As we approach the building, we are greeted by the gleeful squeals of small children clad in colorful snowsuits, at play in mounds of bright Ukrainian snow. Kindergarten is in session!
We are professionals from all over the world — JDC’s former Soviet Union (FSU) department in Jerusalem, JDC’s headquarters in New York, and Myers-JDC-Brookdale, JDC’s research institute in Israel — and we’ve all come to visit the Jewish community of Kharkov, Ukraine. For some of the researchers on this trip, it’s their first visit to the FSU; for others, it is the first time experiencing JDC’s work on the ground. The goal is increased understanding of JDC’s work in the region, to inform future program evaluations and to explore expertise-sharing and partnership opportunities within the organization in the FSU region. JDC strives to be a learning organization with the capacity to follow socioeconomic trends, develop knowledge-based programming, and evaluate outcomes for ongoing improvement. In these ways and more, JDC utilizes applied research to best leverage limited resources and maximize impact.
We enter the center hall of the large building, replete with coffee bar, reception desk, comfy couches, café tables, and chairs. We meet the director of the social welfare center housed here — the Hesed — to learn about the direct services JDC provides to the most vulnerable Jews in the community. We see the art therapy, occupational, and sensory therapy rooms, where young people with disabilities are getting the support they need to be able to thrive in their inclusive classrooms. As we tour the building, we hear songs in Hebrew drifting through — the senior group is practicing. We visit a dance class where seniors — most participants are over 80! — practice traditional Ukrainian dances in their homemade outfits, each matching, but unique in its details. Their proud, bright smiles, clear enjoyment, and physical agility demonstrate the positive emotional and physical impacts of these activities.
Over lunch, we meet with the directors of the young leadership group that supports creative and innovative programs, designed and implemented by young adult community volunteers. We also meet with the teens who participate in Active Jewish Teens (JDC’s rapidly growing teen movement originating in the region) and visit the kindergarten to meet with the proud and eager parents of the children. These young parents are grateful and excited to be able to send their children to a Jewish kindergarten where before there was none.
This is Beit Dan — a thriving JCC at the heart of the Jewish community of Kharkov.
This afternoon we also do home visits to meet elderly Jews and families in need, an experience that tells a very different story. Homebound and in deep poverty, JDC clients are in desperate need of direct services —homecare, food, medicines, and emergency relief. JDC works to deliver this aid, while at the same time investing in strengthening their communities so they can eventually serve their own most vulnerable.
We are witnessing growing Jewish communal life in regions where it was never imagined that Jewish life would return or be sustained. The struggle of these nascent communities should not be confused with a lack of energy or engagement. Over and over again, we heard, “Here, after so many decades of strife, it is not only meaningful to be Jewish, but it’s also cool!” As Jewish experience broadens in these locations, the next generation of Jewish professionals need the tools, encouragement, and capacity to lead. The cultivation and training of these Jewish leaders is part of JDC’s powerful mission.
One program, the Kaplan Leadership Initiative, ensures that the crucial training of Jewish community leaders will take place at the needed time. Thanks to this initiative, Jewish communities will have professional leaders who can help create vibrant and inclusive communities. We meet Svetlana, one of the Kaplan fellows, who briefs us about her life and work as a Jewish professional, running the Hesed in Poltava, Ukraine — a small city a few hours from Kharkov. When asked about growing up in Poltava, and why she stays, she shares that she feels compelled to, for she is essential to maintaining the small Jewish community there and ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable Jews there are met. Her community is her life — her dedication and love are pronounced and profound. Her head, heart and soul are invested in supporting her community.
In addition to meetings like this, Brookdale researchers used the opportunity to conduct some in-person data collection for evaluation of the Kaplan program, currently underway. While some data collection can always be done remotely, first-hand experience and face-to-face conversation is essential, and lays important groundwork for deeper understanding of the nuances of the work — nuances that cannot be quantified or gleaned without experiencing the essence of a place and the people of that place.
At the end of the trip, this was so aptly captured when one of the researchers was asked what her biggest takeaway was thus far, and she simply said, “When I interview these young people, it is their caring, their energy, and, most importantly, the sparkle in their eyes that is so telling of the impact of this work.”
The Kaplan Fellowship program was created through a founding gift from Carol Kaplan, a JDC board member and President of the Kaplan Foundation, together with her husband Ed.