Despite the recent unrest in Eastern Ukraine, which has seen hundreds of refugees relocating to Odessa, and a doubling of prices for basic goods and utilities, there is still a sense of vibrancy and hope among the city’s Jews.
That was one of the takeaways from the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership’s trip this March to our sister city. It was the first time since 2013 that The Associated traveled to Odessa, Ukraine and it was part of a larger mission – that also included experiences in Ashkelon and Jerusalem with the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership.
Throughout the three days in this Ukrainian city, the group met with recipients of Associated funding, including at-risk children, the elderly and IDP (Internally Displaced Person) families. They also enjoyed youth performances at Odessa’s JCCs, which receive programatic funding from The Associated and its overseas partners, and visited the Holocaust Museum.
There were the stories of despair – and the stories of hope – that came out of the recent visit. Walking up five flights of stairs, one group met with a 60-year-old woman, bedridden and unable to leave her apartment.
Living on a pension of $50 a month, she depends on Hesed, an organization helping elderly, funded by our overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). With utilities costing $60 a month, Hesed helps pay for food and utilities, and for an attendant who cooks for her.
At the same time, there was excitement about a revitalized Jewish future in Odessa, particularly from a young teen. For that teen, whose father was not Jewish and mother who was not Jewishly-connected, a Jewish day school opportunity transformed them. The family now celebrates Shabbat and Jewish holidays with her, as she brings Jewish tradition and culture back to the home.
“The kids we met were optimistic with what they have and how they want to build their lives in Jewish ways,” says Vlad Volinsky, incoming chair, Baltimore-Odessa Partnership, who traveled to Odessa for the first time on the Partnership mission. The Partnership will celebrate 25 years this fall.
Andrew Razumovsky, chair, Baltimore-Odessa Partnership, who has traveled to Odessa with the Partnership in 2011, 2013 and again this year, has seen many changes in Odessa’s Jewish community.
One story that particularly impacted Andrew was that of Roman, his wife and two daughters. Roman lived in Lugansk in Eastern Ukraine and volunteered for Hesed. When Russia invaded Ukraine, his apartment and small house were destroyed.
Packing up, the family moved west. When they stopped on the road to grab food at a local establishment, a shell hit their car, destroying their documents and passports. Five minutes earlier, it would have killed them all.
In a way things come full circle. Now living in Odessa, Roman is a driver and his wife is a social worker for Hesed, the same organization for which Roman previously volunteered.
Despite economic hardships leading many Jews from Odessa to make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel) in recent years, many still want to remain in their country and live as Jews.
“I’ve seen Jewish pride among the younger generation – those five to 25 – who grew up with the freedom to practice religion and traditions. I walked around town, saw young kids with kippot and previously, there was no way you would see this in the former Soviet Union,” said Andrew.
Many in the group went on to Israel, where they joined other members of the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership. After spending Shabbat in Jerusalem, they headed for Ashkelon.
During their time in our sister city, the group visited a number of programs funded by the Partnership. They visited a classroom of students who participate in the Shevet Achim school twinning program between Israeli and Baltimore students, met with Orr Shalom alumni, young adults who received therapeutic services and psychiatric care as youngsters after suffering abuse and neglect from their biological families, and enjoyed time with AMEN teen volunteers.
“The highlight of the Ashkelon Partnership mission for me this year is the seismic shift in attitude about what the Partnership's future will hold. Ashkelon is ready to be a true partner with Baltimore in every sense of the word. The people of Ashkelon want to be a part of the process and are now willing to bring the resources with them,” said Dixie Leikach, chair of the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership.
“Our friends in Ashkelon want to have equal say in what happens in both cities in regards to the Partnership. The members of the Partnership committee in Ashkelon joined us on site visits and have been an active part of the expanded grant making process for the last year. They see the needs in their city and also know how they can help our city. I was able to see how our Partnership can continue for another 10 years, growing into something that we could never have imagined 12 years ago when we chose Ashkelon. We need them and they need us and together we are stronger."
For the first time, members of the Baltimore Jewish community traveled to both sister cities. This experience was particularly poignant as the group returned right before Passover and considered what freedom means to the Jewish people and how both Jewish communities are free and thriving today. Participants witnessed positive change in both communities, as well as opportunities to learn from our peers also engaged in deepening Jewish life around the world.