Zaporozhye is top of nobody’s holiday list.
It’s Ukraine’s sixth largest city: big, sprawling and industrial. Recently it’s fallen on hard times. Factories have closed and unemployment has risen.
It’s also home to thousands of Jews.
I’ve spent more time in Zaporozhye than I have in Paris, Barcelona and Rome combined.
It’s a city of contrasts. Big glitzy department stores sell jewellery at London prices. Theatres, cafes and bars are busy. People wander through Khortitsa, a nature reserve by the picturesque Dnieper river, sharing a beer without a care in the world.
Zaporozhye has one of the world’s largest hydroelectric dams and one of Ukraine’s worst football teams which has just gone bust. If you’re a fan of good tea, great vodka or cheap toothbrushes, this is the city for you.
The people are friendly and are tickled by the fact a foreigner has come to visit. The Jewish community centre bustles with a noisy crèche and older generations singing Yiddish songs.
But monstrous, crumbling, Soviet-era tower blocks nearby remind me of the widespread poverty here. They’re dark and dingy, stiflingly hot in summer and bone-shakingly cold in winter. Jews live in abominable conditions. They are our forgotten Jewish family.
The country is in a bad way. Life expectancy is just 64 for men.
Ukraine’s aging population means that 40% of people are pensioners. Pensions, when paid, are around £60 per month. That’s £15 per week.
Healthcare is theoretically free but in reality extremely neglected. Even basic treatment can be very expensive. Recently I met someone who had paid a pharmacist with their wedding ring. They had no money. What would you do?
Inflation is high. Some pensioners have to choose between buying medicine or winter fuel.
Every time I visit I’m taken aback by the poverty here. Three families crammed in to a flat built for one. Filthy floors, mouldy bathrooms, unsanitary toilets and rusty kitchens are common. There’s no privacy. Young girls and older people are particularly vulnerable.
One of the most famous piyuttim (liturgical poems) of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is ‘Unesanneh Tokef’. It describes our physical needs: who will become poor and who will become rich, who will live and who will die. For Svetlana, a pensioner in Odessa, this is very real.
The poverty she has experienced her entire life means that her walls are now crumbling, windows are missing and the front door doesn’t close securely.
World Jewish Relief’s Home Repairs programme will change this. We make homes safe and warm, restoring people’s dignity. Across the Former Soviet Union we are replacing doors and windows, installing working kitchens and bathrooms and insulating roofs. We don’t just repair Jewish homes; we repair Jewish lives.
At this time of year, there’s nothing more powerful, humbling or rewarding. Shana Tova from World Jewish Relief.
Richard Verber is a World Jewish Relief’s Head of External Affairs