Friday, November 10, 2017

CJE Odessa Mini-Mission: Final Day Reflections

Thursday, November 2, our final morning in Odessa.
They day started with our being welcomed into the homes of clients who are beneficiaries of the Beit Grand JCC’s Hesed program. Our first visit was to meet 75-year-old Konstantin Belyi. Konstantin’s life has been hard by any standard. He was hospitalized at the age of 3 months. Sometime during his hospitalization, his parents disappeared and he ended up being raised in an orphanage. He is extremely poor, has serious health issues, and has no surviving family. Two things struck me while visiting Konstantin. First, the harsh reality of his living conditions. His flat consisted of 2 rooms, a rudimentary kitchen, a toilet and basin. I can’t imagine how this man would survive without the services provided by Hesed which provide regular mishlo’ach manot (gift) packages and help him take care of his basic needs. Hesed services are comprehensive assisting folks like Konstantin with personal hygiene, food, medicine, legal assistance and socialization. And, the scope of care makes an enormous impact. Life expectancy in Odessa is short, 62 years for men, 73 for women; yet, Hesed has extended life expectancy for their clients by 13 years! The second thing that struck me was that despite his circumstances, Konstantin was incredibly hospitable and a gracious host. “A visit doesn’t start until all my guests are seated,” our translator shared as Konstantin pointed to the various chairs and stools set out for us. He enjoyed the company, shared his story without any visible trace self-pity, and despite difficulty walking, walked out into the alley to greet us at the start and again when it was time to bid farewell. It is clear that Hesed services help Konstantin retain his dignity despite his circumstances.
Our second visit was to the home of 11-year-old Bogdan Mayorov and his mom, Marina. Bogdan has had special needs since birth. He suffers from severe epileptic attacks, a speech impediment, enuresis, and frequent respiratory challenges among others. Marina had to leave her job to provide full time care for Bogdan, and her husband, Bogdan’s father left and does not provide any support. It is important to note that there is no judicial avenue for seeking child support from an absent parent in Odessa. Bogdan and Marina live in a one-bedroom apartment that is in great need of repairs, and their only source of income is a state disability allowance that does not cover their expenses. Hesed provides food cards, medications, and loans them rehabilitation equipment for Bogdan. They also provide ever important social support to Marina so that she does not get overly isolated and can plan for life after being such a full-time care giver. The impact of Hesed’s compassionate services cannot be over-stated. Hesed is a life-line for so many Jews in Odessa who otherwise would fall through the cracks of society.
Our last visit was to what Hesed calls a "Warm Home." Warm Homes are Hesed supported gatherings of Holocaust survivors held in the home of a member of the group who hosts. We joined approximately 10 men and women who each shared their story with us. They gather once a week for food, drink, and fellowship. The company they provide each other provides a much needed social and supportive outlet for these aging senior citizens. 
While it felt like we just arrived (oh, right, we did), it was now time to head to the Odessa airport to begin our journey home to Baltimore. Amalia and Oksana succeeded in providing us an incredibly rich overview of Baltimore's sister city in the Ukraine. I left having a much deeper understanding not only of the level of need that exists in Odessa but also of the incredible endurance of Judaism. I remain ever grateful that my grandmother had the vision and desire to come to America in the early 1920's. It behooves us to remain mindful of our brothers and sisters living in Odessa who are only in relatively recent years able to fully explore and express their Jewish identity freely and publicly. It behooves us to share our resources and continue to support the wonderful and important work that is unfolding in the Ukraine.
In the entry foyer of the Beit Grand JCC sits a piece of Jerusalem stone under a large metal conical shaped Jacob’s Ladder sculpture. Legend has it if you stand on the stone, raise your hands up towards the inside of the conical ladder, and turn around while making a wish, your wish will come true. Everyone who walks into the Beit Grand JCC walks under this Jacob Ladder’s sculpture and passes by or walks across the stone. What an incredibly optimistic symbol of hope this image holds out for all who enter the Beit Grand JCC.

