photo: Laura Gil/JDC
It’s a gray January morning, and my boots crunch over the snow, as they have most January mornings of my life. The familiarity is striking, especially since I’ve just just arrived in a place I expected to feel so different — Chișinău, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Moldova. I’m standing with a cluster of my jet-lagged JDC colleagues in Chișinău’s Victory Square. Ștefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) — cross in one hand, sword in the other — towers over us.
One short hour before, my fellow JDC Staff Study Trip travelers, hailing from New York, Israel, Switzerland, and Australia, met in our hotel’s dining room, along with our colleagues from JDC’s Chișinău field office. For most of us, this journey to be Moldova would be our first-time witnessing JDC’s life-changing work in action. I was grateful to be part of this group and eager to share an experience I’d helped facilitate for many JDC supporters.
Our bustling itinerary was full of briefings with local Jewish communal professionals and powerful home visits with the homebound and isolated elderly Jews for whom JDC is a lifeline, providing food, medicine, homecare, and more. It was incredible to see that work firsthand. We also drove past the rubble of old synagogues and cemeteries to meet with the next generation of Jewish leaders — teen activists, young volunteers, and more.
On our third day in Moldova, we found ourselves ushered through the doors of Hesed Yakov, the JDC-supported social welfare center in Bălți, a smaller city located about two hours from the capital. Polina Grigorievna, the Hesed’s vibrant director, greeted us as we piled inside, and the first floor’s activity room was already crowded with seated participants holding song sheets.
“Welcome to our warm Jewish home!” she exclaimed before the piano started up and the room burst into a joyful rendition of “Un As Der Rebbe Zingt.” Polina shot us a wink and a smile: “Even better than Leonard Cohen!”
We ended our day of touring the Hesed and meeting local Jewish leaders by joining a group art therapy session. Some participants were laughing and sharing, while others were quietly, meticulously gluing sequins and seashells onto colored pages. It was clear to me how valuable the program was to these Jews.
Too soon, our trip leader began shepherding us out of the room, as it was time to leave Bălți. As I stood up to leave, the elderly man sitting next to me motioned to my Moldovan colleague. He wanted to tell me something and needed her to translate.
“Don’t forget us.”
We live on through our descendants, through the people with whom we share our stories, and sometimes, through the visitors who fortuitously walk into a Jewish Community Center (JCC) on the edge of a windswept, snowy town.
We’re reminded of that poetic insistence of life in this week’s parsha (Torah reading). The name of a parsha tells us something essential about the lessons it contains. Yet the parsha we know as Vayechi (“And he lived”) opens with the death of Jacob, the biblical father of the people of Israel, and closes with the passing of his son, Joseph. Is the parsha’s name then about denial of the inevitable? Not at all. With sensitivity and purpose, and by never explicitly stating “he died,” the Torah teaches that while physical life ends, we continue to live on in spirit and memory.
Over the centuries, Talmudic voices have chimed in, lending depth and supporting passages from across the canon of the books of Torah, Prophets, and Writings: “Jacob is equated with his descendants; just as his descendants are alive, he, too, is alive.”
When a JDC homecare worker brings a meal to an isolated elderly Jews or a young leader helps empower new a generation of teens to live with pride and a positive Jewish identity, am Yisroel chai, the people of Israel live — not only for another day, but for generations to come. Through JDC’s work around the world, we touch lives, we share stories, and we make memories. As these experiences become inscribed in our hearts and minds, we become the descendants, holding our forebears’ torch for yet another generation to come.
After returning home to New York, I began dabbling in genealogical research of my own family tree, inspired by the people I had met in Moldova and the stories they shared. I connected with a distant cousin who shared a copy of the 1911 Manchester Census completed for my great-great grandfather’s household. From family legend, we knew they came from somewhere in the vast expanse of Russia before making their way to England.
Under the column titled “Birthplace” and in cramped curlicues of faded ink, appeared “Russia,” just as I expected. What I was not expecting to see was that, for the first time, this point of origin was specified with a city: “Kishenoff” — what we would now call Chișinău, the city that had so inspired me in Moldova.
Through JDC’s work around the world, we touch lives, we share stories, and we make memories.
The last few lines of the parsha describe Joseph’s embalming and burial in Egypt, hundreds of miles away from his homeland. Before he passes, he repeats to his gathered children: “God will surely remember you … God will surely remember you.” Even if we don’t have descendants in a literal sense, there is a piece of us that will be remembered forever in the lives JDC touches and the work we do. Considered in that light, we — and those we so faithfully care for — will always live on.
Ruth Penan is the stewardship operations manager in JDC’s Resource Development department.