TRUSKAVETS, Ukraine (JTA) — Nearly 600 Jews stand shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes trained on the young man leading the service to close out Shabbat. The crowd sings a soulful havdalah tune that lifts up its final words: “hamavdil ben kodesh l’chol” — ”the One who divides between sacred and ordinary.”
It looks like a Shabbat gathering anywhere else in the world, but I’m in the western Ukrainian city of Truskavets, where — from every part of their conflict-scarred country — these Jewish community volunteers have come together for a four-day retreat, energized by the chance to learn from each other and take a deep breath.
I’m back in Ukraine for the first time since the crisis began to learn from these men and women making miracles happen. I came to document and share stories from this gathering. Remarkably, it’s the largest-ever in the former Soviet Union arranged by my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, which has worked to aid needy Jews and build Jewish life in the region for decades.
With its wine and sweet-smelling spices, havdalah eases the transition from the holy purity of Shabbat to the workaday mundanity of the week. Surrounded by hundreds of Ukrainian Jews, I felt uplifted, as I always do when I travel to this region and see its defiant, vibrant Jewish life.
The usual rules don’t apply. Here, the ordinary becomes sacred.
On this, my 14th trip to the former Soviet Union in 10 years, I’ve come to know it as a place where that switch is truly flipped. Rebuking a painful history, from the Holocaust to Soviet oppression, everyday actions become lifesaving and essential. That’s never been more true than this past year, as Jewish communities here worked overtime to meet the enormous humanitarian needs of this crisis.
Simple flashlights become beacons enabling home care workers to reach the bedridden elderly Jews they serve. Bus trips between cities are transformed into escape hatches for those fleeing rocket attacks. A box of nonperishables is manna from heaven for those faced with empty grocery shelves, and each call from a volunteer is a life raft for the loneliest seniors and most vulnerable at-risk families.
Over the last year, more than 3,000 volunteers engaged in projects affecting 36,000 people. This work is part of our expansive response to this crisis — supported by the Jewish Federations of North America, the Claims Conference, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, individuals, families, corporations and foundations. It includes providing uninterrupted assistance to 43,000 Jews in Ukraine and the delivery of 800 tons of humanitarian aid. Among those we help are the elderly and families, internally displaced people, and the new poor who have lost their livelihoods in the devastation.
Not blind to the challenges they face, Jews and Jewish communities here are resilient and resolute in the knowledge that there’s something more important at play. It’s a clarity of purpose that means, against all odds, they’ve grown even stronger.
“My fears were boiling me alive,” said Tatiana Chumachenko, a 34-year-old Odessa mother of two. She started volunteering this summer and now runs weekly cooking classes and art therapy sessions for elderly Jews. “So I made the decision to widen my world — to take on more responsibility, to take care of more people. And volunteering literally saved me.”
Thousands of Ukraine’s Jews just like Tatiana have chosen determination, not despair. They’ve driven through besieged cities delivering medicine and firewood, power generators and portable heaters. They know their Jewish values demand action and compassion, and so they’ve stepped up.
Daria Yefimenko, the head of our network of 25 volunteer centers across Ukraine, is that resolute determination personified. The air raid siren went off the other day as I was interviewing her — a shocking noise, made more frightening by its maddening vagueness: What’s happening? Where? Am I in danger, or is this just background noise?
I learned later that just a few hours before I arrived in Ukraine, a missile had struck Drohobych, only 10 kilometers from the Shabbaton.
Yefimenko seemed unshaken. She and her team — her “family of superhero volunteers” — live here, of course. They must cope with brutal shelling and unpredictable electricity cuts. They have daily fears for their loved ones, and rising anxiety about what the future holds. They help their neighbors even as they share their pain and struggles.
And they keep on going.
There are so many stories in this part of the world — World War II stories, Soviet stories, stories of rebuilding and reimagining Jewish life after the Soviet Union fell. I’m curious about the one we’ll tell when this is all over.
Will we remember how Jews supported each other in the darkest days? We should.
Before the massive Shabbaton havdalah, I led a smaller version at the hotel down the road where we have housed hundreds of internally displaced people since the earliest days of the Ukraine crisis.
Six elderly Jews from the Zaporizhzhia region joined me for their first havdalah ever. Among the group was 76-year-old Alla Hodak, who fled from a place with significant devastation.
Here, observing Jewish rituals in a third-floor alcove, she had begun to form a makeshift community—not quite home, but not alone either. “You made sure we were never abandoned to fate,” she told me.
In that moment of stark intimacy, our small group blessed the wine, smelled the cinnamon, and felt the warmth of the braided candle. It bound us together and reminded us that drawing a distinction between then and now can be holy, too.
As we take stock of a year of grief and grit, we must guarantee that the next one is a kinder one. We must recognize our own hands as sacred tools and each member of our global Jewish family as holier still.
There’s nothing ordinary about that. Each person and each day has become an opportunity to do good for those who need us most and build their future together. That’s the only way forward.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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