedding, clothing, utility stipends, and space heaters; and a full aid package and emergency housing for displaced Jews.
As the crisis has worsened, 2,700 people have been added to our aid rolls, many who never needed JDC assistance in the past. These include working or middle class Jewish families now struggling with conflict-related unemployment and general economic distress.
JDC has four major offices and operates and supports a network of 32 Hesed social welfare centers serving more than 70,000 Jews in need in more than 1,000 locations across Ukraine. Our long history of assisting Ukrainian Jews includes working with the American Relief Administration in 1921 to administer an aid program for Ukrainians impacted by war and famine, including the Jewish community. Additionally, Agro-Joint, established in 1924, created Jewish agricultural colonies and industrial schools in Ukraine and Crimea.
JDC’s work in Ukraine is undertaken in cooperation with the local Jewish community and groups like Chabad, and is made possible by our Board members; individual donors and foundations; and our partners, including Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.
Q&A: Masha Shumatskaya
When the daily shelling began to be too much to bear last June, 23-year-old Masha Shumatskaya packed up her belongings and left her hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine for the safety of Kharkov.
Since then, she’s become one of 2,500 internally displaced Jews aided by JDC after they fled fierce fighting between government and separatist forces. Today, JDC also continues to serve thousands of needy Jews in the separatist-controlled regions as well.
In response, JDC has deployed emergency services assisting Jews caught up in the conflict, including: extra food, medicine, and medical care; crisis-related home repairs; extra winter items such as warm bedding, clothing, utility stipends, and space heaters; and a full aid package, emergency housing, and post-trauma care for displaced Jews — including Masha.
To raise awareness to the situation in Ukraine, JDC invited Masha on a two-week speaking tour of North America this month addressing Jewish audiences in Vancouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York.
Masha sat down with JDC at its headquarters in New York City for a QandA elaborating on her Jewish identity, hopes and fears for the future, and the current situation in Ukraine.
Can you tell me a bit about your Jewish background?
My ancestors were rabbis, but my grandparents weren’t connected at all. It was also impossible during Soviet times. Nonetheless, others around them never let them forget their Jewishness. My mother put me in the Number 99 Jewish School in Donetsk because it was convenient, had a school bus, free breakfast and lunch, and great teachers. There, I received a Jewish education, learned subjects in Hebrew, and got really involved in Jewish life – I even took part in the International Bible Contest in Israel representing Ukraine and I still keep kosher.
How did you become involved with JDC?
When I was 17 there was an annual program for young leaders from all over Ukraine organized by JDC called Metsuda. They said it might be a good fit for me, and they were right. I learned the value of teamwork and met some of my best friends there. Perhaps the best thing was the network of mentors and colleagues that I gained. We still gather about once a year and discuss ways we can help out our communities. Some even have successful businesses – despite the crisis – and can give back.
What was it like living in Donetsk during the conflict?
It started with demonstrations by unarmed people. When they took over the government building it didn’t seem unordinary or revolutionary. I saw that and told my boyfriend, ‘Maybe that’s what democracy is about.’ He said, ‘This is a bad thing.’ I only realized how severe the situation was when the barricades went up and some people started wearing masks and carrying guns. By the end of May they started shelling the airport and we had to leave. We lost our jobs and there was no reason for us to stay. We thought we would be back by September – nobody thought it would be more than a few months – so we moved to Kharkov. We stayed with friends until eventually we found an apartment.
How were you received on your tour of North America?
It was great because I came to people who realized I was a war refugee but didn’t realize the size of the catastrophe. I was treated as a member of the family, and showered with love. They were grateful I came, and I thanked those I met, those who supported us and my mother. Thanks to their donations to JDC we received food packages and financial help to rent our apartment for a few months. It was an honor to be an ambassador for all the Jews in need in Ukraine.
What does the future hold for you?
I have no idea – it depends on so many things. The thing that worries me the most is whether the war will come to Kharkov or not. If it does, I’ll be displaced a second time – not something I’d like to happen. In that case, I might have to think of other countries to live in. It might be Israel, or it might be another where I can find work as an English teacher or another specialist job. I had a lot of plans a year ago. Because of what happened, they changed completely.
In Donetsk Under Fire, Caring For Those Who Remain
On a recent morning, Sophia, one of JDC’s Hesed social welfare caretakers from Donetsk, was visiting a 97-year-old client of hers near the center of the eastern Ukrainian city when a massive explosion shook the building.
