By Julia Malaga
For nearly two years, I have had the honor to be a member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey Peoplehood Project. This powerful living bridge program partners American Jews with Israeli Jews who experience each others’ worlds before experiencing a world completely foreign to all of them, the world of the Jews of Ukraine. After the journey to Ukraine, we returned to Israel together to celebrate Israel’s birthday.
I went into the Peoplehood mifgash to Ukraine thinking of it as an adventure. I wasn’t exactly excited. but I can’t quite articulate the uncertainty and anxiety I felt. I really hoped for that life changing moment when I would be forever changed and look around me wondering how the world can possibly continue on a normal orbit after what just happened. I went in with my heart and mind wide open. But mostly, I was just hoping that the Russians wouldn’t shoot our plane out of the sky.
I had three of those moments. And the Russians didn’t shoot the plane out of the sky. Unkrainian Airlines did, however, lose my luggage and I ended up with a lovely wardrobe from Kiev as a souvenir.
The first day was Yom HaShoah. We had an incredibly moving and meaningful memorial service at Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were killed in September 1941. I walked in their footsteps and became all of them at once before peering into the abyss that became their grave. I felt the cold penetrate to my bones on a day that was not any colder than any other. The universe was not right in that place, yet the birds sang and buds lined the tree branches. We cried and prayed for them and then we sang Hatikvah.
On the second day, we met senior citizens at the Hesed Center in Cherkassy and observed their kabbalat Shabbat. These adults did not grow up singing these songs and saying these prayers. They had to learn them as adults. Just as I did. As we sang L’cha Dodi together, I had my moment. I didn’t just feel incredibly connected to Judaism at that moment, but to the miracle that happened there. It was a room full of Jews, who, like me, learned this as adults. Jews who were denied Judaism most of their lives, who took it back, embraced it and sang it out loud. It was the sound of a Jewish community that would not be silenced. Not by the Nazis. Not by the Soviets. The JDC found them and said, “we did not forget you.” They sang L’cha Dodi from their hearts. Yes, this was my moment. It wasn’t a moment that changed me. It was moment when I felt more like me than ever. Like the gateways to my own Jewish soul were wide open.
Then I met Bentsion Fraiberg, and 88 year old man living on the third floor of a Soviet era apartment building, surviving on a pension of less than $70 USD/per month and receiving food/medical support from the JDC. We delivered groceries to him, heard his story and shared time with him. He has no family, no children, no nieces and nephews. Hesed is his family. We are his family. He embraced us as we left and waved at us from his window as we walked back to the van. I will never forget him. And I am responsible for him.
After I embraced the Cherkassy community, they embraced me. I became a bat mitzvah with five of my fellow Peoplehoodniks and the teens of Cherkassy at their havdalah service. As I recited the Torah blessing, I felt like I belonged to the world’s oldest family.
As an adult convert to Judaism, I often feel disconnected from Jews by birth with whom I have no shared history. I have Jewish branches instead of roots. But, as I stood there receiving the Priestly blessing from leaders of their community, the circle closed as all the dots were connected.
Like all stories, it didn’t end with this adventure. We got on a plane in Kiev and flew to Israel. We observed Yom Hazikeron and visited the grave of Matan Gottlieb z”l, a Diller Teen Fellow who fell in the line of duty in 2014. My daughter was a Diller Teen Fellow in 2015. Matan’s (z”l) grave was next to the grave of fallen soldier from Ukraine. It felt like the world was very small at that moment.
That night, I was one among many waving an Israeli flag and singing “Hallelujah” as people danced with their young children on their shoulders, celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday. The fireworks! Wow. It occurred to me that just one week earlier I stood at Babi Yar, where the Nazis attempted to wipe out the Jewish people of Kiev. Now I stood in Israel celebrating the formation of the Jewish State. This is not how the Nazis thought the story would end. There are things that just cannot be destroyed. In the aftermath of the greatest threat to the Jewish people, we chose Hope and made a Home.. The Jews of Ukraine choose Hope every day.
JDC has performed nothing short of a miracle in Ukraine. We saw a Jewish community reclaiming, reinventing, resurrecting and rebuilding Jewish Life and Judaism. Before this trip, I wondered why the Jewish community was continuing to invest in Ukraine, which appeared to be a declining community. I saw something very different. I saw a scrappy, proud little Jewish community that is trying to thrive. They are building something special there. I am proud to be a small part of that and feel that my heart is forever linked to the people of Cherkassy. To my friends in Ukraine, who taught me to do a vodka shot from my elbow, I loudly and joyfully say L’chaim and L’tikvah. To life. To hope.
Julia R. Malaga is Chief Financial Officer, Golda Och Academy, West Orange, NJ.