KIEV, UKRAINE, April 1, 1 p.m. – Our first stop in Kiev was lunch with Amir Ben-Zvi, JDC’s chief representative in Kiev. I met Amir in October 2008 during a mission to Tblisi, Georgia to survey the conditions of the Jewish community just six weeks after the war with Russia. Amir had been an integral part of the rescue effort in Georgia, risking his life to infiltrate areas the Russians had invaded to make sure every Jew was located and brought out of harm’s way.
When it comes to helping others, Amir is not one to stay on the sidelines. And that’s exactly the direction he gave us for our three-day visit to Kiev. “Don’t sit and take notes and snap pictures,” he stressed. ”You have to become part of the community and experience what their lives are all about.”
And that’s just what I did on our first site visit to a JDC “warm home” in Kiev. Here, Garold, well into his 80s, hosted eight of his elderly friends, brought together by the local Hesed center, one of 35 welfare centers in the Ukraine, covering 1,500 cities and towns. The local center serves 1,200 seniors.
The program was developed by JDC in the former Soviet Union to aid and help alleviate the loneliness plaguing so many Jewish elderly. Throughout the region, small groups of elderly Hesed clients are regularly hosted by those who have volunteered their homes, with participants benefiting from nutritious meals as well as much-needed social contact.
Special activities for the Jewish holidays and other programs with Jewish content reinforce the clients’ sense of belonging to a caring Jewish community. The program has been adopted by ESHEL in Israel, where it is of special help to non-Hebrew speaking immigrants; it has also been implemented in Jewish communities in Romania and the Baltic countries.
Garold and his friends are all in their 70s and 80s. Their children and grandchildren are all grown up – many have moved to Israel. And here I was, melding into this “warm home” and feeling comfortable within minutes.
Visiting the elders in Kiev was particularly meaningful for me. After all, my ancestors came to America from the Pale of the Settlement. It reminded me of the phrase, “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I” and how, with a different twist of history, any one of these elders could have very well been my grandfather, grandmother, uncle or aunt.
Amir’s instructions began to take on a whole new meaning. Whether we are related or not – and despite being separated by oceans, age or language – we all felt like family, connected in some cosmic way through our Jewish identity and culture. Certainly by the volume of food, which the local Hesed worker kept bringing and bringing – hot tea, fruit, candy, cookies and cakes.
After we all introduced ourselves, Garold recited some of his very own poetry, then grabbed his guitar and began singing with everyone joining in for “Aveinu Sholom Aleichem.” After more singing, Felix, a local historian, filled us in on the strong Jewish heritage in the Ukraine that dates back to the 8th century.
The group talked at length about the freedom they gained in 1991 after decades of political and religious repression under Communist rule. For them, the true feeling of freedom has been fleeting, to say the least. They like to be discreet about their “warm home” get-togethers so as to not draw the attention of their non-Jewish neighbors. Felix talked about not having enough cab fare one time and the cab driver making a comment about Jews being cheap.
Nevertheless, the freedom that they do have is far better than the oppression they felt for nearly three-quarters of their lives. Most, importantly, it gives them the opportunity to spend time with each other.
As one put it, “It’s like being with my relatives. We’re like a family.”
For a little over 45 minutes, I was a part of that family – and will continue to be long after this trip.