A final sampling of photos!

Konstantin welcoming us into his flat.

                Konstantin sharing his home with us

   Bogdan's ever cheerful smile!

        Several of the members of the Warm Home that we visited.

                               Jacob's Ladder at the entrance of the Beit Grand JCC waiting for wishes....

                       Time to board our first of two flights home

            Very tired, but smiling educators!!


Thursday, November 9, 2017

CJE Odessa Mini-Mission: Reflections Day 3

Day 3 of our Mini-Mission. Our itinerary for the day started with a visit to the World ORT School #94, the only fully inclusive Jewish school in Odessa, then continued with visits to the Beit Grand JCC, the Mazl Tov Early Childhood Development Center, and the Migdal JCC. It was an impressive and packed day to say the least. Perhaps my pictures will convey the incredible and expansive range of quality programming, education and services that are provided by these organizations to the Jewish community in Odessa. Not only was the broad scope of offerings surprising, to me at least, but the quality of instruction and high level of engagement among students and clients of all ages was remarkable. At the ORT school we observed impressive robotics and Hebrew classes. At the JCCs, we were invited into pottery, dance, and music classes as well as various social clubs for seniors. Clients served included kids, teens, special needs adults, parents, senior citizens, and holocaust survivors. There is no question that there is incredible need in the community, but there is an equally incredible eagerness to be engaged in substantive, quality programming. One thing was particularly striking was the level of Jewish programming at each of the JCCs. While in Baltimore we strive to “put the J back in the JCC;” in Odessa, there is an ardent readiness - primed by decades of Communist rule, of course - for Jewish content.
On Wednesday, we also found time to explore Odessa on foot. Did I mention it was a really packed day? It was fascinating to see remnants of the period when at least 40% of the population was Jewish and the city was called home by such luminary figures in Jewish literary history as Chaim Bialik, Shalom Aleichem, Zev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, and Isaac Babel. It was clear from our tour of the city that despite continued anti-Semitism, at the very least great pride in Odessa’s history as a Jewish City remains. I’d be curious to learn more about how the non-Jewish community in Odessa feels about the revitalization efforts of the Jewish community happening now. How is the Jewish community generally perceived beyond the Jewish communal institutions we visited? It is one thing to reflect on a historical legacy. It is quite another to be open to the religious and cultural expression of a possibly growing minority group.
           Odessa is a beautiful city that at least from my point of view reflected incredible contradictions. Stunning and ornate architecture from earlier periods in history (such as Odessa’s grand Opera House) and one of the largest and busiest ports along the Black Sea basin offer dissonant backdrops to the level of economic and physical need we witnessed.

A lovely mosaic from the floor of the Hotel Bristol's restaurant where we enjoyed a hearty breakfast each morning.

Kitah Alef learning Hebrew at World ORT School #94

A beautiful mural at the entrance of the World ORT School # 94

An Elementary Robotics class at ORT #94

 A High School Robotics class

A class of young and old making art together at the Beit Grand JCC

The science room at the Beit Grand JCC. The students were learning English.

Lunch at one of the two Kosher restaurants in Odessa

Pottery class for Seniors with Special needs

A volunteer choir. One the many social/hobby clubs available to older adults.

Spotted on the wall of the Youth Lounge at the Beit Grand JCC. Also spotted was a sign with the Youth Group's Insta-handle.

Art class for the grown ups
 Art class for the kids

We were treated to a number of dance performances at the Migdal JCC by both kids and adults

Chaim Bialik's flat is marked by a plaque in his memory

Downtown Odessa

A marker to indicate where Zev (Vladamir) Jabotinsky lived while in Odessa

The Odessa Grand Opera House from the side

A restaurant with a Hebrew sign spotted in town - Bruchim Ha'ba-im: Welcome!

Scenes from our walking tour of the city

A night of music at the opera house. We were treated to a chamber string group.

Educator selfie. Yes, we educators know how to enjoy ourselves!