Running outside, Sophia saw a nearby trolley bus had sustained a direct hit from a mortar shell, killing 13 people and wounding 20 others. Body parts lay scattered across the street as the sounds of screams and sirens filled the air.
Shaken, she resumed her daily duties: cleaning her client, cooking breakfast, and after making sure she was OK, going to her next appointment.
“I understand I can be killed or injured, but I try not to think about it,” she said of her work, which takes her to some of the most dangerous parts of the war-torn city. “I just run and pray. So far it’s worked.”
Since violence erupted in Ukraine last year, many caretakers and volunteers working for JDC’s Hesed social welfare center network like Sophia have risked their lives treating thousands of homebound and frail elderly around Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine today, JDC and the staff of the Hesed network is caring for more than 4,500 Jews who remain. Some have ridden bicycles through active war zones. Others traversed their way past gunmen manning barricades and checkpoints. Though their work saves the lives of countless people, the heroism of these men and women goes largely unsung.
“The dangers facing many caretakers and volunteers working in eastern Ukraine are extreme,” said JDC’s Former Soviet Union Director Michal Frank. “They provide our clients with essential food, medicine, and other necessities. Without their visits, people would die. They are true heroes and deserve to be recognized for their courage.”
Sophia — who had previously been employed by the Tochmash factory — began her career as a caretaker 15 years ago when clients of the kiosk she was working for told her about JDC’s local Hesed. She successfully applied for a position and her life has never been the same.
“Caring for these people gives me strength and courage,” said the 66-year-old, who lives alone and has no children. “They need me, and that makes my life worthwhile.”
Her job is difficult and demanding during peaceful times: cleaning, scrubbing, cooking, carrying goods, taking care of elderly and needy individuals who have often been neglected or abandoned. Since fighting broke out, another, potentially deadly element of difficulty has been added.
Mark, an 83-year-old client of Sophia’s, lives in the neighborhood closest to the Donetsk airport.
Over the past few months, the once-shimmering facility that reopened in 2012 for a soccer tournament has been reduced to rubble as government and rebel forces have battled over it bitterly.
Reaching Mark’s home requires traveling to the least safe part of town where gunfire and shelling are a constant. He has no gas, water, or electricity. His phone is cut off and the only way to get there is by foot. Sophia carries all of Mark’s food and medicine herself. When incoming rounds are heard, as they so often are, Mark and Sophia take cover in his basement. Sophia has had to spend three nights there because of gunfire outside.
“If not for me, who will come and help?” she said. “When I remember his eyes and arms, I feel for him. It’s as though he were a child of mine, who needs caring for.”
Earlier this month, Sophia was the sole person to visit an 86-year-old client who lives in a dangerous part of town by the train station on her birthday. They had tea and spoke about happier times. Sophia has even allowed for a client whose apartment is not safe to move in with her.
“During the shelling we support each other so we aren’t as scared,” she said.
with our real-time crisis response in Ukraine.
In Eastern Ukraine, Fostering Hope
As Ukraine’s crisis continues, marked this past weekend by dozens of deaths in the Sea of Azov coast city of Mariupol, JDC doubled down on its efforts to care for the most vulnerable Jews still living in the conflict-laden eastern part of the country.As indiscriminate artillery fire slammed into a market, schools, homes, and shops in the city, JDC’s local Hesed social welfare center, in cooperation with JDC’s office in Dnepropetrovsk, engaged in round-the-clock monitoring of the nearly 600 Jews it aids in the city as well as the general Jewish population. Among the poor elderly and families JDC cares for, homecare, medicine, and food services continue uninterrupted, and new needs that have emerged after the weekend attack are being addressed.As an example, JDC will repair the windows of clients’ homes that were knocked out by the blasts. Additionally, JDC is monitoring shrinking food and pharmacy supplies to ensure clients do not go without these critical supplies.”As we aggressively ensure the neediest Jews of eastern Ukraine have a lifeline at this time of ongoing conflict, we are also providing a critically important source of comfort and hope to those who often feel forgotten and scared,” said Michal Frank, JDC’s Former Soviet Union Director. “This message of Jewish unity, and action, is needed now more than ever as winter rages and the end of the crisis is nowhere in sight.”In the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the conflict has led to scarce supplies, halted pensions, and other hardships for the elderly, impoverished, and people with disabilities living in pervasive fear.JDC’s Hesed social welfare center in Donetsk is ensuring that food, medication, and home care are