Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

Trip to Ukraine – Day 1

United Synagogue Rabbinic Trip to Ukraine – led by World Jewish Relief
Day 1 – November 30th 2015
A number of months ago, I felt that a story that was subsiding from media coverage was the conflict between Russian backed military groups, and Ukrainian military in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. I was having a conversation with Richard Verber of World Jewish Relief about our Shul’s twinning with Rovno and the Warm Home project there, when I asked about whether we could put together a Rabbinic trip to Ukraine to see how the conflict is affecting the lives of Jews who live there. And so here I am. I am staying in Zaporizhia with six of my Rabbinic colleagues, a town one hour’s drive from Dnieporpotovsk and we will be returning on Wednesday evening. It was an early morning this morning, getting up at 3am and as it didn’t start getting light until nearly 6am, that meant putting on tallit and tefilin on an Austrian Airways flight to Vienna!
We will be viewing a number of projects funded through World Jewish Relief, and already today we learnt about the Chesed model that WJR fund through the Joint Distribution Committee, the Joint for short. The Chesed organistions through the FSR support the most vulnerable, most specifically the elderly and those who were survivors of the Holocaust.
Late this afternoon, we split up into two groups and visited the homes of Jewish individuals here, whose houses has been repaired by the Joint. We met Nachum and Mariya, married for over 6 years and with their only son having died back in 1975. They were both not well, and yet were happy to talk to us about their lives and where they have come from. It was really difficult seeing them, not very mobile, living on the 8th floor with an unreliable lift. They rarely get out of their flat. World Jewish Relief had repaired their balcony rendering it usable and insulating to the cold. They were so happy to be visited by a group of Rabbis! Funny that! We also visited 68 year old Valentina who lived in one room where she had been living for most of her life. Her husband had died 6 years ago. She was more mobile and could get to the local funded Chesed centre to partake in its various cultural activities
After these home visits we all met up in the main and only Zaporyzhia main Shul. It was large, amazing and cost over $4million dollars – a far cry from the poverty that we had just seen where fuel prices have now risen by 6 times due to the closing of the gas supply from Russia. Ukraine is trapped between a desire to be more western and European, and its part Russian identity. We met Rabbi Ehrentreu and spent dinner with him with some rather nice Cognac! He has worked tirelessly in the lubavitch model for 18 years here and does amazing stuff. He also is able to help many individuals and families who do not meet the criteria of needs for the Joint funded Chesed centres. He has brought Jewish life to the community, and is also twinned with Golders Green Shul in London. We are looking forward to having a musical singalong, a kumsitz, with him tomorrow night.
I will try and write more tomorrow. Wishing you all a good week – being in Ukraine, and seeing the difficulties here is quite sobering. Hearing the human stories of Jewish people here has also been moving and inspiring.