The temperature in Ukraine is dropping rapidly as winter approaches and World Jewish Relief has launched its Winter Warmth Appeal. Members of Golders Green United Synagogue and their Rabbi, Rabbi Belovski, recently travelled to Zaporizhia, where temperatures can fall to -30C during the winter months. They went to visit the synagogue community they have supported for more than 25 years but they also wanted to find out more about the challenges facing the wider Jewish community in Eastern Ukraine - so we showed them.
Zaporizhia is a large industrial city, approximately 100km from the conflict zone in the east. It was once a powerhouse of industry and manufacturing but has declined over recent years with chronic unemployment and high levels of air pollution. The Holocaust memorial on the edge of town commemorates the tens of thousands of Jews who were killed and buried in a mass grave. Today, the Jewish population of Zaporizhia is between 5,000 and 10,000 people and since the fall of the Soviet Union people are continually reconnecting with their Judaism through cultural and social activities at the Jewish Community Centre and at the synagogue.
As well as experiencing the vibrancy of the Zaporizhia Jewish community at the synagogue with Rabbi Ehrentreu, the Jewish school and Kindergarten and the Jewish Community Centre, the synagogue members also got a chance to see the poverty and deprivation of the city. Visiting soviet era apartment blocks, they navigated dark and dilapidated stairwells to visit people in their own homes to hear how World Jewish Relief programmes are making a difference to their lives.
Valentina with World Jewish Relief's Katya Roshchyna
Pensioner Valentina showed them how her windows and stairwell had been repaired by World Jewish Relief, ensuring she could stay safe and warm. She also told them about the classes and activities she attends at the Jewish Community Centre and how the support has changed her life. They sat with Marianna as she described how she would have been left entirely alone were it not for the Home Care worker provided by World Jewish Relief who cooks, cleans and shops for her as well as providing vital companionship and conversation.
In other flats and homes in Zaporizhia and Dnipro, they saw how young people with disabilities are taught essential life skills and how older people are brought together in people’s homes to enable them to get out and socialise – a vital way to combat isolation and depression and keep them active.
Women socialise at a 'Warm Home' event funded by World Jewish Relief, Dnipro
The group also spent the morning at the Edison Space, a co-working hub established and supported with the help of World Jewish Relief, where Jewish community members who had been unemployed for many years described how they had received ‘back-to-work’ training and had been able to secure a new well-paid job or set up their own business. The synagogue members went to visit some of these people in their places of work, like Oksana Rusanova, and saw how they had been able to establish their own businesses and in some cases offer employment opportunities to other people in the community.
Ingrid Posen with Edison Space graduate, Oksana Rusanova
Rabbi Belovski said: “I last visited Zaporizhia twelve years ago and even though the buildings, roads and living conditions have remained the same, if not deteriorated further, the developments and achievements of the Jewish community are remarkable. It’s thanks to remarkable individuals like Rabbi Ehrentreu and organisations like World Jewish Relief, that people’s lives here are being transformed. But the biggest change has been the shift from giving to empowerment, moving people away from being needy recipients to taking responsibility and giving back.”
Rabbi Belovski and World Jewish Relief's Sam Schryer at the Jewish Community Centre, Zaporizhia
Participant and synagogue member Myrna Jacobs said: “On the one hand we were confronted with extreme issues of poverty and displacement. On the other hand we saw extraordinary examples of organisation and kindness which allowed human beings in acutely difficult circumstances to receive the type of intelligent assistance which allowed them to face life with courage and hope.”
Golders Green Synagogue members and Rabbi Belovski with Rabbi Ehrentreu outside the Zaporizhia synagogue
Participant and Golders Green Synagogue Financial Representative Jonathan Davies says “I hadn’t appreciated the very severe levels of poverty. It is comforting to see the work done by World Jewish Relief to alleviate this.”
If you or your community would like to join a future trip to Eastern Europe, please contact Rebecca Singer on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0208 736 1250.
As winter comes to Zaporizhia and Dnipro, many people will struggle to stay warm. You can donate to World Jewish Relief’s Winter Warmth Campaign and support Jews in Eastern Europe like Valentina and Marianna.