Notes from the FRD Leadership Mission

Avital Ingber, Zach Briton, Jeff Distenfeld, Norm Pozez and Jeff Rum recently returned from the FRD Leadership Mission to Kiev, Ukraine and Israel. below are notes from Zach and Avital written during their travels, reflecting on this meaningful opportunity to see the impact of our work firsthand.

From Zach Briton:

Ukraine is home to the second largest Jewish population in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), right behind Russia. Jewish history in Kiev specifically, dates back to at least the 10th century. The community here that once flourished suffered greatly during the Holocaust and then again until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

We paid our respects and held a memorial service at Babi Yar yesterday, a ravine where more than 100,000 people were executed during the Holocaust. I’ve included a picture of the memorial service and some members of the community below. The undeniable atrocities that took place at the very spot where we stood was hard to come to grasps with. We read stories of three of the only 29 known survivors of the massacres at Babi Yar – stories of pain and horror – but also of resilience.

Last night – we got a first taste of the resilience of this community that is ultimately leading to a Jewish renewal here in Kiev. We met a young woman named Anna, just 28 years old and having only found out about her Jewish heritage in her teens, is now the Director of a new JCC providing opportunities for Jewish education, identity building and critical social services for the community here in Kiev. We had dinner with young adults from the community – all of which shared a common story about their love for Judaism, their love for their home in Ukraine and their desire to help others connect to it as well. Their passion for building this community is incredibly inspiring.

I share this recap with you because these are all of our stories to tell. These young adults, including Anna, can only do what they do because of the work that we do. Today we are visiting with Anna at the JCC to see the programs in person and going on a home visit to meet other members of the community who benefit from our critical support.
I want to pass along the sincere thanks that each and every person we meet with here expresses to you for the work that you do on their behalf.

From Avital Ingber:

As Zach shared with you yesterday, we have the privilege to be traveling in Kiev, Ukraine for three days with the JFNA FRD Leadership Mission. I’ve been to the FSU five times but never to the Ukraine. There are some things that are similar, such as the incredible Chesed (welfare) support JDC is providing to the elderly and those in need, and the inspiring revitalization of Jewish life amongst the teen and young adult populations. But Ukraine has its own set of challenges given the war and conflict that erupted in 2014 and continues today. The conflict between the East and West is deep. Yesterday I heard firsthand how it’s impacting Ukrainians of all ages. I want to share with you two stories that had a real impact on me.

In the morning, I had the opportunity to meet Inna at the Holom JCC. Inna is 15 years old and active in a teen program housed at the JCC called LoDomim. The name LoDomim means various or different to symbolize the differences in people and that all are welcome. We met with a number of the teens but Inna stood out to me. The LoDomim program has a partnership with BBYO so I asked Inna if she had any connection to teens outside of the Ukraine. In her nearly perfect English, Inna explained to me she’s part of the leadership of the program today and had the opportunity to travel to Dallas, Texas for BBYO’s International Convention. Her eyes lit up and a big smile came across her face as she shared with the group her connection to teens around the world. We speak a lot in our work about Kol Yisrael arevin zeh la-zeh, all Jews are responsible for one another. But hearing it firsthand really struck me.

Inna said, “I know I can go anywhere in the world and I will be accepted and loved.” Inna was speaking about her Jewish family. The way she was welcomed into someone’s home for Shabbat in Dallas before the convention and the friends she made at the convention taught her for the first time what it means to be part of a global Jewish people. As a BBYO alum, I saw in Inna much of what I was like at 15 years old.

I could be her and she could be me, even across the world. I couldn’t be more proud of the work that we are doing to strengthen Jewish identity.

In the afternoon, we had a chance to hear about the challenges facing Ukraine today and hear firsthand from Internally Displaced People (IDP). For the first time since the Holocaust, Jews are displaced persons once again. The  and Mikael were brave enough to share their story with us. Olga was a beautifully dressed 42-year-old woman who looks just like me or you.

In July 2014, Olga and her son Mikael left Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine by train to visit her friends in Kiev. Olga was taking her son to get some respite from the conflict. She left her husband and parents in Luhansk, assuming she would return home six weeks later to start the new school year. Olga was the assistant principal of a very prestigious school and was on track to be the headmaster. Today in 2017, Olga is still in Kiev and hasn’t returned home to see her parents or husband or her entire life she left behind. She is unable to return, to get any of her assets from the bank, and has no home to return to. As she shared with us, “Temporary displaced person. That is my new name”. The last three years have been significantly challenging for Olga and particularly challenging for her son. Once they realized they were staying in Kiev, Olga tried to enroll her son in school. His emotional state was in such distress that he didn’t attend school for six months. After some time, Olga learned about the Holom JCC. She remembers being welcomed with open arms. All she was asked was, “Are you Jewish? OK please come and we will help you.” Mikael joined a dance club at the JCC and it saved her son’s life. It helped him return to himself
and express himself through dance.

Today, Mikael’s dream is to study in the US and become a world class choreographer. Holom, the name of the JCC, means dream. The JCC gave Mikael his dreams! We were fortunate to watch Mikael perform his dance, The War is Not Yours. We could feel his pain, suffering and healing from watching this moving dance – it brought the entire room to tears. Even more important than the life-sustaining services of food, clothing and financial support our partners provided Olga and Mikael, is the ability that the JCC gave Mikael and Olga to dream and be able to live life once again. Life for them is hard. Olga cannot find permanent work because there is a stigma from being from the “east.” But thanks to our partners, they have been able to start to rebuild a life even as displaced persons. I couldn’t be more proud to be part of the global Jewish people. We are doing holy work, saving lives and ensuring a Jewish future. Inna, Olga and Mikael give me hope.