My first visit to Odessa was in the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse. The city, even after decades of Communist rule, remained a historical gem with its massive Potemkin Steps down to the Black Sea and its ornate Opera House. It was also home to a significant Jewish population that has a special brand of pride.
Having survived the Nazis and the Soviets, these Jews were eager to reclaim their identity and embrace the challenges of a post-Communist existence. And they had a legacy of Jewish greats to draw from: the author Isaac Babel, the Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the violinist Boris Goldstein, and even the Olympic medal-winning swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg.
In the more than 20 years that have passed since I first visited, the community has blossomed. A flagship of post-Soviet Jewish life and of the investment by the North American Jewish community and others, the city today is home to several JCCs, synagogues, Jewish cultural and educational opportunities, leadership training programs, nursery schools and many other outlets for Jewish life. And yet a common thread has persisted: Economic fluctuations and political crises have contributed to poverty and dire need among the elderly, families and other Jews.
Those factors — including last week’s news of a downgrade in Ukraine’s credit rating, fears of energy stoppages, and the ongoing unrest — have reached dangerous levels in Ukraine. I witnessed this firsthand when I visited Odessa recently, speaking to local Jews who expressed their concerns for the future and their appreciation for our emergency response in their time of need.
I also spent time speaking to the staff of my organization, the Joint Distribution Committee. They share the concerns of their neighbors, and are apprehensive about what lies ahead. The difference for them, however, is that they don’t shoulder just individual burdens, they also shoulder the growing concerns of those in their care. And it is that special dynamic — the caregivers caring for others even as they themselves are affected by crisis — that is profoundly felt in Ukraine today.
I heard from our brave staff about deep personal stress, friends facing hopelessness, and family members separated by changing borders. But there were two remarks that stood out for me: “Every night I go to bed and I am praying to wake up the next morning and just realize everything that has happened today was a bad dream,” and “I am not supposed to show that I am under stress.”
These two sentiments, inexorably linked, demonstrate both the enormous stress that our staffers experience and their self-imposed professional mandate to keep a stiff upper lip, even under dire circumstances. This is increased many-fold when you consider that these professionals — and the employees of programs and facilities we support, including social and home care workers — operate out of four offices and 32 Hesed social welfare centers that serve more than 1,000 locations around Ukraine. They need outlets to vent, a place to channel their feelings constructively and enable them to continue their avodat hakodesh, or holy work, to ensure that Jews in need have life-saving services.
To help, we have provided training for handling high-stress environments, counseling, daily support calls, and increased visits from senior professionals to Ukraine. We are trying to guarantee that our staffers know we support them and that they have a safety net when they need extra comfort to get through a very tough day. After all, at the height of the crisis in Ukraine, they were spending nights in clients’ homes, tending to clients on a 24-hour basis and even traveling into areas of unrest to care for the homebound.
This is an important reminder that the lessons learned in Ukraine — and throughout the world in crisis zones where we have implemented programs to care for the caregiver — must be absorbed. For us, that connectedness and support system is critical today, not just because it is good professional practice, but because it illustrates the values that underpin our century of work.
The Jews of Ukraine, and caregivers working there, must know that they have a collective hand extended to them — worrying for them, and working hard to be a source of strength. That empathy is the ultimate expression of the story of the Jewish people: that we can transcend time, place and even our daily worries to embrace our fellow Jews, acknowledge their suffering and impart a sense of loving-kindness worlds away.
In Odessa, and throughout Ukraine, they need it more now than ever before.
Alan H. Gill is CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. This essay originally appeared at ejewishphilanthropy.com.