A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

So much to be thankful for

This Thanksgiving, while I was at home in NY celebrating with all those people who are dearest to me, the lives of my counterparts in Mumbai were drastically changed. The Chabad Rabbi and his wife, central figures in the small Mumbai Jewish community, were among the 188 victims, and the Jewish center was one of the primary targets during the four days of terror.

The following JTA article shares a little about Gavriel and Rifkah Holtzberg and the welcoming community they created.

I have not said much about Chabad, so permit me a brief explanation here. Chabad-Lubavitch is a Brooklyn-based Orthodox group with outposts all over the world, providing Jewish education and activities for global communities. In Dnepropetrovsk, for example, there were absolutely no rabbis, no functioning synagogues, no minyanim, and no religious services from World War II until 1988, when Rabbi Kaminetzki, at the personal request of the alter rebbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He and his wife, Chani, left everything they knew in New York and moved to the still Soviet and very poor city of Dnepropetrovsk. When they arrived, there was no Jewish community to speak of; twenty years later, with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations and private donors, they have built a powerful, thriving Jewish community. Dnepropetrovsk boasts an impressive synagogue, a new mikvah, three Jewish schools (a religious one for boys, a religious one for girls, and the more secular co-ed school), kosher cafes and stores, and a beautiful Chabad house where the Rabbi and Rebetzin host Friday night and Saturday afternoon Shabbat meals, in addition to the many secular community centers and services I’ve already discussed in this blog. There are thousands of active members of the community, and this number is ever increasing. Chabad has played a similar role in Jewish renewal in the major cities of Ukraine and the rest of the world. When I was in Buenos Aires last spring, it was no secret that this very secular community was experiencing a new religious fervor because of Chabad. This is the case with young people all over the world. In many countries, like Ukraine, Lubavitch services are the only ones available. This is largely due to the fact that Chabad rabbis transplant their families into the cities and dedicate their entire lives to their new communities in an extremely personal way.

Such was the case with Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg. My Mumbai counterparts, two volunteers my age in the same JDC Jewish Service Corps, were evacuated Thursday night to Israel, where they are mourning the loss of their friends, anxiously checking for information about hostages they know, and waiting for the situation to settle down so they can return to Mumbai and resume their lives. (For those of you keeping track, by the way, there have been three JSC evacuees since I arrived in Dnepropetrovsk– one from Georgia, and now two from Mumbai.) Although India has been experiencing terror fairly routinely lately, this display of antisemitism was quite shocking. As explained in this BBC article, the Jews and Muslims of Mumbai coexisted peacefully until the present.

When I arrived back in Dnepropetrovsk from America, I had dinner with Amir and Sharon. After we caught up on the week and exchanged stories, they caught me up on the news in Ukraine that I had missed. In Zaporozhe, someone carrying a pneumatic gun tried to break into the building that houses the JCC and Chessed by climbing through a window. Around the same time (and probably by the same person), someone graffittied swastikas all over the entrance to the building.

Times are tough, Amir warned. The economic crisis has really hit eastern Ukraine. People are out of jobs and have no money. Violence and crime have increased. I should not walk alone after dark anymore (sure enough, I had walked to their apartment after 4 pm, when the sun sets). Not that anything is likely to happen, but why take that chance?

So although I must lose some of the freedom that I love, I am so thankful for the life I lead right now. My friends and family in America already know how much I love and cherish them; I refer now to my life in Dnepropetrovsk. I live in a secure bubble. I make too little money to get a salary cut, but I have a great apartment, health insurance, and money enough for food guaranteed. The economic crisis can’t touch me for a year. I am so safe. Amir informed me that the Israeli Embassy had begged the Holtzbergs to increase their security, because they were very much unprotected. Here, on the other hand, JDC really guards my safety and provides extra measures of security. Our community is still very strong, and so far (thank goodness) has not been tested during these tough times. Amir and Sharon take great care of me here, and my other friends and colleagues have been wonderful, as well. This is a rough time for the world, and I am so incredibly lucky to be living the way I am.

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