provided, even when locals have difficulty traveling around the city due to sporadic explosions and weapon fire. JDC’s Winter Relief program, now in its 23rd year, is in full swing with blankets, warm winter clothes, and electrical heaters being distributed among more than 1,500 Jews in need in the region.In Lugansk, where roads into the rest of Ukraine have been closed, JDC’s Hesed social welfare center continues its work and clients there are getting the nutritional, medical, and homecare services they desperately need. With more than 1,700 benefitting from the Winter Relief program, JDC is working hard to keep these needy Jews warm, even as they brave war and winter.Another feature of the conflict is the growing numbers of Jews applying for services through JDC’s Hesed social welfare network in the region. Nearly 2,000 people, from the Donetsk and Lugansk areas alone, where JDC serves more than 100 locations, have been added to the system in the last four months.”We stand at the ready to aid the new numbers of Jews seeking help and have been working tirelessly to ensure that they can survive this difficult time. Whether they remain in the east, or join the hundreds of thousands of others who have fled the conflict zone, JDC will be there for them,” Frank said.JDC’s work in Ukraine is undertaken in cooperation with the local Jewish community and groups like Chabad. JDC’s work is generously support by its Board, individual donors and foundations, and our esteemed partners, including Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.Today, JDC has four major offices and operates and supports a network of 32 Hesed social welfare centers serving Jews in need in more than 1,000 locations across Ukraine. JDC’s long history of working with Ukrainian Jews includes its work with the American Relief Administration in 1921 to administer an aid program for Ukrainians impacted by war and famine, including the Jewish community. Additionally, Agro-Joint, established in 1924, created Jewish agricultural colonies and industrial schools in Ukraine and Crimea.
Nous Sommes Juifs
JDC stands together with the hundreds of thousands of people, including world leaders, who gathered in Paris to stand up to terror and demonstrate their solidarity with the French people — and mourns the loss of all those who were murdered in cold blood by the terrorists.
Our thoughts and prayers especially go out to the families of Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham, and Francois-Michel Saada, viciously killed in the Hyper Cacher supermarket in an act of anti-Semitic violence. May their memories be a blessing.
Today — as a Jewish organization with a proud century of history assisting, empowering and where necessary rescuing our fellow Jews in need and danger wherever in the world they might be — we proudly stand with the Jewish community of France and the French people — in an expression of kol yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh.
Nous Sommes Juifs.
We’re also taking concrete measures at a time of even more heightened concern for the global Jewish community:
We also take to heart the incredible outpouring of support — from world leaders as well as millions of ordinary Parisians — who are determined to fight for a robust, tolerant, multi-ethnic, democratic, and free Europe.
The reality is that today’s Europe is home to hundreds of thousands of Jews and our role remains using all our skills and expertise to enable them to build strong, robust, self sustaining communities where they and their families can lead full Jewish lives in freedom and security in whatever way they choose.
We will continue to keep you updated on JDC’s efforts in the coming days. We pray for better times ahead.
In Moving Memoir, Connection to JDC
Carol Jean Delmar has written the recently published Serenade, a moving memoir of her parents’ love story and their journey from Vienna and Prague to Cuba and the United States as they fled the Nazis. Her father was an opera singer and his musical talent kept him and the author’s mother one step ahead of the restrictions and violence against European Jews. Ms. Delmar relied on her father’s taped account as well as diligent research and travel to relate her parents’ struggles and triumphs as refugees. The book contains detailed documentation of passports and letters, photos, and extensive musical references, but reads more like a novel than a typical work of non-fiction.
Ms. Delmar’s book contains several mentions of JDC and HIAS. To learn more about Triscornia, the camp that detained her parents when they arrived in Havana in February, 1939, the author traveled to Cuba. She met Maritza Corrales, a Cuban historian and writer who had secured a document about Triscornia from JDC. After visiting the former site and using details from the JDC document, Ms. Delmar described the camp’s deplorable conditions: “Many people had amoebic dysentery and what was described as ‘seasonal grippe.’ There were cases of whooping cough, jaundice, and incidences of heart problems. There were bedbugs and lice. The Joint Relief Committee was sending one thousand oranges and one thousand bananas or pineapples to Triscornia each day, and eggs, sardines, milk, and butter. The organization was also providing valuable medication to the sick.”
