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‘Like Night & Day’ Federation leaders witness a Jewish resurgence on mission to Odessa

By Stacey Dresner

View from the top of the famous Potemkin Steps looks down to the port of Odessa and the Black Sea.

WESTERN MASS. – In 1996 when Meredith Dragon was director of the Jewish Federation in Jacksonville, Fla., she visited Odessa, Ukraine as part of a professional development program.
Last month, as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, Dragon got a chance to go to Odessa again as part of The 2012 Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission of the Jewish Federations of North America.
“It was like night and day,” Dragon said of the changes she saw since visiting the Eastern European city 15 years ago.
Dragon and Susan Weiss Firestone, chair of the Federation’s annual campaign were among the more than 100 Federation lay leaders and professionals from around the U.S. to go on the whirlwind trip to Odessa and Israel from July 9-15.
“The purpose of the mission was to set the stage for the 2013 annual campaign, to get the top level campaign leadership — lay and professional — to go on the mission together. It was an opportunity to enhance the partnership between lay leaders and their professionals by having that experience together,” Firestone said. “The goal was also to get to know our funding partners better – the JDC, the Jewish Agency and World ORT — and to see our dollars in action by seeing the programs that we fund.”

Susan Weiss Firestone, left, with Oksana, a member of the Jewish Community of Odessa.

Dragon and Firestone also saw a resurgence of Jewish life in Odessa, especially among teens, young adults and young families. The group visited an ORT school actively educating young Jewish students, a Jewish Agency summer camp for teens, a Hillel program for college students, and met students who recently had gone on Birthright Israel. A local Jewish Community Center they visited provides Jewish programming for both young and old.
“We were happy to see that there is definitely Jewish life there. Meeting these Ukrainian Birthright kids was amazing. Some of them have just found out in recent years that they are Jewish,” Firestone explained.
While today there are around 40,000 Jews in Odessa, the city has a rich Jewish history. Jews reportedly made up half of the population before World War II. The group was led by Rabbi Michael Paley, who took them on a tour of Jewish Odessa, including sites like the home of Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and The Great Synagogue of Odessa.
Dragon recalled seeing the Great Synagogue 15 years ago when it had fallen into disrepair after being turned into a school under Soviet rule.
“That was probably one of the most impactful parts of the trip,” Dragon said. “When we were there in 1996, this building clearly had been very grand at one point in time. But when we were there it was dark and dingy and gray and it still didn’t belong to the Jewish community. They were petitioning at that point to take the building back, but they were using it. The walls were in disrepair. We had walked into the sanctuary and it was dark and there were basketball hoops and a wooden floor that had been put down  — it was clearly a basketball court. It was very depressing. There were five or six pews and they had rolled in an ark and when we were there, there was a minyan of fairly old men who were praying in the sanctuary. It was very sad.”

Galina, a 50-year-old single mother living in Odessa with her daughter, Julia, left, get a visit from their JDC case worker, right.

Dragon was pleasantly surprised when she saw the synagogue again on this latest trip. The Ukrainian government had given the building back to the Jewish community several years ago.
“When we went to the synagogue this visit…had I not known by the description in the program, I wouldn’t have known it was the same building,” she marveled. “”It was light and bright and alive with young people, which was a huge change. When we were there in ’96, it seemed like the Jewish population was quite elderly. This time there were young faces everywhere. The main sanctuary itself had been restored to a gorgeous sanctuary. There was no vestige of it being a gymnasium anymore. They had uncovered beautiful stained glass windows, the room was full of pews, the ark was lovely and it was light and happy and bright and it was clearly a very lovely religious space.”
A preschool and kindergarten were being operated at the synagogue and Dragon and Firestone watched as young families came in and out and children happily ran around.
“It could have been a gorgeous synagogue anywhere in Europe. It was really quite miraculous,” Dragon said.

Families at risk

The newly refurbished Great Synagogue of Odessa is alive with light, color, and activity.

On another day in Odessa, mission participants were broken up into smaller groups and went on home visits to meet people who are the beneficiaries of the JDC. Dragon and Firestone went to the home of Galina and her 13-year-old daughter, Julia.
“Typically you would think you would meet an elderly person, but this was a woman who is 50 years old, who has had two bouts of lung cancer and can’t work, and she is a single mother with no other family around,” Firestone said. “She lives on a pension of $143 a month. And she gets food supplements from the JDC.”
“They get $14 a month which doesn’t sound like a lot but they can make it go quite a long way,” added Firestone, who along with Dragon accompanied Julia and Galina on a trip to their local market.
Now instead of the JDC food packages that have been provided for needy clients over the past several decades, the JDC is giving its clients debit cards to use at their local markets. This nod to technology makes the JDC’s efforts more efficient by cutting down on the added work and cost of putting together food packages and getting them to all of the people who need them.
Galina and Julia live in one room – “Not a one-room apartment,” Firestone says “a room.” The two share a kitchen and a bathroom with other people in the building.
In addition to the food assistance, there is a social worker funded by the JDC who looks in on them, making sure Julia goes to the Chabad school she is enrolled in and the JCC where both she and her mother attend Jewish programs.
For years when the Federation system began working in Eastern Europe, Jewish agencies concentrated on helping elderly Jews who were seen as the most vulnerable population, with no support system and unable to go to Israel.

