Dispatch from Odessa: Winter is Coming

photo courtesy JDC (Odessa, December 2014)
photo courtesy JDC (Odessa, December 2014)

By Gil Shefler

Every Chanukah for the past two decades, a giant menorah has lit up the central square of the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, bringing a little festive cheer to Jewish and non-Jewish locals during the long winter nights.

But this year’s holiday season may be a bit dimmer. Ukraine’s ongoing crisis has made the price of food, medicine, and utilities sky high while the conflict in the east has displaced large and growing numbers of people.

With planned power outages and the mandated lowering of thermostats to a frosty 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the coming winter is bound to be one of the harshest in living memory for all Ukrainians, including hundreds of thousands of Jews.

I caught a glimpse of these challenging times when I visited Odessa – Ukraine’s third-largest city – with my JDC study group last month, meeting many inspiring members of the local Jewish community.

In a crumbling Soviet-era apartment near the city center, I met a group of elderly who gather on a weekly basis as part of JDC’s Warm Home program.

“Things were already bad before,” said my host, a hospitable woman who baked pizza for her guests. “Now we don’t know how we’ll pay the heating bills.“

Besides the coming cold, other threats have reemerged. Tuberculosis has recently seen a resurgence throughout the country. In Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, a humdrum town two hours away from Odessa, I met a widow whose husband died of the disease last year at the age of 27.

She lives with their three young daughters in a small space where the air is heavy and stale. Ventilation in the winter comes at a price: Open a window, and bone-freezing gusts blow right in. Better the smell than the cold. After a few minutes, one hardly notices.

Despite the cramped conditions, the mother has managed to create a pleasant environment for her cheery blonde girls. They smiled and played with toys strewn on the floor while she shared her sad story, holding back the tears.

JDC gives her a stipend to operate the electric heater and supports her children’s classes at the local Hesed social welfare center.

JDC’s Winter Relief program is crucial for such members of the Jewish community. Now in its 23rd year, it delivers tons of heating fuel, warm bedding, and clothing to needy Jews across the former Soviet Union.

It is carried out together with the local Jewish community, Chabad, and with generous support from JDC’s Board of Directors, individual donors and foundations, and our generous partners, including: the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.

“When temperatures drop to the teens and naughts, this is vital,” JDC’s Odessa representative Ira Zborovskaya told me as we discussed the hardship facing so many this time of year.

And while visiting the homes of the poor and needy is often discouraging, there were also many uplifting moments.

At the Hesed social welfare center in Odessa, we were greeted by a choir of elderly Yiddish enthusiasts singing a medley of songs in the mama lashon. At a JCC – one of two serving the city’s estimated 30,000 Jews – we saw people of all ages participating in dance, acting, and painting classes.

And while the circumstances by which children ended up at the orphanage run by Chabad were sad, the free board, shelter, and education they received were bright spots in these young lives.

Whether it is cultivating Jewish life or helping those in need, JDC’s mission in Ukraine over the next couple of months will be more important than ever.

Gil Shefler is a media relations specialist in JDC’s Global Marketing and Communications department.