While they were at Triscornia, Ms. Delmar’s parents met with a representative from HIAS. He explained what it would take to get them out of the camp. They had to leave a thousand-dollar security deposit with the Cuban government, which would be returned to them when they left Cuba. According to Ms. Delmar, this was the way the Cubans ensured that the refugees would not remain in Cuba. Cuba soon established strict new immigration laws and there was a massive demonstration of 40,000 Cubans against Jewish immigration. The protesters feared that immigrants would take the limited jobs that were available in Cuba.
On May 27, 1939, while the author’s parents were still in Cuba, a ship called the Saint Louis arrived in Havana’s port and was turned away. It contained 900 European refugees who had boarded in Hamburg. The ship’s captain and representatives from the JDC and the Joint Relief Committee in Havana held negotiations with Cuba’s President Bru, but he refused to let the passengers disembark. The ship returned to Europe.
After their release from Triscornia, Ms. Delmar’s parents lived for several months in Havana in a rented apartment until they received American visas. When the visas came through, the couple travelled to New York and stayed there for about a year. HIAS helped them to relocate to Knoxville, Tennessee in February, 1941. The organization paid for moving expenses “and then some” to help the couple resettle. Ms. Delmar’s father planned to teach singing there because he lost his voice in Havana due to the trauma of being forced to leave his homeland, climate changes, and allergies. When they arrived in Knoxville, HIAS had a Jewish couple meet them at the train. The couple found them an apartment and loaned them furniture.
In her chapter notes, Ms. Delmar explains her references to HIAS: “That is the organization that was so invaluable to my parents. It is the organization they always felt indebted to. However, I have read articles and documents that show the incredible efforts made by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Relief Committee. So I must mention them all here with my gratitude.”
Ms. Delmar’s father went on to become an award-winning costumer, designer and studio executive in Hollywood on such films and television series as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and The Untouchables starring Robert Stack. Her parents rose above their Holocaust losses to live the American dream.
Ms. Delmar’s book is available for purchase at http://www.serenadethememoir.com/.
Dispatch from Odessa: Winter is Coming
Every Chanukah for the past two decades, a giant menorah has lit up the central square of the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, bringing a little festive cheer to Jewish and non-Jewish locals during the long winter nights.
But this year’s holiday season may be a bit dimmer. Ukraine’s ongoing crisis has made the price of food, medicine, and utilities sky high while the conflict in the east has displaced large and growing numbers of people.
With planned power outages and the mandated lowering of thermostats to a frosty 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the coming winter is bound to be one of the harshest in living memory for all Ukrainians, including hundreds of thousands of Jews.
I caught a glimpse of these challenging times when I visited Odessa — Ukraine’s third-largest city — with my JDC study group last month, meeting many inspiring members of the local Jewish community.
In a crumbling Soviet-era apartment near the city center, I met a group of elderly who gather on a weekly basis as part of JDC’s Warm Home program.
“Things were already bad before,” said my host, a hospitable woman who baked pizza for her guests. “Now we don’t know how we’ll pay the heating bills.”
Besides the coming cold, other threats have reemerged. Tuberculosis has recently seen a resurgence throughout the country. In Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, a humdrum town two hours away from Odessa, I met a widow whose husband died of the disease last year at the age of 27.
She lives with their three young daughters in a small space where the air is heavy and stale. Ventilation in the winter comes at a price: Open a window, and bone-freezing gusts blow right in. Better the smell than the cold. After a few minutes, one hardly notices.
Despite the cramped conditions, the mother has managed to create a pleasant environment for her cheery blonde girls. They smiled and played with toys strewn on the floor while she shared her sad story, holding back the tears.
JDC gives her a stipend to operate the electric heater and supports her children’s classes at the local Hesed social welfare center.
JDC’s Winter Relief program is crucial for such members of the Jewish community. Now in its 23rd year, it delivers tons of heating fuel, warm bedding, and clothing to needy Jews across the former Soviet Union.
It is carried out together with the local Jewish community, Chabad, and with generous support from JDC’s Board of Directors, individual donors and foundations, and our generous partners, including: Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.
“When temperatures drop to the teens and naughts, this is vital,” JDC’s Odessa representative Ira Zborovskaya told me as we discussed the hardship facing so many this time of year.
And while visiting the homes of the poor and needy is often discouraging, there were also many uplifting moments.
