Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
Almost two years to the day of writing this post, I found myself entering a cool new donut shop, complete with snake plants, geometric wallpaper, and large monsteras. I could have been anywhere — Berlin, Melbourne, Austin — but I was in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova, a small landlocked country nestled between Romania and Ukraine, and the poorest country in Europe.
I sipped my flat white — which the barista, upon learning that I was Australian, insisted upon making me — and watched as the café filled up with people wearing purple T-shirts from JDC’s volunteer center in Chișinău. There were people of all ages, and before too long, we were instructed to wash our hands, put on gloves and hair nets, and decorate trays of donuts that had been brought to our tables. While we dipped donuts in frosting and coated them in sprinkles, we, a group of Jews from America, swapped stories with our Moldovan counterparts about our lives, our families, and our communities. That morning, we were volunteering at a weekly program through which donuts would later be delivered to vulnerable Jews, specifically older adults and families at risk.
Chișinău’s volunteer center is nothing short of extraordinary. It began six years ago, when Nicolai Railean — a Moldovan graduate of one of JDC’s young leadership programs in the former Soviet Union — felt that the idea of volunteerism would resonate with his city’s Jewish community. (This might seem odd to many of us reading this post, for whom volunteering is intrinsic to our Jewish identity — but in the FSU, volunteering was often associated with the oppressive Soviet regime.)
This young leader’s hunch was in fact correct, and the idea swept the community, providing community members of different ages and stages of life the opportunity to help each other. Today, volunteering has become a central pillar of JDC’s work in the FSU.
This week, we will read the weekly Shabbat portion, Parshat Terumah. This parsha reads like an Ikea manual, but without the images. Most of the text is G-d giving Moses specific instructions for building the Mishkan (Tabernacle), a mobile space for G-d to dwell as the Israelites wander the desert. G-d gives meticulous instructions, specifying measurements and the exact materials to be used. The Tabernacle is made to be mobile — to be carried by people, to withstand difficult weather conditions, to be resilient.
There was no detailed roadmap or clear instruction manual — just one young leader from an extraordinary community who was given the chance to see his idea develop.
When the Chișinău volunteer center opened, it was the first in the FSU. There was no detailed roadmap or clear instruction manual — just one young leader from an extraordinary community who was given the chance to see his idea develop. And develop it did.
In a year like no other, JDC’s volunteer centers, including the one in Chișinău, sprung into action — with 6,900 volunteers across 54 cities providing wide-ranging volunteer services to 51,860 vulnerable Jews in 2020. In response to COVID-19, these volunteers delivered food and medicine, drove homecare workers to elderly clients, staffed emergency hotlines and made calls to check in on isolated Jews, and more.
Volunteers exercised leadership by identifying vulnerable members of the community and creating programs that ensured they had an address to turn to in their hour of need. The world as we knew it fell apart, but these volunteers organized, stayed resilient, and kept building their Jewish community.
While the Israelites had a roadmap of how to create a space for G-d in their time of hardship and wandering, our counterparts in Chișinău and across the FSU spent the last six years building a solid foundation on which to do G-d’s work, so that when the unimaginable occurred, they mobilized and got to work.
Elisheva Massel is the director of strategic partnerships at JDC, where she has worked since 2017. Before JDC, she worked with the Sydney Jewish Museum, AJC Boston, Birthright Israel Foundation, and Hazon. After emigrating from Johannesburg, South Africa to Sydney, Australia at the age of 14, Eli received her BA/BSW with Honors from the University of South Wales and an MA/MBA from Brandeis University, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar.
JDC’s volunteer centers across the former Soviet Union are generously supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group.