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A piece of me never left Ukraine’

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By Allie Vornholt
Editor’s Note: Allie Vornholt traveled to Ukraine in May 2019 along with six other Susan and Mark Sisisky JDC Global Enrichment Fund Fellows. The following is a reflection she wrote in mid-March for the Reflector in response to the horrific developments in Ukriane. Other Sisisky Fellow groups also have visited Ukraine as part of a special JDC Entwine experience. In addition, a number of leaders in our community have visited Ukraine on special missions.

Spending a week in Ukraine in 2019 with the Sisisky Fellows changed my life forever.

Having been in a dark place that year, I arrived in the country a bit lost. What I found was overwhelming acceptance, unending creativity, and a resilience that I’d never known emanating from the Ukrainian people.

We visited three cities in eight days; Zaporozhe, Dnipro, and Kharkov. At each stop, we met dozens of locals who were eager to share all they had, and give us a glimpse into their lives. When I was in a place where I needed to feel like a part of something more, the Ukrainian Jewish community took me in like family, with arms wide open.

The last few weeks have been surreal. No one I knew in America had heard of the places I’d been in Ukraine, and hearing these cities named on the news sucks the air out of my lungs every time.

I cried the first time I heard Zaporozhe on the radio. I remember Inessa Noseko, the director of the Zaporozhe JCC, who gave us a tour of the facility on our first day of the trip. She noticed we were struggling with jetlag and stopped her presentation to make us coffee. She’d wanted us to be comfortable in her home and feel like a part of the community she built.

The JCC was packed full with programs. Toddlers were learning Hebrew letters in one room while teens were learning the latest dance trend in another. Seniors were squeezed into the music room singing Ukrainian songs next door to an in-session financial literacy class, all while there was an exercise lesson in the courtyard outside.

I remember one room full of adults making fishing nets out of recycled plastic bottles. There aren’t public programs or social services in Ukraine for people with disabilities, and Inessa explained that money made from the fishing net sales helped fund the programs they offer while serving the dual purpose of teaching these participants a skill.

The Zaporozhe community fought for everything they had at that JCC. The resources available are so limited, but their joy radiated through the halls. When “experts” on the news say that no one unexpected Ukraine to push back so hard against the Russians, I tell people that I’m not surprised. I think about Inessa and the Zaporozhe community, and it is so obvious to me that they would find a way to fight to keep the community they built.

Every day since Russia invaded, I worry about the home-bound seniors we visited in Dnipro. Many of them are Holocaust Survivors or decedents of Holocaust Survivors, and due to limited mobility they are physically unable to leave their homes. Most have adult children who made Aliyah and are living in Israel or left Dnipro regardless, so human connection and support comes exclusively from JDC. Evacuations are expensive and difficult, but I know JDC has been able to bring some seniors to safety. I only met three people in this situation in Dnipro, but imagining the thousands of others in the city and across the country is overwhelming.

Our short experience quarantining due to COVID-19 in 2020 was the life they’ve lived for decades, but they’ve done so without the internet or technology to keep them connected. I worry they don’t have food or medicine or power in their small walk-up apartments. Knowing that JDC at least has a record of their location, names, and needs helps, but I wish that more people fought for their well-being as hard.

A piece of me never left Ukraine. The Jewish community has reinvented itself after generations of suppression under Soviet rule and people are so proud of what they’ve built. Their passion was infectious, and made me realize how much more we can do at home with the resources we have.

Since returning from Ukraine, I completed an adult B’nei Mitzvah program and made my first aliyah, finally being called to the bimah to teach Torah. I’ve sat on panels to advocate for the radical inclusion of interfaith families in local Jewish communities and spoken at conferences on the need for global Jewish connections.

Now, the Ukrainian community – our community – needs us. They will need support now as they work to find solid ground in refugee situations across Europe and will need support to rebuild when they can return home.

As the fifth week of war comes and goes, it will be harder for their news and needs to cut through the noise. But being part of the Jewish community means showing up when our family needs us.

Whether it’s giving financially, reading up on the current events, dispelling misinformation, or writing your representatives, I urge you to embrace the Ukrainian Jewish community in their time of need as they embraced me in mine.

For more information and to donate to the Ukraine Emergency Relief Fund, visit:
https://jewishrichmond.givingfuel.com/ukraine-emergency-fund.

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