ODESSA, Ukraine (JTA) – A year after Rabbi Mendy Wolff spirited 120 children and staff away from the Mishpacha Orphanage in this war-torn country to the safety of Berlin, he is preparing to bring them home.
That’s not because the war is over — far from it. One year after Russian tanks first rolled into Ukraine, fighting grinds on and much of Ukraine has been plunged into austerity conditions.
Instead, the children of Mishpacha are headed back to Odessa because of the high cost of keeping them fed, housed and educated in Germany. Chaya Wolff, Mendy’s mother and the wife of Odessa’s chief rabbi, Avraham Wolff, said the price tag was 750,000 euros — close to $800,000 — a month. They’ll join other Ukrainians who have returned to their homeland as it became clear that the war would not end quickly.
“We could have bought seven buildings for the [Jewish] community in Odessa with that money,” she said from Odessa, where she stayed along with her husband after the Russian invasion to care for remaining Jews in the city, where the Wolff family operates Chabad of Odessa. “But now the money is finished and it’s time to bring our children home.”
Mendy Wolff said that when he first headed to Berlin several days after Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, he expected to return home in a matter of days. He had become the orphanage’s director overnight, when his parents tasked him with getting the children out of Ukraine. He and his wife, Mushky, had instructed their charges to pack two of each item of clothing.
“As I was packing, I remember spotting my Megillat Esther on the shelf and thinking I won’t be needing that because Purim is two weeks from now and we’ll be back by then,” Wolff told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, referring to the biblical book traditionally read on Purim.
The journey to Berlin took 53 hours and traversed five international borders, but Wolff and his wife tried to make the atmosphere as fun as possible for the children.
“We sang songs all the way and even though most of the children knew what was happening, we made it feel like summer camp — only in the winter,” Wolff said.
Getting the children out of Ukraine meant pulling strings of all kinds, since most did not have passports or even original birth certificates. Most of the children in the orphanage have parents who are unable to care for them; Wolff got the parents’ permission to take the children out of the country, a challenging task in the chaos after the invasion. “That is why we didn’t escape on the first day of the war,” he told JTA from Berlin at the time.
For 40 children for whom no living relatives could be found, Rabbi Avraham Wolff and his wife, Chaya, signed on as legal guardians. The Chabad emissaries in Berlin managed to secure VIP status for the young refugees to bring them across EU borders as personal guests of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who greeted them on their arrival in the German capital.
“Everyone knew there was an orphanage coming,” Mendy Wolff told JTA in Berlin shortly after the group’s arrival. “It was an unbelievable hug. It made us feel good in our hearts.”
But even then, the high cost of caring for the children in Berlin was weighing on the volunteers who leapt to help them. “We’ve received an outpouring of support from the community and beyond, lots of clothes and other supplies, but what we really need now are financial donations — only the food for all the children costs about 5,000 euros every day,” one told the Associated Press at the time.
Over the course of the next 11 months, the Hotel Müggelsee, on the banks of Berlin’s largest lake of the same name, would become home to some 300 Jewish refugees. In that time, the group celebrated not just Purim but a full year of Jewish holidays, as well as the gamut of Jewish lifecycle events, from bar mitzvahs to births and brisses. The group recently celebrated the first birthday of the youngest child to make the trek from Odessa, Tuvia, who was just 5 weeks old when he arrived in Berlin.
For Wolff, the hardest part was grappling with the unknown. “It was very similar to what people experienced at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. You don’t know who it will infect or how many people will die or how long you’ll need to live like this.”
Like many others, Wolff was certain that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army would crush Ukraine in a matter of days. “With each passing day we saw that the Ukrainians were far more resilient than we had given them credit for and that the Russians weren’t as much as superheroes as we thought.”
The irony that Germany, and not Israel, became the host country for Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe is not lost on the Wolffs. While Mendy is reluctant to express political opinions of any kind, his mother, Chaya, is more forthright, saying that Israel had refused them entry.
Mark Dovev, the regional director of Nativ, the Israeli government office that facilitates immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union, later told JTA that taking in a minor from another country is “tantamount to kidnapping.” Brushing off Dovev’s objections, Chaya Wolff said, “Just as Germany turned a blind eye, Israel could have also taken them in temporarily as refugees.”
Since German law bans homeschooling, the children were required to enroll in a local school as well as to learn German. German authorities allowed the student body to largely adhere to the Ukrainian curriculum, however, and they were taught by a handful of the women refugees who happened to be teachers. The hotel, which functioned as a dormitory, doubled as a branch of the local Chabad school — replete with classrooms and a schoolyard.
But keeping the refugees in Berlin came at a steep price, footed by various donors such as the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews as well as private donations. An online fundraiser netted $685,500 in small gifts from more than 5,000 donors — a significant tally, but far short of its $1 million goal. So it was mostly out of economic considerations, then, that the Wolffs decided to close up shop in Berlin and bring the refugees home later this month.
While some Ukrainians who fled the country say they have no intention of returning while the war rages, the Wolffs and their charges are hardly the first Ukrainians to make their way back home. Many of them have cited the high cost of life abroad, along with separation from family and guilt about abandoning their country, for coming back to a warzone. So many Ukrainians were returning last fall that the country’s leaders urged them to wait until this spring to return, lest they tax fragile infrastructure.
According to Mendy Wolff, his group would be staying in Berlin were it not for budgetary concerns. Still, he said, there were many positive aspects about the decision to return home.
“Psychologically, it’s not easy being here. You’re not living like a human. It’s like living on borrowed time and in a refugee camp, albeit a luxury refugee camp,” he said. “I’m very excited to be in my own bed and my own blankets.”
For both mother and son, the responsibility of bringing the refugees back to a country that is still very much at war weighs heavily. Odessa is faring better than many other southern Ukrainian cities like Mykolaiv and Kherson to the east, which have suffered daily shelling. Still, air raid sirens sound multiple times a day and there is no electricity for 20+ hours. But as long as residents have access to bomb shelters and generators — including the kind made from car batteries that Avraham Wolff recently held a fundraiser to buy — Chaya Wolff describes it as “livable.”
“It’s not an easy decision and we hope it’s the right one,” Chaya Wolff said. “At the end of it all, we’re ‘believers, the children of believers,’” she added, quoting the Talmud.
Toby Axelrod contributed reporting from Berlin.
The post Jewish orphans evacuated from Odessa to Berlin at Ukraine war’s start are headed home again appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
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.
The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.