Making a Difference a World Away
From March 30 - April 5, a six-member delegation from the JCFR, Mark Sisisky, Nannette Shor, Kevin Fine, Yael and Yisroel Fletcher and I, visited Zaporozhye and Dnepropetrovsk in the Ukraine. We were assisted by local staff members of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC/The Joint). This mission of young and seniors leaders was aimed at seeing how difficult Jewish life is in Ukraine and at the same time witness the life-saving work of JDC. JDC is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, and our Federation is proud to support “The Joint.” The following is my commentary our delegation’s experience.
Many lives were lost in “the War.” Many were killed in the Holocaust. In the latter part of the 20th century some 1 million Jews fled the Former Soviet Union to a safe haven in Israel. People are somewhat surprised to hear there are still about 350,000 Jews in Ukraine. Our community has done its part to help when Jews in Ukraine became Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and had to move away from the theater of war in Donetsk and Lugansk. During the past two years, the JCFR Board of Directors has approved allocations to the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Ukrainian Assistance Fund totaling $20,000.
Most recently, JCFR adopted Zaporozhye as our sister community. Having just returned from a once in a lifetime trip to Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye, I am very proud of our life-saving work. As we have said for many years “we are our brother’s keeper.”
Overall, the economy is weak in Ukraine and there is political instability as well as a military conflict with Russian separatists.
The capital of Ukraine is Kiev, with a general population of 2.6 million and a Jewish population of 100,000. Most people have heard of Kiev, but not Zaporozhye or Dnepropetrovsk. These highly industrialized cities are smaller and about 600 miles to the south of Kiev. Zaporozhye is the smaller of the two with a population of about 800,000 and a Jewish population of about 15,000. I am pleased we have adopted this city as it is similar in size to Richmond and has very significant needs. Zaporozhye is also helping to resettle IDPs.
While in Dnepropetrovsk, we met a couple from the conflict zone who have decided to make Aliyah to Israel with the help of our beneficiary agency, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). They were nervous about making a new life in Israel, but their prospects are good for employment and their hopes are high.
We also met with IDPs at a Jewish Women’s Club. These unfortunate people had to flee the conflict zone and are rebuilding their lives in Dnepropetrovsk. The women we talked to fought back the tears, but are hopeful about the future.
We met with a number of people who would not survive without the help of JDC. There was a young mother of three who is a single parent and trying to keep her children fed and in school. She is living in a building that pre-dates World War II and has to survive on a meager amount of money that is somehow supposed to provide for rent, schooling, medicine, food, etc.
We met a sick, elderly man who was being cared for by neighbors in abject poverty. Without the “Joint” this man would not be alive. He had planned to move to Israel but could never go. He is cared for by an old friend and neighbor. Because they made contact with the JDC Hesed program, they receive both material and professional support for care including registering for disability pensions, food, medications, etc. The JDC Hesed also sends a homecare worker to provide additional support.
When we visited the JCC in Zaporozhye, our group saw an enormous number of activities packed into one building. We were welcomed with songs from the community choir; all of us danced with senior adults and witnessed a project for special needs people and the “Do Good Ukraine” volunteers’ movement. The project is similar to centers for independent living in Israel, where they have councils that work with government entities to deal with disability accessibility issues, socializations issues and more.
One of the “Do Good Ukraine” volunteers gave Mark Sisisky a special painting made by one of the disabled leaders to bring home to Richmond. It will be displayed proudly in our building.
Speaking of Mark Sisisky, he is an amazing professional/volunteer. This is actually an expression coined by Sandy Sisisky, Mark’s sister-in-law. Mark is JDC’s National Secretary, Chair of its FSU Committee and an officer of JDC. He is a tireless volunteer who spends an enormous amount of time caring about people at risk and teaching many of us about life for Jews around the world. Mark continues to guide JDC activities in the FSU. He helps plan interventions in the FSU and manages very difficult budgeting problems and logistical efforts to meet needs in this difficult part of the world. He played an integral role in planning this mission to Ukraine and we thank him for all of his efforts.
The last visit on our trip was to the Tkuma Museum of Holocaust and Community History in Dnepropetrovsk. It was the right culminating event. We can never forget the millions lost in the Holocaust. In Ukraine alone there were approximately 900,000 Jews killed. Today, we work hard to respond to anti-Semitism whenever we see it. We must always respond. The museum takes you through pre- World War II history and into the depths of the Holocaust as it occurred in Ukraine. While we learned about the effort to maintain and improve Jewish Life in Ukraine, we also learned about the terrible past. Never again.
When we visited the Tkuma Museum, I was reminded the JCFR has recently chosen to add the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond as an affiliate agency. It is my hope and prayer that life is strengthened for our sister community in Zaporozhye. I also pray others are able to make Aliyah and make new lives in Israel. We have great hopes for the future but must never forget the past.
As always, contact me at (804) 545-8622 or email email@example.com.