Alan Gill, Executive Director, International Relations at The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, recently spent a day in the field in Odessa. This was his experience:
I write after a day in the life of JDC-Odessa, with an extraordinary feeling of inspiration that comes with being at the core of our most essential work, and with a great sense of privilege and humility to be a part of this precious Jewish enterprise.
I hope that, in the words and photos that follow, you might get an appreciation for the impact of your incredible gift of Beit Grand to this wonderful and caring Jewish community in which your grandparents and family before them were rooted for generations.
It’s really a hot one today, well over 90 degrees, blazing sun, no breeze whatsoever, and stifling humidity. As beautiful as this city is, it feels oppressive, as only an urban environment can feel on a day such as this one. And as I left the air-conditioned hotel early this morning and immediately began to feel the heat sap my energy, I thought of those we care for whom I would soon visit. The elderly shut-ins and poverty stricken families living in close quarters, almost literally on top of one another, in run-down communal apartments in the heart of this historic and majestic city.
We stopped to see Ada Freedenberg, a 58-year-old bedridden woman living around the corner from Beit Grand, tucked away in a one-room apartment, in the back of a ramshackle building. Ada has advanced multiple sclerosis and suffers greatly. She never married, has no siblings and her parents each passed away within the last few years. She’s alone, except for Lena, this burst of sunshine – a young woman who, as a Hesed-JDC home care worker, looks after Ada’s household, hygienic and basic medical needs.
When we entered her home, Ada strained to sit up, to no avail. Regardless, her face lit up, she cried “Ztravsdtvuetye!”–“Hello!”, followed by a quick “Sadeetyes, sadeetyess”–Sit down, sit down!” And so we did. Because of her relatively young age, Ada is, of course, not eligible for assistance from restitution sources. And so Ada’s entire care – her very life – rests entirely on the shoulders of JDC-Hesed, located at Beit Grand.
Lena has 10 “clients.” I place “clients” in quotations as she hardly keeps a professional, clinical distance from Ada. Lena sat beaming between Ada and me on the bed, but then teared up when I told her, after I heard Ada’s life story and how she cared for her every need with that radiant smile, that I felt I was in the presence of an angel. She said, “I love ‘Adotchka’. So I care for her with my heart.”
As I wrote up front, it’s a privilege and humbling to be in the presence of these unsung heroes.
On to Yulia, a 9-year-old girl whose circumstances have haunted me throughout the day. Yulia, as you can see, is a gorgeous and rather shy girl with a smile that, in the few times she dared let me see it, lit up one of the darkest, saddest rooms in which I’ve ever been. She and her “mamma” live in one room of a communal apartment and in a life situation that is pathetic in the truest sense of the term. They have one small, dark room that they share. They are penniless and in the total care of the community. “Mamma”, although still looking relatively vital, suffers from a rare form of leukemia with no available treatment, at least here in Ukraine. So she is slowly dying. Yulia’s father is gone, as are her grandparents, and she has no siblings or other family who can care for her.
The apartment compound is beyond bleak. Yulia plays with stray, sickly looking cats with her much younger neighbor girlfriend. That’s her summer’s daily recreation plan, except for Beit Grand, where she recently went to the performance of “Harry Potter and the Four Jewish New Years.” The production had 62 kids on stage – children from the drama, singing and dancing groups at Beit Grand – and had two full-house performances.
When Yulia spoke of the performance, her face was shining. Clearly, this is but one example of what Beit Grand is all about – bringing joy, culture and Yiddischkeit to the next generation of the community, no matter what their backgrounds or circumstances might be.
We visited a local hospital that is the setting of a new and innovative initiative of the Hesed-JDC Director, Anatoly Kesselman. As you know, hospitals in Ukraine are the last resort of the ill. Their conditions are appalling by any standards, with lines of too many beds in their wards that have one wash basin each and no toilet or shower. Patients must go down the hall and wait in line to relieve themselves or bathe.
Anatoly had an idea. He approached a hospital and proposed to renovate two large rooms for the Hesed’s elderly clients who need hospitalization. And he went to a handful of well-to-do Jews in the community and raised the funds from them for the renovation. One room is finished and has a nice, big window along with a full, private bathroom.
This type of social entrepreneurship will surely grow as more and more members of the community become involved and aware of their fellow Jews’ needs. Beit Grand can only serve to make this communal development advance more rapidly as it reaches out and engages more of the community in Jewish life.
On to Beit Grand itself with Irina Zborovskaya and Inna Vdovichenko, JDC’s Odessa Director and PR Director. I have been looking forward to meeting with Beit Grand’s new Director, Elina Korneva, who assumed her position in February. You might recall that, before her promotion, Elina served as Beit Grand’s Program Director, so her transition has been smooth and she has really hit the ground running.
Elina has markedly increased the number of cultural programs at Beit Grand. There’s a scanned copy below of last month’s Beit Grand community events and activities. Response has been huge, Elina says, and is growing. She’s a marketing and promotional wiz and has produced coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, pens, what-have-you that are given away at each event.
Physically, the building looks even better than when we dedicated it together a year ago. The lobby is beautiful – the plants have grown and there are canaries singing away in a big cage within the indoor garden, so one is greeted with a sense of vitality immediately upon entering the building. A large flat television screen is mounted on the wall with non-stop videotapes playing of Beit Grand performances and group activities. A local Jewish artist’s paintings are exhibited on both the lobby and second floors’ walls.
The gym hosts many sporting events in the community and is rented out regularly to Jewish and non-Jewish organizations so it’s both a program area for the community as well as an income producer. Irina told me that they had finished the floor with some special material so that they can put tables and chairs and even a stage on it without marring the wood. This has helped make it a very attractive place for events and enhanced its income producing potential. Smart folks are running the place.
There’s a quote from the Talmud:
“Those who bear the responsibilities of their People shall be justly rewarded”.
Some interpret this as a promise of rewards that will come in the “olam habah,” in the world to come, for the mitzvot that we do in this life.
Others subscribe to the belief that regardless of what might come in the olam habah, the act of giving is an intrinsic part of a life worth living. And that real happiness can only be achieved when we know, deep within ourselves, that we have helped make this world a better place.
In the event that this brief report brings you some happiness, then I say ‘Dayenu” – “It shall be enough.”