At the Hesed social welfare center in Odessa, we were greeted by a choir of elderly Yiddish enthusiasts singing a medley of songs in the mama lashon. At a JCC — one of two serving the city’s estimated 30,000 Jews — we saw people of all ages participating in dance, acting, and painting classes.
And while the circumstances by which children ended up at the orphanage run by Chabad were sad, the free board, shelter, and education they received were bright spots in these young lives.
Whether it is cultivating Jewish life or helping those in need, JDC’s mission in Ukraine over the next couple of months will be more important than ever.
Thankfully, for 100 years, and today, JDC is there.
Gil Shefler is a media relations specialist in JDC’s Global Marketing and Communications department.
On the Ground in Ukraine
This week, I returned from Ukraine after a week-long trip visiting JDC’s programs, clients, and staff in both Odessa and Kiev. It was the first time I was personally exposed to the crucial work JDC does in the former Soviet Union.
I have spoken many times to friends, family, and the American Jewish community at large about the challenges faced by Jews around the world. What I saw during my trip provided faces and voices to these people. I expected to meet with our clients, all of them in vulnerable situations, and feel grateful for the resources and opportunities I have in my life.
However, I was taken aback by the people I met who are constantly going above and beyond to do their part in strengthening the community. I’m not only speaking of the JDC staff and partners.
JDC clients continually open up their humble homes and share their painstaking stories. All whom I encountered were beyond grateful for the services they received, and possessed both the humility and dignity to understand that the best way they can help and contribute is by sharing their challenges and inspiring visiting colleagues and missions. Without many material resources, many of our clients still do whatever they can to support JDC and their community — even if it means showcasing their misfortune.
These intimate exchanges often left me speechless and in awe of the strength of character required to continuously acknowledge and confront ongoing life obstacles in the company of more fortunate people — and many times strangers.
These aspects have been unsettling and have caused me to question the extent of my commitment to my Jewish communities, both micro and macro, and assess my personal efforts beyond my work at JDC. These questions will stay with me as my reaction continues to evolve. I’m grateful for the opportunity provided to me by JDC, as well as the courage displayed by our dignified clients in Odessa and Kiev.
These experiences have challenged me to think in a more meaningful way about issues concerning my own Jewish identity and responsibility that have in turn changed how I view my work at JDC — from professional to personal.
JDC’s Outreach Coordinator.
From the CEO: Around the World, Snapshots of Jewish Hope
Jewish tradition is prolific in advice offering. And one of the gems from this lexicon of do’s and don’ts comes from the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin.
In this text we’re instructed on the duties of a father to his son. Today I would read this as the duties of all parents to their children. Among the main responsibilities, we are told, parents must teach their children Torah as well as a trade. The text goes on to also implore parents to teach their children how to swim.
The rabbis tell us that this curious addition is because a child’s very life may one day depend on being able to swim.
There is a deeper meaning as well: Swimming is not just about survival. It’s about endurance. It’s about moving against the tide in dangerous waters and emerging victorious, with the full breath of life. Ultimately, it’s about thriving.
And during the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of experiencing how JDC is working together with strong, local Jewish communities, governments, passionate philanthropists, and rising generations of those whose Jewish identities were stolen from them to thrive in ways some of us never imagined.
Here are four snapshots from my recent travels – from Israel to Russia to Poland to the Netherlands – which illustrate JDC at work:
Our beloved Israel is situated in an increasingly perilous neighborhood and must therefore have a cohesive and strong social fabric in order to take on the growing regional threats it faces. And JDC has played a central role in taking on the challenges facing Israel’s most vulnerable to offer them a place, and a successful future, in Israeli society. One of the hallmarks of JDC’s century of work there has been its work with the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community, which faces major obstacles in the area of employment.
We have made great strides in helping Haredi men and women train for and secure jobs through many programs, including those featured by in its coverage of the progress being made in this realm. I was recently honored to represent JDC at an event in Jerusalem marking the expansion of our Mafteach employment centers for Haredim, a further growth in our activities in a strategic philanthropic partnership with the Government of Israel’s Ministry of the Economy and the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation. It includes a major ramp-up of existing Mafteach centers and the creation of two more of these in-demand, one-stop employment centers.
Our ability to ensure that Haredim can offer the Israeli economy skilled and expert workers is strengthening Israeli’s social fabric. The more than 27,000 Haredi adults who have walked through the doors of Mafteach centers established to date – more than 50 percent of them with jobs today – is proof positive.
