This winter, the city of Odessa, Ukraine, feels like the heart of darkness.
The city is constant bombardment by the Russian military, freezing nighttime temperatures commonly fall below zero, and electricity is only available for six hours per day: three in the morning and three at night.
Amid these desperate circumstances, Avraham Wolff, the chief rabbi of Odessa and southern Ukraine, is trying to bring some light — and heat.
He’s doing so with jerry-rigged car batteries to provide warmth and electricity to about 400 Holocaust survivors in the city — the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
“The ones at greatest risk of starving to death or freezing to death are the Holocaust survivors who were not able to flee this place,” Wolff said in a phone interview from Odessa. “Holocaust survivors are staring death in the face for the second time, and we can’t avert our eyes.”
Wolff is trying to raise $500,000 in funds to purchase heating units powered by car batteries. Placed inside a home, the two car batteries connect to special transistors, which generate sufficient electricity to heat an apartment. Each unit costs $1,400, and Wolff’s organization, Mishpacha Chabad Odessa, is trying to organize 357 units: one for each apartment where a Holocaust survivor lives. Accounting for spouses, the units will provide enough electricity for about 500 people.
This literally can stave off death, Wolff says — not only by providing lifesaving heat, but also the electricity essential to the elderly and frail.
“If they go to the bathroom in the dark and they fall and break their hip, that’s the beginning of the end,” he said. When there is no power, Wolff said, “it’s darkness. But not just darkness. Also cold and hunger.”
About 20,000 Jews remain in wartime Odessa. That’s less than half the Jewish population of 50,000 that was there just a year ago, before Russian invaded Ukraine. Since then, most have fled to safer places either in western Ukraine, elsewhere in Europe or Israel. Odessa’s Jewish schools once taught 1,000 children. Now, only 200 students remain.
The Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s who remain in the city are either too old or infirm to endure a dangerous journey or unwilling to leave the place where their spouse is buried.
“Someone over 90 cannot start life over as a refugee,” Wolff said.
Air raid sirens go off four or five times a day. Most of the incoming Russian rockets are shot down by defense systems, but there are hits on infrastructure, including power plants. Even the six hours per day of light and heat are not reliable, according to Wolff.
“Two days ago, they hit two power plants, so the city had no electricity for 24 hours,” he said on Monday. “We’re constantly under this pressure. We’ve been living in a war zone for a long time.”
Aside from caring for the Holocaust survivors, Mishpacha Chabad Odessa organizes monthly food deliveries of basic supplies to the homebound Jewish elderly, including such essentials as rice, cooking oil, potatoes, meat and hygiene items, and run Jewish schools and preschools still operating in Odessa.
“We want to help these people not just spiritually, but physically,” the rabbi said. “Elderly Holocaust survivors are currently the highest-risk group, but we help everyone.”
Odessa once was home to the world’s second-largest Jewish community. In the 19th century, the city became a major center of Jewish life and culture, with a large and diverse Jewish population. Many Jewish immigrants came to Odessa during this period, fleeing persecution and poverty in other parts of Europe and the Russian Empire.
Before the Holocaust, one-third of Odessa’s population was Jewish. Then the Nazis came, and Jews were subjected to forced relocation, property confiscation and mass extermination. Approximately 25,000 Jews were killed in the city and its surroundings.
A year ago, before the current war, 1.1 million people lived in Odessa. Hundreds of thousands have fled.
Wolff, 52, has lived in Odessa since 1992, when he came to the country from Israel as an emissary of Chabad, the Jewish outreach movement. When war broke out last February, he left Ukraine temporarily to settle a group of orphans in Germany. Then he returned.
After the Russian invasion, many Ukrainian Jewish communities crumbled. People fled, and Jewish institutions and landmarks like synagogues, community centers and cemeteries were destroyed by Russian bombs.
“There is so much destruction,” Wolff said. “We’re going to do all we can to rebuild, with God’s help.”
Despite the immense dangers and challenges, Wolff says he is optimistic about the future.
“I’m sure that after Ukraine wins, and life and peace returns, there will be a rapid return of those who left, and I think others will come because there will be an economic and building boom,” Wolff said. “I believe there’s a bright future.”
Part of Wolff’s job as a Jewish leader and Chabadnik is not only to provide physical aid, but positive morale and spiritual inspiration.
“When I was a child, I heard a story from an old Jew who had been imprisoned in Siberia,” Wolff recalled. “One day, he got up and he felt he couldn’t say Modeh Ani” — the Jewish morning prayer of gratitude — “because the Russian authorities had taken everything from him: his house, wife, yeshiva, grandkids, tefillin, kippah, tzitzit. He was all alone in a Siberian prison with nothing. But then he realized that the one thing Stalin couldn’t take from him was the ability to say Modeh Ani.”
Even in these grim times, Wolff said, there is a spirit that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is prosecuting this war, cannot take away from Ukraine’s Jews.
“There’s a war, there are challenges, nothing is easy. It’s dark, it’s cold,” Wolff said. “But the ability to smile Putin didn’t take from us and can’t take away. This is what I try to show the community. In the end we’ll win, so let’s smile now, too.”
Those interested in supporting this effort can make a contribution here to fund the battery-powered heating units being deployed to help Odessa’s Holocaust survivors survive this winter.
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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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