Returning to Odessa After 40 Years


Can you imagine leaving your home and family and most of your worldly possessions to move to a country where you didn’t speak the language and had only a few dollars to your name?

I can’t. Yet, that is precisely the choice my parents made when they decided to flee from Odessa over 40 years ago in search of a better life and for the freedom to be Jewish.

My mother recalls, “It wasn’t much of a choice, we grew up hearing, we’re such great people but too bad we’re Jews. We had to hide who we were. Growing up, I would listen to Hatikvah and Hava Nagila on British radio, making sure that the sound was as a low as we could get it and still be able to hear. We would put a blanket over us as we listened to the radio, creating almost a tent to muffle the sound even further and fearing that our neighbors would find out. We knew that here (in the former Soviet Union (FSU)) we and our children had no future.”

These are the stories that I heard growing up. I grew up privileged in Baltimore, free to be Jewish, free to go to Hebrew School, free to become Bat Mitzvah, free to be part of an amazing community. The complete opposite life of those who came before me.

“It wasn’t much of a choice, we grew up hearing, we’re such great people but too bad we’re Jews.”

These are the stories that I heard growing up. I grew up privileged in Baltimore, free to be Jewish, free to go to Hebrew School, free to become Bat Mitzvah, free to be part of an amazing community. The complete opposite life of those who came before me.

This summer, I was invited to participate in a professional exchange program that would take me back to Odessa for the first time since I left, at the age of five. To experience the city with another colleague (Esther Greenberg, Chief Advancement Officer at the Jewish Community Center), to see how Jewish life has been revitalized and to work with teens and Ukrainian camp professionals at a Jewish Summer camp ran through the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and supported The Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership…how could I say no?”

This summer, I was invited to participate in a professional exchange program that would take me back to Odessa for the first time since I left, at the age of five. To experience the city with another colleague (Esther Greenberg, Chief Advancement Officer at the Jewish Community Center), to see how Jewish life has been revitalized and to work with teens and Ukrainian camp professionals at a Jewish Summer camp ran through the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and supported The Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership…how could I say no?”

I recognized what a lifechanging experience this would be but convincing my parents to travel with me and to take my eight-year-old son along for the ride, would add a component to this journey that would be impossible to duplicate.

Walking hand-in-hand with my parents and my son down the streets of Odessa, the experience seemed surreal, especially for my parents. The city they remembered was alive and thriving but yet so different. All remnants of the FSU were erased, monuments were taken down, the streets were renamed and there were synagogues, JCC’s, little girls wearing Star of David necklaces, men wearing yarmulkes and kosher restaurants. My dad said, “This doesn’t even feel like my Odessa; I would have never imagined that this could happen here.”

But thanks to The Associated and our international partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), this is possible. Everywhere we went, the imprint of Jewish Baltimore was felt and appreciated.

Firsthand, we saw the help we provide to a 65-year-old blind woman, named Natasha, who only receives a $60 pension per month and has no living family. If it wasn’t for the food that we deliver weekly, the transportation we provide for doctor appointments and the companionship she gets from volunteers, Natasha would be alone.

At a camp, 60 miles outside of Odessa, nearly 200 teens gather every year for ten days to strengthen Jewish identities and deepen their connection to Israel. “Camp is the single most powerful tool that we have in Ukraine for connecting our children to their roots and empowering them as a member of a global Jewish family. Many of these kids, go home and teach their parents what it means to be Jewish,” Ninel Dyakovskaya, camp director explains. Katerina Rabina, assistant camp director adds, “Without The Associated, who is our largest funder, these kids wouldn’t be able to experience Shabbat, learn about Israel, Jewish holidays or experience the beauty of what it means to be part of a Jewish Community.”

Lena, age 17, has been going to the JAFI camp for four years in a row. This year marks her last. “I can’t begin to tell you how upset I am that I won’t be coming back next year as a camper. I have made my best friends here, learned about Jewish traditions, culture and other things that I would have never learned from other places.”

“What makes this camp so unique, is our madrich (counselors). They create interesting content, make us curious to want to learn more, care about what we think and want to know what they could do to make it better. I plan to come back to camp as a madrich one day and share everything that I was taught with others,” said Vlad, camper, age 16.

This winter, two JAFI camp professionals will travel to Baltimore as part of the same exchange. We will continue to help them expand their program, improve their marketing and develop meaningful content to share with youth all over Ukraine.

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