Moscow at this time of year, like much of the former Soviet Union, can be cold and overcast–winter comes very early. And yet, there was special warmth emanating from the Jewish community there when I visited, the embers of Jewish life glowing bright. I was in Moscow for two events, intertwined in many ways, which demonstrated our successful work to revive Jewish community, culture, and a shared sense of responsibility.
The first was , one of the city’s largest Jewish Community Centers, in honor of our beloved, late Ralph Goldman z”l. Established in 2001, this JCC operates out of a converted 19-century mansion in the center of Moscow. From its flagship Tapuz nursery and pre-school – consistently ranked among the top 10 institutions of its kind in the city – to lectures, concerts, and gatherings for holidays and special occasions attended by thousands, this bustling Jewish hub is a prominent sign of the remarkable revival of a formerly oppressed Jewish community.
How fitting then that it should now be called the Ralph I. Goldman Nikitskaya Jewish Cultural Center, after the man who negotiated with the Soviets to ensure JDC’s reentry into the Soviet Union to care for Jews in need and foster Jewish life. The ceremony – including a memorial tribute, musical performance, and the unveiling of the new name plaque at the JCC – recalled the extraordinary leadership of Ralph, a hero of the Jewish people. His 100 years were marked by the belief that all Jews had the right to freedom and to express their Jewish identity proudly and fully. And in that stately building today that bears his name, in the halls, among the children at play, and the Hebrew songs being sung, is his legacy: vibrant Jewish life.
That legacy was even more powerfully felt at a special gala held by the venerable Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) celebrating JDC’s centennial. Among those who attended the standing-room-only event, an annual gathering of RJC’s growing membership from across Russia, was U.S Ambassador John Tefft, Israeli Ambassador Dorit Golender, Russian Chief Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, and many of Russia’s Jewish cultural, business, and community elites. They were treated to a labyrinth of archival JDC photos and a very special theatrical performance. The evening was hosted by renowned TV presenter Nikolai Svanidze.
“We will always remember that the Joint created a network of Hesed centers in Russia and supported Russian Jewry during its toughest times. We are very grateful for that,” said Yury Kanner, the esteemed president of the RJC. As proud as I was of JDC that night, I was even prouder of the evidence of a community coming of age.
One of my early assignments for JDC was traveling to Moscow in the early ’90s to work with the nascent RJC in its formative development. Today, it has grown in membership, influence and, together with tens of thousands of other Russian Jews, in its proud expressions of a serious Jewish identity. For those of us who have journeyed together with the Jews of the former Soviet Union, from the fall of communism to today, the two events I attended in Moscow are evidence to any skeptic that miracles do indeed occur.
My great-grandfather Avraham Yechiel z”l, whose name I carry, is buried in a cemetery in Lodz, Poland. He was one of the millions of Jews who inhabited a critically important center of Jewish life, of Jewish civilization, in Europe before the Holocaust. After emerging from the double trauma of Nazism and Communism, Poland is today a noted spot for the revival of Jewish community life.
Covered by the media for years now, this Jewish reawakening was powerfully on display at the opening of POLIN, the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I attended the opening together with a senior JDC delegation, including our Europe Board Committee Chair Amy Bressman, and we experienced exhibits that were both educational and inspiring. As I ventured around the space, and afterwards stood in front of the museum on the grounds of the former Warsaw ghetto, I began to realize just how significant this was. What has been created is a movingly presented story of the Jews of Poland. Our story. My story.
But my week in Poland wasn’t just about history. We also celebrated the one-year anniversary of the opening of Warsaw’s first modern JCC, a landmark JDC project. Launched in partnership with the Taube Foundation, Koret Foundation, and Kronhill-Pletka Foundation, the JCC represents the potential for the community today and for its future. It’s a space that is warm, welcoming, creative, forward-thinking, and realistic about the need for Jewish life to happen on the terms of those who are partaking in it.
From children’s activities to themed Shabbat meals and holiday programming, hundreds take part in the JCC’s overbooked schedule of events. All Jews are welcome – from secular Jews to members of various Jewish denominations – and the first year has been marked by many successes, including a special Purim shuk. This holiday marketplace included craftsmen, designers of Judaica, artists, and chefs from the community to sell their work. Twenty percent of the proceeds were donated to needy members of the community. Impressive.
As Agata Rakowiecka, , relates, “There are religious and secular people of different ages sitting together, talking, laughing. I meet people who haven’t been involved with Jewish life for years. At these moments, I realize how needed and how important our mission is.”
