CALGARY — A group of young North American Jews recently travelled to Ukraine to connect with the Jewish community of that country.
While in the Ukraine, Jennifer Hadley also visited 91-year old Mila Goldfarb, who lives alone in Korostychev. Goldfarb was orphaned at the age of 10 and her fiancé was killed in World War II. She never married and lives alone in a house with an outhouse and no utilities.
Participants hailed from Toronto, Calgary, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and other centres, and for those who had never been to the region, the experience opened their eyes to the realities of eastern European life.
For the young people who were returning to the area, such as Torontonian Natalya Demberg, 24, the trip was inspiring.
Demberg – who was born in Moscow and had been told as a young girl that it was essential to leave the former Soviet Union – was surprised to discover how many Jews still live in Ukraine. Their numbers are as high as 500,000, and everywhere the mission went, participants were told the same thing, she said.
“Yes, we are Jews, but we are also Ukrainian Jews. This is our country and we want to stay and rebuild our community,” she quoted them as saying, adding, “I found this to be very inspiring.”
This was especially so given the dire conditions faced by many Ukrainian Jews, she said. Most are living in poverty, are elderly and alone, or are living in single-parent units and struggling to provide for their families on small incomes.
Demberg visited two families, one in Korostychev, outside Kiev, a community with fewer than 100 Jews that before World War II had 20,000. The family was made up of two people: Bella, a mother in her 80s who is almost blind and lives with her 50-year-old son, who has cancer.
Demberg visited the family in their one-room house that has no running water, bringing them warm clothes and food. The family receives food and medical supplies delivered by Hesed, a program run by the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) that is essential to their survival.
Demberg was touched when the son ran after them as they were leaving to give them a book of Ukrainian jokes. “These people have nothing and yet they still found something to give us as a gift.”
Demberg also visited a family made up of a mother in her early 50s who is not able to work and her 16-year-old daughter, who goes to school. “What struck me is that they were very grateful and were very happy to get help from Hesed,” she recalled.
She added, “Most of their Jewish friends were [made] through JDC-sponsored programs, which pointed to how important these programs are.”
Jennifer Hadley with the Limonnik family of Kiev.
Calgarian Jennifer Hadley, 27, also visited two families. One was the Limonnik family of Kiev, made up of a grandmother, her 33-year-old daughter and the daughter’s two small children.
The daughter’s husband died of a heart attack in front of the children and the family now lives on two monthly pensions, the grandmother’s $105 and the late husband’s $110. The daughter suffers from cardiovascular disease and is unable to find work.
Hadley said she visited the family in their run-down, two-room apartment, where all four live in one room and sleep on one bed. “The grandmother has a sister who has a mental illness and is locked up in a second room, because they can’t afford to get help,” Hadley said.
Despite these hardships, the family still clings to its Jewish traditions and community. The children attend a Jewish school and participate in various Jewish programs, all administered and sponsored by Hesed.
Both Demberg and Hadley said all the people they visited asked, “Tell everyone that there are still Jews here. Don’t forget us.”
Both women want to tell the stories of the Ukrainian Jews they met. Hadley, who owns a spa in Calgary with her mother, said her family will be making a donation to the JDC. Demberg, a consultant in Toronto, is actively seeking volunteer opportunities to help Ukrainian Jews.
The mission to Ukraine was organized by Birthright Israel Next for alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel, which provides free, educational trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26.