I last went to Ukraine 12 years ago. I was disheartened to see the poverty and destitution, and the infancy of religious life, were far beyond my expectations.
Golders Green Synagogue has been twinned for more than 25 years with Zaporizhia, a city in Eastern Ukraine, lending support to the shul there and to Rabbi Ehrentreu to develop the Jewish community.
I have just returned from another visit to this industrial city on the banks of the Dnieper River. But this time, I was joined by seven members of my synagogue and World Jewish Relief, an organisation delivering programmes for poor Jews across the community.
They were to show us the range of challenges facing Jews in the city as well as what is being done to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.
As we drove into Zaporizhia, I was struck by the feeling that not much had changed. Despite more than a decade having passed, the buildings, roads and living conditions have remained the same, if not deteriorated further: all of which makes the achievements of the Jewish community even more remarkable.
Amid wider degeneration, the ability of the community to provide services like the shul, the Jewish Community Centre and welfare support services, including to a large number of ‘internally displaced persons’ – internal refugees fleeing the conflict in the east of the country – is astonishing.
In a run-down Soviet-era apartment block, we met Valentina. She is living in desperately poor and squalid conditions, and from the background information we had been given I expected to meet a timid, withdrawn and sad person. But she wasn’t any of those.
She receives an extraordinary range of services which ensure she has money to buy food and fuel and is able to go to the Jewish Community Centre several times a week to participate in classes. It’s thanks to the significant support provided by World Jewish Relief that people like Valentina are able to transform their lives.
However, simply giving large amounts of money and resources indefinitely is unsustainable. Another astonishing change has been the shift from passive giving to empowerment: moving people away from being needy recipients to taking responsibility and giving back.
At the synagogue, Rabbi Ehrentreu has empowered and enabled people to take an active role in synagogue life and take responsibility for the future of the community.
The partnerships and support that I heavily rely on from religious and professional lay-leaders in Golders Green just don’t exist here.
But that is changing. While still in its infancy, this support network will make a huge change to the success of the synagogue and the wider Jewish community.
Empowerment is also evident at the ‘Edison Space’ co-working hub, established and supported with the help of World Jewish Relief. As well as employment services, it offers loans to entrepreneurs so they are able to expand their businesses and create opportunities for others in the community. It will enable the next generation to become self-sufficient.
These kinds of programmes don’t happen without extraordinary individuals like Rabbi Ehrentreu or organisations like World Jewish Relief. As citizens of the world, we have a responsibility toward members of the Jewish community who are in desperate need, wherever they may be. The community in Zaporizhia is testament to the difference our support can make.
With the emphasis on empowerment, which has already made a big difference to lives, these Jewish communities in Eastern Europe might just stand up on their own in future.
υ If you or your community would like to join a future trip to Eastern Europe, please contact Rebecca Singer on firstname.lastname@example.org