For me, Avraham Yechiel’s great-grandson, this sentiment is spot-on. And I know his memory lives on, and is given new life, in Poland’s incredible Jewish renaissance.
Amsterdam is home to one of Europe’s strong, proud, and financially self-sufficient Jewish communities. A partner with JDC in our work aiding the elderly in the former Soviet Union and training European Jewish leaders, this community is also now facing the scourge of spiking anti-Semitism.
I was hosted by the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund, its distinguished president Ronny Naftaniel and director Muriel Leeuwin, and the local Jewish community leadership to hear more about their work and concerns. What was striking to me about our conversations, and experiencing first-hand the reality of a Europe that has both rising anti-Semitism and thriving Jewish community life, is the stalwart attitude taken by the Jews of the Netherlands.
After all, JDC played a seminal role in rebuilding European Jewish communities like those in the Netherlands after the Holocaust. So from our perspective, we see the vibrant Dutch Jewish community, made up of tens of thousands of people, working hard under increasing duress, to support their fellow Jewish communities, and Israel, in meaningful ways. And that is simply inspiring.
But perhaps more inspiring was the fact that I went to Amsterdam to study and to listen, but instead got a true lesson in global Jewish responsibility. In my conversations with community members, I asked what their response was to rising extremism. Some were looking for opportunity elsewhere. Others were unmoved, pledging to stay. But they were united in their commitment to their community, and to one another.
In that moment I became aware that my presence there wasn’t just in a professional capacity. I was there in solidarity – standing shoulder to shoulder with a community that JDC had aided in the aftermath of the Nazi horror, a community that proudly partakes in Jewish humanitarian work around the world, and a community that is committed to weathering the storm.
Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La Zeh – all Jews are responsible for one another – is more than sustenance and material succor to those in need. It’s about “being there” when “being there” means everything to those you are standing next to, whether physically or metaphorically.
Back in America, to ask what they can realistically do to respond to a world in crisis.
And, they sometimes ask, given the seemingly hopeless state of things, should they even bother trying?
I have the same answer to give, the same in every language, in every venue, and to every person who asks: YES.
Because of what I experienced on this most recent JDC journey.
Because of what we have done together for the last one hundred years.
We are there for the Jewish people at their time of need–yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Alan H. Gill is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Vice President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
In Germany, Volunteering for Ukraine
Kharkov, Ukraine, is more than 1,100 miles from Berlin, but on November 16, the German Jewish community will celebrate the shared bonds of the global Jewish people through its participation in the international Mitzvah Day initiative.
Started in the United Kingdom in 2008, the project has grown into a global movement of change, encouraging people around the world to join together for hands-on community service and social action. Mitzvah Day now touches 20 countries, reaching more than 35,000 people each year.
In Germany, JDC’s Bambinim Center for children and young adults will spearhead a drive to collect Chanukah toys and supplies for needy Jews and internally displaced people in Ukraine, a project organized in conjunction with JDC’s Hesed social welfare center in Kharkov.
“It’s all part of the idea of tikkun olam,” said Lili Furman, JDC’s representative in Germany, referring to the Jewish concept of repairing the world. “We want to give back from the blessings we are enjoying. We are conscious that a lot of people are suffering at this time.”
In Germany, the Mitzvah Day initiative is more broadly being organized under the auspices of The Central Council of the Jews in Germany. The Bambinim project is being coordinated by Anja Olejnik, the center’s director, Avishag Weidner, and Liora Jaffe, a senior fellow in Berlin.
The Bambinim group is expected to number about 20 to 25 families, or 60 to 70 people. They will be creating Hanukkah gift baskets for Ukrainian Jewish children, filled with picture books, puzzles, wooden toys, and more.
Though the crisis in Ukraine lends this Mitzvah Day special urgency for the German Jewish community, this is not the first time the Berlin group has participated in the global initiative. Last year, the community partnered with a Masorti congregation, the Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue, to renovate and paint a room for children at a local center for refugees new to Germany.
Furman said the Mitzvah Day event is an exciting chance for the German Jewish community to connect with their peers in Ukraine. She’s also hoping to bring in a speaker who can offer a Jewish perspective on the ongoing conflict there
“I want to generate some awareness about the crisis in Ukraine because although the issue appears in the media, for people here in Germany without a personal connection to Ukraine, the importance can seem less clear,” she said.
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