On Rosh Hashana and every day, lessons from Ukraine’s Jews on resilience and hope


(RNS) – As families like mine gather tonight to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, we do so against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

The poetic image of the holiday of our names inscribed in the Book of Life has a new resonance this year. With death and destruction in a country dear to my heart, from family roots to having made half a dozen trips there over the past decade, I am acutely aware of our mortality and our promise.

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In one of the key prayers of this season, Jews exhort God to “renew our old age”—to recharge our batteries, replenish our reserves, and give us the strength to carry on in a world that more often invites despair than dreaming.

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But how do we do that? How do we cultivate our resilience when it all seems too much, when every issue – from geopolitics to climate change to economic unrest and beyond – overwhelms us and seems to belittle our individual efforts to make things better?

Lidia C., right, hugs a JDC volunteer after a visit.  Photo by Yura Malenko

Lidia C., right, hugs a JDC volunteer after a visit. Photo by Yura Malenko

I draw hope and inspiration from people like 82-year-old Lidia C. She is among tens of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians who have the deck stacked against them and have still found ways to give back, even now.

Lidia was a respected professor of anatomy at the Lviv Pedagogical College for 27 years, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, she lost everything overnight. She did her best to make a living through the meager, turbulent post-Soviet 1990s, and as she struggled to make ends meet in 1998, she decided to join the burgeoning social safety net of her Jewish community as a home nurse.

For twelve years, Lidia worked tirelessly for her town’s Hesed Social Services Center until her health failed and she needed the same help herself—feeding, bathing, and caring for dozens of her town’s elderly Jews. Named for the Hebrew word for “loving kindness,” the Hesed system was introduced in 1993 by my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

This humanitarian relief network, the backbone of our operation in today’s crisis, currently serves more than 35,000 Jews in Ukraine, more than 20% of the country’s Jewish population. It is a holistic and life-saving service supported by a multi-religious coalition including the Claims Conference, Jewish federations across North America and IFCJ, among others.

So how does Lidia, one of the beneficiaries, put into practice the words of this holy time?

“Wait for peace and get on with your work,” she urges.

I’ve heard this stoic approach from so many Ukrainian Jews over the past seven months. Go ahead, challenge them, and find new ways to help refresh and brighten your community garden plot. No matter what, they say, you have your part to play.

JDC volunteers pack Christmas gift boxes for local parishioners who will participate in virtual Rosh Hashanah activities in Odessa, Ukraine.  Photo courtesy of JDC

JDC volunteers pack Christmas gift boxes for local community members who will participate in virtual Rosh Hashana activities in Odessa, Ukraine. Photo courtesy of JDC

Galina L. is a prime example. Originally from Bakhmut, a small frontline town in the east of the country, she and her disabled daughter are now internally displaced, like millions across Ukraine.

After years of struggling to find work and living off her daughter’s meager state disability pension, like Lidia, she became Hesed’s house attendant. She gave back to the same Jewish community that provided her family with essential food and medicine when they couldn’t make ends meet.

Forced to flee to the relative safety of Dnipro from shelling and rocket attacks, it came as no surprise to 51-year-old Galina that the Jewish community immediately supported her: “They said, ‘Come to us, and we’ll give you yours right away help.'”

Galina’s knee-jerk benevolence quickly returned. With no permanent home and unable to return to Bakhmut — her daughter’s school was bombed in July — Galina threw herself into volunteering, visiting seniors in a retirement home in Dnipro and singing Jewish songs at holiday celebrations.

Galina L. and her daughter, originally from Bakhmut, Ukraine, are now living in Dnipro as internally displaced persons.  The two do volunteer work in the community—visiting seniors and performing Jewish songs at holiday celebrations.  Photo by Misha Kovalev

Galina L. and her daughter, originally from Bakhmut, Ukraine, are now living in Dnipro as internally displaced persons. The two do volunteer work in the community—visiting seniors and performing Jewish songs at holiday celebrations. Photo by Misha Kovalev

“Everyone feels better when they know they are not alone. You know your problems aren’t the worst,” she said. “As long as you live you can still fix things – but if you give up, if you break, all is lost.”

The same Solemnity prayer that asks God to revive our spirits and renew our energy also begs the Divine not to forsake us and throw us away in our hour of need. I have come to believe, especially in these dark days, that these two lines of liturgy are profoundly connected – that each is the engine of the other.

It contains powerful lessons for each of us, regardless of our background or beliefs.

First, when we reach out to those in need, we are empowered. We are reminded that our words and actions matter. In the tangible mutual help we give one another, we can find the building blocks of that more universal restoration and recovery we long for.

Second, by empowering those who are lowest and roughest, we can count on them to “pay it up front” as they can. People in need are also people with talents and skills and a desire to give back. As we see with Lidia and Galina, they will help build communities where generosity, mutual responsibility and ongoing caring are renewable resources, even in the most tragic of times.

Lidia C., right, an elderly woman from Kharkiv, Ukraine, is one of more than 35,000 elderly Jews and vulnerable families that JDC continues to serve in Ukraine.  Photo by Yura Malenko

Lidia C., right, an elderly woman from Kharkiv, Ukraine, is one of more than 35,000 elderly Jews and vulnerable families that JDC continues to serve in Ukraine. Photo by Yura Malenko

That is the definition of a strong community – and in Ukraine, one that is a marvel of history. Across the country there are resilient, resourceful Jews and Jewish institutions that were unimaginable a generation or two ago, before Jews began to shake off decades of Soviet oppression and the legacy of the Holocaust to plan their own futures.

Today we recommit to ensuring that the most vulnerable are never forgotten. By investing in their future—by supporting ongoing relief efforts, helping refugees, or volunteering in our own communities to help those in need—we are writing them in the book of life with the work of our own hands. Perhaps we too and our societies will be renewed in this process.

Then we will all partake in the fulness of the traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting for a l’shanah tovah u’metukah – a good and sweet year ahead.

(Alex Weisler, a former journalist, is senior video and digital content producer at JDC, the global Jewish humanitarian organization. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the Religion News Service.)



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