As we pulled up to the orphanage in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Moldavanka in Odessa, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Was I in for something out of Annie? Or would this be something even bleaker — the sort of dismal grayness we’re all too quick to associate with Eastern Europe?
What I wasn’t really prepared for was the vibrant facility I found.
I visited the orphanage as part of a look into the operations of the Tikva Children’s Home, an Odessa-based group founded in 1996 that tackles the complicated issue of caring for the underprivileged and orphaned Jewish children of the city — and indeed the entire southern region of the former Soviet Union.
The charity operates three homes in Odessa — a home for young children, one for older boys, and another for older girls. Tikva also runs boys’ and girls’ schools and a university near Odessa’s main synagogue that is operated in connection with the Crimean State Humanitarian University.
My guide for the day was Alina Feoktistova, an Odessa native and student in the Tikva university who now works for the organization.
She took me to the children’s home and the girls’ home, located in Leah’s House, a gleaming building built in 2006 and named for Leah Frankel, one of the organization’s main benefactors along with her husband, Ed, who serves as chair of its board of trustees.
“We help a lot of people just have a safe future, a prosperous future,” Feoktistova said. “And we show everyone that Jews are still alive in this part of the world.” Upon entering the home for small children, I was greeted with a hug from a two-year-old named David. Soon after, I was surrounded by boisterous toddlers happily babbling away in Russian.
Upstairs was a music class led by the facility’s director, Chava Melamed, where about 20 older boys were rehearsing Chiddy Bang’s “Mind Your Manners.”
It was all I could do not to cry as the boys, beaming, sang, “Take a second look at me; there is no one like me.”
Some of these kids are true orphans, others are social orphans, and still more are the children of single mothers or large families unable to properly support them.
Inside the building, I was somewhat blinded by the frenetic energy of kids clambering on my back, mock-punching me with boxing gloves, or shouting for pictures.
It was only when I left that I reminded myself: That was an orphanage; they live there. You get to leave; they don’t.
“How can you just leave?” “Take them all home with you!” These are the stupid things you say to yourself after you visit an orphanage.
But then I thought about Tikva and the important, necessary work its staff and volunteers do to ensure that no one will “just leave” these kids, not really. I might be flying out of Odessa, but Tikva is there, providing a cornucopia of services to meet these kids’ needs — material, educational, and spiritual. For the nearly 1,000 children it cares for, Tikva is sticking around — in a major way.