Students who attend the World ORT School in Odessa.

“What they found over the last several years is that when they were helping seniors, there were seniors who were holding onto their food that they were being given, and as they investigated they discovered they were holding onto their food because they were sharing it with their children and grandchildren,” Dragon said. “They discovered that there were many more younger people who were really suffering who were Jewish and that there was a need for programs for families and youth at risk.” Programs for people like Julia and Galina.
“The home visit with Julia and her mother was something I will never forget,” Firestone said. “Just seeing how they live on $150-$160 dollars a month that they have to subsist on. You wonder, is she going to be able to go to college? Or, what is going to happen if something happens to her mother? I am sure there are many people like that, they just happened to be the ones we met with. They are a part of our Jewish family and we have to do our best to take care of them. These are people who can’t take care of themselves.”
Dragon and Firestone also met with several young people — teens, college students and young adults – who are learning about their Jewish roots.
“One of the things that was sort of a theme that went from the Hillel kids through the kids who had returned from Birthright Israel and also the summer campers, was the realization that most of these kids never knew that their families were Jewish,’ Dragon said. “It was kept as a secret from them for fear of what the repercussions could be. And the only reason they knew they were Jewish was that because a parent knew that there was a Jewish grandparent. In the Soviet Union when you had to list your nationality, if  you were Jewish you had to list your nationality as Jewish. But there was no Jewish life. Several of the Hillel students knew they had Jewish roots but they never had been able to do anything about it because they grew up in a world where they weren’t allowed to be Jewish.

Federation representatives visited Ethiopian-Israeli children at an absorption center in Jerusalem.

“So the importance of being able to connect with Hillel for all these kids was that it was their absolute first exploration of being Jewish,” Dragon explained. “And that was really the central theme – had we not been there, promoting Hillel, promoting Birthright, promoting these Jewish summer camps, these kids never would have had an opportunity to understand their Jewish roots and it would have been lost.”
The group met with several groups from throughout Odessa’s Jewish community during their brief time there, from young children performing to teens talking about their new-found Jewish lives. The group also visited Odessa’s haunting Holocaust memorial for a moving service.

From Odessa to Israel
In Israel, the group continued to see all that the Federation system does for the Jewish community through programs of the Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and ORT. They visited the Hadassah Neurim Youth Village for children who can no longer stay in their own homes because of abuse, neglect or other issues. The kids have a safe place to stay and receive needed counseling.
Dragon and Firestone also visited an Ethiopian absorption center in Jerusalem, observing the center’s programming and meeting adult Ethiopians now in their 20s who despite many challenges are building successful lives.
“It reminded me of how much work we still have to do to get this population up to speed so they can become successful Israeli citizens,” Firestone said.
The group also attended Birthright Israel’s Bar Mitzvah celebration in the Port of Haifa with more than 3,000 Birthright Israel participants from around the world and spent a vibrant Shabbat in Jerusalem.
On their last day in Israel, they visited the central command of the Israeli military and heard a report on the Iron Dome Defense project. Later they heard from President Shimon Peres and surprise guest speaker Michael Oren.

The Holocaust Memorial in Odessa

The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts is now planning a community trip to Israel in April 2013, with hopes of getting as many as 100 community members to experience Israel themselves.
“This mission certainly increased my personal motivation to work on the campaign,” Firestone said. “Meredith and I will be able to bring this message through our conversations with donors and our board. I think it just reinforces the need for people to go to Israel and experience it, so it will make us recruit even harder for our April community trip. I think the thing to do is to bring as many people as possible so they can see what we do.”
The 10-day community trip, from April 15-24, will take place during Israel’s 65th birthday. There will be different tracks for those who have not been to Israel before and those who have in the past, as well as a family track. “The irony is, that there is nothing more community building than taking people out of our community and being in Israel together,” Dragon said.

See Israel for Yourself
The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, in partnership with local agencies and synagogues, is sponsoring a Community Trip to Israel, April 15-24, 2013, to celebrate Israel’s 65th birthday. The entire community is invited to participate.
Highlights include celebrating Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day); three days of touring in Tel Aviv; four days of exploring Jerusalem, including Shabbat; a visit to Masada and the Ein Gedi region; a visit to the Golan Heights, Tsfat, and Western Massachusetts’ partnership community, the Afula-Gilboa region.
Generous subsidies are available through the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and the Jewish Endowment Foundation of Western Massachusetts.
For more information, call Meredith Dragon at (413) 737-4313, ext. 139.

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