Have you heard the one about the 89-year-old Ukrainian woman and the 25-year-old Brit? No? That’s fine. Don’t worry — very few have. Let me share.
I’m the Brit in this story. Born and bred in Manchester, I grew up heavily involved in Jewish life. Jewish primary school? Check. Jewish youth groups? Check. Jewish sports? Check. Jewish Society at high school? Check. Whatever you can name, I did it.
This didn’t change at university. Despite going to St Andrews, a small university located in the East Neuk of Fife on Scotland’s breezy North Sea coast, I discovered an active Jewish community. It wasn’t big, but I plunged in. Five years, three committee positions, two Scotland-wide Jewish Society balls organized, and countless bagel lunches later, I graduated with more expertise in Jewish leadership than my chosen degree.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, I was excited to hear about JDC Entwine’s Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellowship. The opportunity to serve in a foreign Jewish community — supporting, learning, leading — was too good to miss. Even if I applied with minimal knowledge of what would await me and in a panicked dash as I interrupted professors’ Christmas holidays begging for an immediate reference, I had a feeling I wouldn’t regret the excitement.
Spoiler alert: I regretted nothing.
So, where did I go? With my love of the former Soviet Union, I was always set to go to a cold and slightly grey Russian-speaking country. But the pre-departure conversation was straight out of a slapstick comedy.
“So, Andrew, where in the former Soviet Union would you like to go?”
“Hmmm … well, Georgia and Armenia are meant to be beautiful, so there, please.”
“OK, cool. We can offer you Chisinau (Moldova), Kyiv, Odessa, or Kharkiv (all Ukraine)?”
“Hmmm … OK, thanks. Well, Odessa and Kyiv are great, and I’ve never been to Chisinau, so one of those three would be great.”
With my love of the former Soviet Union, I was always set to go to a cold and slightly grey Russian-speaking country.
“Thanks. We’ve decided. You’re off to Kharkiv!”
Great, I thought. My one previous experience of Kharkiv, a former industrial hub in northeast Ukraine, was of a gloomy and slightly dilapidated city with fewer smiles than we’ve had in 2020.
My expectations were low, but they were to be turned on their head within days of arriving. I was met with a gleaming new city. Beautiful parks replete with a wide variety of entertainment, from rollercoasters to remote-controlled kid-sized cars. Hipster bars and cafes. A thriving community of students and young professionals, both Jewish and and non-Jewish. Kharkiv was the place to be.
And what was I actually doing in this unexpected oasis of hipster bliss? Serving.
I served both within the JDC-supported Jewish Community Center (JCC) and in a partnership agreement between the Jewish community and the city’s Youth Council, benefiting the entire youth population of Kharkiv. I co-led groups of young adults. I delivered presentations to Kharkiv’s Hesed social welfare center, another JDC initiative. I helped organize camps and seminars. I assisted youth council departments in developing and initiating city-building projects. I launched my own project. But most of all, I learned — about the city, the Jewish community, and about myself.
I learned about service. I learned what it means to abandon expectations and immerse yourself in another way of doing things. I learned when my help was appreciated, and I learned to appreciate help from people who supposedly need yours. I learned to mold myself to others’ needs.
And I learned about privilege. I learned that the Jewish life I take for granted in the United Kingdom is not enjoyed the world over. My fellowship was supported by the UK-based Pears Foundation, and I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity they provided for me to learn these lessons.
These lessons of service stayed with me. They are why I leapt at the opportunity for virtual service during the pandemic. When a JDC Entwine advert went out for volunteers to hold weekly calls with homebound and isolated elderly members of Odessa’s Jewish community, I immediately signed up, recalling the rich tapestries of stories I was regaled with by Kharkiv’s elderly Jews.
My conversation partner — Emilia Nissenbaum — did not disappoint. Without virtual service, I would not have met an 89-year-old Odessite with a sharp sense of humor, a thirst for life, a passion for traveling, and a love of cooking. Born in 1931, Emilia’s life has been eventful. It’s been a pleasure to hear her tell me the story of it.
Evacuated from Ukraine (then the Ukrainian Republic of the USSR) in 1941, she spent the war years in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Emilia, hailing from Odessa, which sits on the Black Sea, learned to swim in a Tashkent pond. Returning to Odessa after the war, her mother, a judge, spent years prosecuting some of the city’s infamous bandits. For those unaware, read Isaac Babel’s “Odessa Tales.” The city was renowned as a hotspot of criminal gangs. You won’t be disappointed. Think “Gangs of New York” meets Ukraine.
Emilia worked as a radio operator in a variety of top management positions, but her professional life was never her passion. That was traveling and cooking. Whether across Russia, Armenia, Georgia, the Czech Republic, England, or Japan, Emilia loves to explore. She has an insatiable interest in new cultures and cuisines, and this has been the basis of our hours of conversation — though I did butcher one of Emilia’s recipes for khachapuri, the (superior) Georgian alternative to pizza. And for this, I’m sorry.
Whether serving online or in-person, the friendships are the things that stay with you. The people you meet and the experiences you share are the most gratifying. It is why I loved my time in Kharkiv and why I love my weekly chats with Emilia. And friendship built through service is something I will happily toast to.
In fact, Emilia and I already have!
Andrew Williams served as a 2018-2019 JDC Entwine-Pears Jewish Service Corps Fellow in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and has just finished a Masters Degree in Russian and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London.