Global Jewish Reflections | This Shemini Atzeret, Volunteering to Remember

Global Jewish Reflections | This Shemini Atzeret, Volunteering to Remember

Sasha Nazar (front left) and a team of volunteers remove headstones recovered behind the wall of an empty house in Lviv.

Sasha Nazar (front left) and a team of volunteers remove headstones recovered behind the wall of an empty house in Lviv.

By: Sasha Nazar - director, Lviv Volunteer Center

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Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

As a child, I spent every summer in the countryside outside of Lviv, near the village where the Ukrainian part of my family, my paternal side, comes from. Each year, my Jewish maternal grandfather would visit me regularly, and together we’d walk for hours around small towns that were once 50 percent Jewish or more. He showed me places connected to Jewish history, and I learned a lot.

Today there are no Jews in these villages, and I consider it my duty to look after these Jewish sites as best I can. I did this before I began working at Lviv’s JDC-supported Volunteer Center, but since I began working there, it’s become my full-time job and my true passion.

Sasha Nazar, exploring the Jewish history of Lviv.
Sasha Nazar, exploring the Jewish history of Lviv.

My dad is Ukrainian, and my mom is Jewish. Mom and her parents were active participants in the revival of Jewish life in Lviv, which dates back to 1988, when this was still the territory of the Soviet Union. In 1990, my grandfather helped start the Shofar newspaper, which is still published monthly. My grandmother, working with my mother, founded a Sunday school that hundreds of children passed through; she also directed an ulpan that helped people learn Hebrew. I grew up totally surrounded by an improbable, vibrant Jewish community, and I loved it.

When I became a university student, I began volunteering, and I chose to dedicate my time to Jewish organizations. For me, volunteering is a way of life — what it boils down to is that when you receive something, you need to give back in return. And when people see the results of their help and hard work, it inspires them to do even more. The gratitude of the people we help is very inspiring.

More than 120 people participate regularly in our Volunteer Center activities, but during bigger projects like Good Deeds Day, for example, up to 400 volunteers answer the call. We’re focused on giving assistance to vulnerable members of the Jewish community — at-risk children, poor families, and the isolated elderly. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, we had to adjust as the number of people in need grew. I’m proud of how our team met the moment, continuing to provide aid to the people who depend on us.

I’m particularly proud of our projects dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage in and around Lviv. We clean cemeteries in small towns in the region, places where there unfortunately have been no Jews for more than 70 years. The local population often doesn’t consider these sites part of their history, but by cleaning them, we make them think about these places. 

Sasha and his volunteers turned 100 reclaimed tombstones into a memorial — a "wall of memory" for Dobromyl's lost Jewish community.
Sasha and his volunteers turned 100 reclaimed tombstones into a memorial — a “wall of memory” for Dobromyl’s lost Jewish community.

Over time, local people show up who want to help us. They are different people in every town. Sometimes, someone brings apples or cold water as a token of appreciation for what we are doing. Sometimes older people come and share memories from the past. In some towns, we have connections with local politicians and activists who help us with heavy equipment we can’t bring from Lviv, like a tractor or an electrical generator. While these stories are the exception, not the rule, we’re very grateful.

Often, the cemeteries or mass graves resemble small jungles. We clean them, but after two years, the plants begin to sprout again and everything needs to start anew. Sometimes, we have to go two or three times to the same cemetery, since they occupy a large area. We currently work in the villages of Stary Sambir, Sambir, Dobromyl, Busk, Drohobych, and Rudky.

In the town of Dobromyl, the cemetery was destroyed and the tombstones were used as building materials. Our volunteers managed to reclaim 100 tombstones, which we later moved to the place the cemetery had been. There we used them to construct a memorial — a “wall of memory” for the town’s lost Jewish community.

Similarly, during street repairs in Lviv, 150 tombstones from the Jewish cemetery were found.

My volunteers and I were involved in delivering these tombstones to the Jewish cemetery over the course of a month. The work was very hard, and we tried not to damage tombstones so we could make a memorial from them later.

After every volunteer day, we try to organize a small commemoration ceremony in the cemetery or synagogue. For me, taking this time builds a small bridge between the past and the present.

What hurts, too, is that the memories of the dead were destroyed and will continue to be forgotten, unless we remember them.

As we enter Shemini Atzeret, which includes the Yizkor memorial service, I find myself thinking a lot about memory. In these towns where Jewish life once flourished, it was destroyed in a moment during the Holocaust. But that’s only one part of the tragedy — what hurts, too, is that the memories of the dead were destroyed and will continue to be forgotten, unless we remember them.

In the villages where our volunteers work, the houses and even the religious buildings of these lost Jews continue to stand, but they have new owners who don’t think about the men and women who once built them. I often ask myself what will happen to me and my friends in the future. What will they remember about us? Will they consider our cemetery work and other volunteer efforts interesting and important?

The main thing is to remember. That’s why we clean and preserve our region’s Jewish cemeteries: to respect a Jewish heritage too long neglected and to honor a past we should never forget.

Sasha Nazar, 36, is the head of the JDC-supported Lviv Volunteer Center.

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