photo: Vitalie Botnari
As soon as a state of emergency was declared in Moldova due to the coronavirus pandemic, I had the idea: My family and I would cook for elderly Jews who now could no longer leave their homes.
My family runs a cafe called Norta here in Chisinau, a small and cozy neighborhood place perfect for getting together with family or friends. My parents and I realized that in this difficult time, the older generation needs us more than ever. I called the director of our local JDC-supported Chisinau volunteer center, Nikolai Railean, and together, we put together a team of volunteers who would implement our idea. I’m grateful it didn’t take much to convince people to join in and do a good deed. After all, good deeds make us kinder inside, and I really want to feel like I live on a planet full of people who feel the same way.
The meals we cook are as simple as possible, but they’re still diverse — enough recipes to fill a small book! We try to prepare a mixture of grains, vegetables, meat, and fish. My mom and I, along with the chefs at our restaurant, have been cooking a lot, and my dad is in charge of purchasing the freshest and most delicious groceries. Then, we bring the lunches to Chisinau’s JCC Kedem, where JDC volunteers organize the logistics and deliver the lunches to elderly Jews.
We provide lunches to 15 elderly clients of the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, and I’m grateful that our volunteer center has now connected with other local restaurants so that they’re cooking lunches, too. Since they’ve joined our efforts, we’ve been able to cover even more elderly Jews’ needs resulting from the pandemic.
I can’t predict exactly what the future holds, but I know I’m definitely not going to stop volunteering. I learned that from Active Jewish Teens (AJT), the JDC youth network in the former Soviet Union (FSU) in partnership with BBYO and the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
I joined AJT three years ago, attracted by the possibility of making new friends and traveling to regional seminars where I would meet other kids from around the FSU. At my second international seminar, I began to conquer some of my fears and dive into getting more confident speaking in public, working in a team, and translating my big ideas into reality. Over time, I realized AJT is a big family, just like my second home here in Moldova — my beloved AJT Haverim teen club. My AJT and teen club mentors have helped me become who I am today, a leader who wants to continue to grow and develop.
For me, a volunteer is someone who devotes their resources for the benefit of their country, voluntarily and free of charge. At a time when we often forget about words like “honor,” “duty,” and “conscience,” I’m excited that so many people my age are adding the word “volunteer” to their vocabulary. Last year, our volunteer center was recognized by Moldova’s government as the best volunteer organization in our country! The volunteers I work with do not expect praise for what they do. Seeing the smiling faces of people they help is enough for them to understand they’re on the right track. These are values that echo how I grew up, in a family that always valued tzedakah and never missed an opportunity to help those in need.
I became a volunteer confident she was capable of doing more and committed to the future of her Jewish community.
Before AJT and the volunteer center, I didn’t know much about the kinds of people who needed help, like the lonely elderly Jews in my city. That changed quickly, though. First I took part in “Shabbat Guest,” a volunteer initiative where I visited homebound Hesed clients and celebrated Shabbat with them, and then I joined “FreeDom,” an AJT project to design inclusive programming at our youth club for Jewish children with special needs. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the smiles on their faces! Thanks to these projects, I wasn’t just Katya anymore — I became a volunteer confident she was capable of doing more and committed to the future of her Jewish community.
Now, whenever my mom and I are cooking the lunches, I think of the people who will receive them — isolated elderly Jews who probably feel all alone in the world sometimes. I want to tell them: Please don’t worry. There will always be people ready to help you. After all, we learned it from you. You’ve taught us how to be a new generation of decent and kind people.
Katya Rybak, 19, is a volunteer with the JDC-supported Volunteer Center in Chisinau, Moldova.