Anna comes from a small village outside of the city of Zhitomir in western Ukraine. Like many Jewish children in rural corners of the former Soviet Union, she and her 4-year-old brother spent the initial years of their young lives barely surviving in material poverty, with no idea of their connection to Jews or Judaism. That is, until a few dedicated volunteers arrived in search of Jewish men, women and children to ensure that they would be neither forgotten nor lost.
Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, rabbi of the Jewish Community of Zhitomir and Chabad’s director in the city, entered one such village last year with representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (FJC) and was introduced to Anna’s mother. They had been briefed about her history, which, like so many in parts of the former Soviet Union, detailed a tell-tale story of violence and alcoholism in an impoverished environment.
After asking if she would like her two children to attend a Jewish school—and be housed and fed there on a full scholarship—she resisted at first. But the persistence of the emissaries in explaining the school’s warm and nurturing environment prevailed, and today, both children are adjusting, learning, playing, laughing and receiving a top-notch Jewish and secular education.
This is not a unique story. It is just one describing many of the Jewish children who have landed at Or Avner after living with dysfunctional families—children who might have faced futures with little happiness or sound prospects had nothing been done to help their circumstances.
The Federation of Jewish Communities’ Or Avner Day School in Zhitomir was founded by Rabbi Wilhelm and his wife, Esther, 12 years ago, and operates under their steadfast guidance. It is part of Or Avner’s network of 160 educational institutions serving 12,000 children across the former Soviet Union.
Or Avner is one of hundreds of projects undertaken by the FJC, which was established in November 1998 to revive the Jewish communities of the former Soviet Union. It provides humanitarian aid and Jewish education, organizes cultural events and religious services, and helps develop Jewish communities and rebuild Jewish institutions.
One of the school’s teachers, who came to Or Avner as a teenager, exudes excitement when she talks about the educational institution and opportunities it offers: “I’m from a village in the area of Berditchev,” she says, who like many in Ukraine asked not to be identified by name. “I returned to my village for a visit at one point and saw my old schoolmates—most of them are now alcoholics, involved in drugs, divorced and worse. If I had remained there, I most likely would have wound up being one of them, instead of what I have become.”
What she has become, notes Esti Wilhem, is a proud Jew connected to her heritage, and a valued member of the school staff who has three small, wonderful children of her own.
A Resource Crisis
n addition to those who have been given new beginnings, thousands more have forced to abandon their homes and flee their cities due to the conflict in east Ukraine.
Of the 90,000 Jewish residents of eastern Ukraine some 40,250 are currently in exile from their homes. Many of these refugees, specifically children, have had to face what no one should have to go through, say the Wilhelms—bombings, death, destruction, and the loss of family and friends.
Many families have landed in Zhitomir facing no home, no work, no food and no clothing.
Again, the FJC, along with the 15 Chabad emissaries and 26 Chabad institutions in eastern Ukraine, have been able to offer assistance for many of them to recover their shaky footing. All of this has been made possible, say FJC leaders, thanks to the ongoing support and partnership of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. In addition to schools, support also includes a wide range of humanitarian aid projects; a network of children’s homes; food and clothing parcels; financial aid for emergency crisis; summer camps for the needy; and hot meals at the educational institutes, to name just some of the services.
One physician from eastern Ukraine, a single mother with three young children, “had to just pick up and leave,” she recounts. “I thought I would only be here a couple of weeks and then we would be able to return to our old lives.”
Esti Wilhelm notes that while the woman’s children attended government schools, they were somewhat connected with the Jewish community and would attend activities with her children. “But when they landed in Zhitomir,” says Wilhelm, she had no work, and they had just the clothes on their backs.”
The doctor says that she is “one of the more fortunate ones in that I’ve found employment, which is a miracle in itself, and that I’ve also been able to find housing.” More importantly, she says, her children were able to attend Or Avner for free until she found work.
The school provides education to many, beginning in kindergarten. There is also a children’s home and orphanage established by the Keshet foundation that the FJC runs in the city, with Jewish students of varying ages studying there—some who go on to give back to the community.
There are many wonderful stories with happy, positive endings, insists Esti Wilhelm. But there are even more in the making.
To that end, she says, the kindergarten and school must accommodate the growing needs of a population influx.
Much of the building, the furniture, the plumbing—the entire infrastructure—was built “Soviet-style,” for utilitarian purposes, and regardless of the amount of patching up now desperately needs to be refurbished, if not replaced.
Needed: More Room
Just as urgent—perhaps even more so—is the need for another room for the kindergarten to allow at least 20 more children to attend. There is not one space, one bed, left right now to squeeze more little ones in. Every inch is taken up by the kids, who receive so much more than just a place to learn, play and rest.
A psychologist on staff helps the youngsters work through their fears of war and loss, and develop healthy social interaction. A speech therapist emphasizes and practices verbal skills; many have not been socially engaged properly in these turbulent times and have trouble expressing themselves.
Despite the age of the equipment, great care is given to make the surroundings warm and welcoming. One young woman, who has taken a break from her studies at the Beit Rivkah college in Israel in order to help the emissaries in Zhitomir, was greatly impressed by all the efforts and their results.
“You can see that everything is old, but it is so well-taken-care-of—nothing goes to waste; nothing is ignored. The amount of work and caring that the directors and the entire staff put into the school and into these children is inspirational,” says Mayan Lawent.
“The four months I have been able to spend in Zhitomir have given me a look at what the work of the FJC and Chabad have accomplished—and is still accomplishing.”
To contribute to the effort, visit gofundme.com/jewishukraine.