My wife, Ruth, and I returned in late April from a remarkable trip to the Jewish community in Ukraine as part of a group from Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and from Israel. I want to share my impressions.
Ukraine is a very poor country with a population of 45 million, 200,000 of them Jews. They have been through 80 years of Soviet rule, with its atheistic principles, interrupted by the Holocaust, in which three quarters of the community were murdered.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“the Joint”) is saving Jewish lives on a daily basis. We met with the head of the Hesed (“loving-kindness”) Jewish social service agency in Odessa. He showed us a map on which was marked the location of each of the clients they serve, with numbers showing how many clients are at each location, in a province more than twice the size of New Jersey; in some cases, there is just one poor elderly Jew in the middle of nowhere. Hesed provides supplemental food, heat, medicines, and social connection to the Jewish elderly in need. As a direct result of this aid, these elderly clients live an average of 14 years longer than others in the region.
Ruth and I had the opportunity to visit the homes of three elderly Jews in the small city of Cherkassy and the nearby village of Korsun. All were dependent on food and home care from the Jewish community. In one home, a 90-year-old man took care of his bedridden wife in a house for which Hesed had also provided the gas heater, refrigerator, and indoor toilet. Their neighbor still had to use an outhouse. This couple surely would not have survived as long as they have without such help. After a lifetime of discrimination and repression under Soviet rule and the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the Hesed program is for these Jews often the first good that has ever come from being Jewish.
Another part of the story is the revival of local Jewish culture. Hesed also functions as a Jewish community center, busing in the homebound elderly for social and religious interaction and providing Jewish enrichment programs at a local preschool, Sunday school classes through high school, an Active Jewish Teen program (modeled on the Jewish youth organization BBYO, but run in the countries of the former Soviet Union), and a one-week Jewish family summer camp.
The community celebrated seven b’nei mitzvah on Shabbat during our visit. The families are poor, and Hesed does not have a budget for community celebrations beyond small holiday gatherings, so the Greater MetroWest Federation provided a nice dinner as well as a tallit, a Kiddush cup, and candlesticks for each child, while the youngsters used their own considerable talents to provide the entertainment.
The teens we met have tremendous enthusiasm for being Jewish. (Ruth told Vlad, one of the bar mitzvah boys, that he could take off his tallit during the circle dancing; he responded, “I like having it on,” and proceeded to wear it all through dinner.) Such enthusiasm is critical, because in this community, the kids are often in the position to teach their parents about Judaism. Since Jewish practice had been functionally banned since 1920 under the Soviet Union, potentially costing violators a job or leading to relocation to Siberia, the parents of today’s teens are unlikely to have had much of their own experience in Jewish life and practice. As one person in our group observed, “It’s like ‘midor l’dor’ (from generation to generation), only backward.”
Tikkun olam (the mitzvah of repairing the world) is important, but so is the tradition of “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” — “All Jews are responsible for one another.” This extends beyond our home community and Israel. Our experience on this trip emphasized the opportunity for saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life in the rest of the diaspora. I am proud that our local Jewish federation supports this work, both by supporting the Joint, and through direct support for the local Hesed organization in Cherkassy.