Community development is directly connected to supporting children and families: The healthier our next generation is, the stronger our community is. That’s why I do the work I do.
For 17 years, our work with children has been an important part of JDC’s work in the former Soviet Union (FSU). In Kharkiv, where I serve as the Jewish Family Service (JFS) director, five case managers and I work with 600 Jewish families and almost 900 children in the city and surrounding region — low-income families, families of children with disabilities, single parents, and more. Our team also includes psychologists, tutors, and a speech language pathologist.
I graduated with a psychology degree in 2003 and began working with army cadets and service members at the Kharkiv University of the Air Force shortly after. It was interesting, but I soon came to understand I wasn’t realizing my full potential. I wanted more — an opportunity to help people that felt more urgent and essential.
In 2005, my friend and colleague told me that Kharkiv’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center was looking for a psychologist to work with children and families. I started working with children with mental illness and developmental disabilities, coordinating Shabbat retreats for them and their families, along with organizing classes for the children and support groups and training seminars for the parents. Right away, I knew I’d found the place for me.
JFS provides material support to families in need, while also providing social and psychological support. It’s a unique program both in Kharkiv and in the former Soviet space as a whole, set apart by its comprehensive approach to working with the whole family, its creation of inclusive groups, and its focus on socializing kids with disabilities and from at-risk family situations into both the broader Jewish community and into society at large.
Let me give you an example: Alyona, 16, has been a JFS client since she was 3 years old. Her grandfather was a Hesed client who wanted her to join the Jewish community and explore her Jewish roots, but he faced resistance from Alyona’s mother, his daughter-in-law. When JFS staff investigated the situation, they realized Alyona’s mother was scared to open up her family to scrutiny from “outsiders,” since her husband suffered from alcoholism and substance abuse issues.
We were able to see that this young girl needed us, and after many attempts by one of our case managers, we were able to establish content with Alyona’s mother. Soon after, Alyona began attending classes and we came to know an anxious child who had a hard time adjusting to new situations. The family lived in a rented house and used a coal stove for heating, but they didn’t have enough money to make ends meet. Thanks to JDC, we were able to purchase food and fuel for them, as well as clothes, shoes, and medical care for Alyona. In addition, our speech therapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist began to meet with Alyona, while our case manager made headway with her mother.
In Alyona’s old school, her classmates ignored her or worse, teased her. On our recommendation, her mother decided to transfer her to a Jewish school, where she was able to express herself and lower her anxiety. She began to study Hebrew and reveal her creative talents, and art therapy classes helped her more. She became a member of the JFS teen communication club and even participated in Szarvas, the JDC–Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary.
Later, she became an active volunteer with JFS children’s groups and for Jewish holidays. I’m proud to say that, despite the difficult start to her story, Alyona is now preparing for university, thriving at a culinary school, even organizing extracurricular activities for other students. Thanks to JDC and JFS intervention, we’re able to give kids like her real opportunities and help their families get access to the resources they need to grow and develop … to build a real future.
The work we do is fundamentally rooted in an individualized approach. Every family is different; the challenges each family faces are unique. Utilizing the resources and strengths that a family does have, being knowledgeable about the resources available on a government level, and creating a support plan for each family individually allows our case managers to achieve positive results in their work.
I’m glad that it’s not just us investing in our families; JDC invests in us, too, giving our staff great opportunities for professional development through seminars and webinars. By continuing to learn, we can give more effective assistance to the people we serve. Simply put, we can build an even healthier community.
Thanks to JDC and JFS intervention, we’re able to give kids like [Alyona] real opportunities and help their families get access to the resources they need to grow and develop … to build a real future.
I’m also grateful I’ve had the chance to experience the power of JDC’s global Jewish network through the Kaplan Leadership Initiative, a program made possible by a generous grant from Edward and Carol Kaplan that provides critical tools and support needed to cultivate leadership among Jewish community professionals in the FSU, Europe, and Latin America.
Before Kaplan, I’d only worked as the JFS director for one year, and I definitely wanted to hone my leadership skills. At our Kaplan seminars, we talked a lot about collaboration and teamwork, as well as leadership strategies and gave me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and understand where my work fit into the larger story of the Kharkiv Jewish community and Jewish life globally. In addition, I was able to visit many JFS-style organizations in Israel and the United States and share those experiences and what I learned from them with my colleagues back home.
In March, the onset of coronavirus and shelter-in-place in Ukraine placed many of our families in more difficult situations than before. With many parents losing their jobs or receiving a significant decrease in pay, there was no way this wasn’t going to impact the families we serve, and not just financially. For families who already had unstable finances or only part-time work, losing a job is an existential crisis. A large part of our case managers’ work and time was devoted to providing families with emotional and psychological support. We also have a volunteer attorney who helps us address complex legal questions, providing high-quality legal advice for anyone who needs it.
We saw how much the families needed to connect with each other, and how much they wanted to volunteer, so we organized a project called the Advice Encyclopedia where every parent could share their experiences on Zoom and give advice to others in similar situations. We also created an online support group reaching more than 400 families and giving program participants and JFS staff the ability to exchange information and be in constant communication with one another, lowering levels of anxiety for our families and giving them a sense of belonging to a caring community.
Overall, the transition to online support hasn’t been easy for our families. What’s made it work is the strong infrastructure and personal relationships we already had — thanks to our phone consultations and support, many families learned to use phone apps and communicate using online tools. Our specialists trained the kids, too, and now many JFS children are active participants in our virtual programming.
We also definitely don’t forget our Jewish traditions. Every Friday we meet over Zoom to celebrate Shabbat. It’s great that these technologies exist, because it also allows families who live outside of Kharkiv’s city limits to join our Shabbat celebrations. Anyone, no matter where they live, can join our virtual programming. Every holiday that took place during shelter-in-place became that much more important — we weren’t able to hug each other, but we were able to still see everyone online. For Shavuot, we had a big, warm community celebration in partnership with other organizations in Kharkiv.
Through the pandemic, we’ve gained new skills and realized once more how important our community connections are. We all can’t wait to be able to go to the Jewish community center, celebrate Shabbat offline, hug each other, and light the candles together. We have faith that this will happen soon and that the pandemic will end.
I see the future of my community directly linked to mutual assistance. As long as we continue finding new ways to help each other, I’m confident we’ll secure our status as an intergenerational caring community. Still, we have to keep working at it because the world as it is today won’t do — 2020 has shown us that.
Irina Oksenenko is the director of the JDC-supported Jewish Family Service in Kharkiv, Ukraine.