by Alan H. Gill
My first visit to Odessa – the “pearl of the Black Sea” – was in the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The city, even after decades of communist rule, remained a historical gem with its Potemkin Steps and ornate Opera House. It was also home to a significant Jewish population that has earned a distinct reputation for its special brand of pride.
Having survived the Nazis and the Soviets, these Jews were eager to reclaim their identity and embrace the challenges of a post-communist existence. And they had a legacy of Jewish greats to draw from: Isaac Babel, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Boris Goldstein, and even the Olympic medal-winning swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg.
In the more than 20 years that have passed since I first visited, the community has blossomed. A flagship of post-Soviet Jewish life and of the investment by the North American Jewish community and others in that goal, the city today is home to several JCCs, synagogues, Jewish cultural and educational opportunities, leadership training programs, nursery schools, and many other outlets for Jewish life. And yet a common thread has persisted: economic fluctuations and political crises that have contributed to poverty and dire need among the elderly, families, and score of other Jews.
Those factors – including news this week of a downgrade in Ukraine’s credit rating, fears of energy stoppages, and unrest – came to a climax over the last five months in Ukraine, and I got to witness this firsthand when I recently visited Odessa. I spent my time there speaking to local Jews who expressed their concerns for the future, their increasing needs, and their appreciation for our emergency response during their time of need.
And I also spent time speaking to the staff of my organization, JDC. They share the concerns of their neighbors, and are apprehensive about what lies ahead. The difference for them, however, is that they don’t just shoulder individual burdens, they also shoulder the growing concerns of those in their care. And it is that special dynamic – the caregiver caring for others even as they themselves are impacted by the crisis – that is profoundly felt in Ukraine today.
I heard from our brave staff about deep personal stress, friends facing hopelessness, and family members torn apart by changing borders. But there were two passing remarks that stood out for me above the rest: “Every night I go to bed and I am praying to wake up the next morning and just realize everything that has happened today was a bad dream” and “I am not supposed to show that I am under stress.”
Inexorably linked, the two sentiments demonstrate both the enormous stress that our staffers experience and their self-imposed professional mandate to keep a stiff upper lip, even when the circumstances are dire. And this is increased manyfold when you consider that these professionals – and the employees of programs and facilities we support, including social and home care workers – operate out of four offices and 32 Hesed social welfare centers that serve more than 1,000 locations around Ukraine. They therefore need outlets to vent, to constructively channel their feelings, and ensure they can continue to carry out the avodat hakodesh – holy work – they do to ensure that Jews in need have access to life-saving services and Jewish community engagement.
To help with this, we have provided them training for handling high-stress environments, counseling, daily support calls, and increased visits from senior professionals to Ukraine to help guarantee that our staffers there know that we support them and that they have a safety net when they need that extra comfort required to get through a very tough day. After all, at the height of the crisis in Ukraine, they were spending nights in clients’ homes, tending to clients on a 24-hour basis, and even traveling into areas of unrest to ensure the homebound had care.
This is all an important reminder that the lessons learned in Ukraine – and throughout the world in crisis zones where we have enacted programs that ensure care for the caregiver – must be absorbed and implemented as part of the value of mutual responsibility that organizations inject into their larger goals. For us, that connectedness and support system is critical today – not just because it is good professional practice, but because it instills the values that underpin our century of work.
The Jews of Ukraine, and caregivers working on the ground there, must know that they have a collective hand extended to them at this time – worrying for them, and working hard to be a source of strength for them. In that empathy is the ultimate expression of the story of the Jewish People: that we can transcend time, place, and even our daily worries to embrace our fellow Jews, acknowledge their suffering, and impart a sense of lovingkindess worlds away. In Odessa, and throughout Ukraine, they need it more now than ever before.
Alan H. Gill is CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).