Left Behind? (Reflections on My Trip to Ukraine)

From Kol Nidrei Service…

Sometime in the mid 1920’s my great grandparents – Shmuel and Henya Guyer – realized it was time to get out of Gombin – the small, Eastern European town in which they lived.  At various times, Gombin was under Russian control. Today it is part of Poland.  Getting out of Gombin would be no small task.  Shmuel and Henya had eight children.  Getting four kids to services tonight was hard enough!

One of the eight was my grandfather Avram for whom I am named.  The oldest son, Joseph was already married and had a daughter.  He and his wife decided to stay.  Everyone else packed up to go.

When the family got to the ship, the youngest child Ben – not yet ten years old – was rejected because of some problem with his eyes. Those of you who have been to Ellis Island know how scared people back then were of trachoma – an eye disease that often caused blindness.  The family faced a decision that no family should have to face.  There was no right answer.  The family couldn’t afford to give up their places on the ship.  But Ben – my great uncle – could not travel with the rest of the family.

So, Ben went back to Gombin to live with his older brother Joseph.  Unfortunately, that meant that he was still in Gombin when the Nazis came.  Somehow, he managed to survive the Holocaust – including time at the Konin and Auschwitz concentration camps while Joseph and his family were killed.  Ben eventually came to this country where he was re-united with a large part of his family.  He passed away here in New Jersey just a few years ago at the age of 95.

Toward the end of his life, I remember taking my parents to visit him in his nursing home.  He turned to my mother – his niece – and asked, “How could they leave a child behind?”  It’s a harrowing question and one that has no easy answer.

From the moment I stepped foot in Ukraine this summer – as part of a Greater MetroWest Federation mission along with Jim and Kala Paul – that very question echoed in my brain.  Some Jews managed to get out ahead of the Soviet Revolution, but some were left behind.  Some Jews managed to get out ahead of the Nazis, but some were left behind.  Some Jews managed to get out just after World War II, but some were left behind.  And then some Jews managed to get out upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, but once again, some were left behind.

As we look back upon the development of the Jewish people in the 20th Century, we undoubtedly take pride in the rise of the State of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust. And we should.  We certainly can take pride in the accomplishments of the American Jewish community with all of its accomplishment in virtually every imaginable field.  We’ve even had successful athletes!  But, how often do we stop and think about those who were left behind?  The truth is not that often.  My trip to Ukraine this summer forced me to think about what and who we have left behind over the years.

So, when the trip started, my co-travelers and I couldn’t help but think about the things that WE had left behind.  Even though it was for a very short period of time, we left behind our families, favorite foods, unlimited access to our electronic devices.  We joked about where and when we would next be able find a Wi-Fi signal to check our email.

Because none of us spoke Russian or Ukrainian other than a few words and phrases, we left behind our ability to communicate effortlessly – something I know that I take for granted.  In short, we left behind the basic feeling that we know how things work and how to navigate the systems of society.

Let me give you a silly example.  As we traveled from building to building – hotels, Jewish communal institutions, apartment buildings, malls, any building really – we frequently came across stairs that were not uniform in height.  Unless you happen to be an architect, a builder or an inspector, it’s not something that we often think about, but subconsciously, when we approach steps, over the years we have trained our legs to raise our feet the same amount with each step.  When the steps are different heights, and you are not prepared for it, you inevitably trip.  As I said, it’s a silly little example, but for me, it came to symbolize how I left behind my sense of belonging, my sense of control.

All of that nonsense faded into irrelevance once we started meeting people on the ground in Ukraine.  I came to the realization that these were the people who for one reason or another stayed in Ukraine when people like my maternal grandmother – who was born in a small Ukrainian town called Kamenetz-Podolsk – got out.  These were the people who got left behind – and now their children and grandchildren.

On the first full day of our trip, we were introduced to an organization called Tikva.  To fully comprehend the enormity of Tikva’s work, one must first understand that the Ukrainian state orphanage/adoption system is a corrupt and failing enterprise (and that is being generous).  As the Jewish community started to organize itself after the fall of the Soviet Union twenty years ago, it was clear that Jewish children needed to be rescued from these horrible institutions.  And thus, Tikva was born.

Tikva takes in Jewish children off the streets, from hospitals, out of abusive homes – from anywhere really – and changes their lives.  They run three homes – one for all children under the age of twelve and the older children are split into a boys’ home and a girls’ home.  Only 10% of these kids are orphans in the truest sense of the word.  The rest are called “social orphans”- perhaps the saddest term I have ever heard in my life.  They have been abandoned or their parents are incapable of caring for them.

These children are not adoptable because their parents have not formally relinquished their parental rights.  Further, the state agency which oversees adoptions would prefer to place them in Ukrainian homes rather than letting them go to Jewish homes in other countries.  Talk about being left behind!  So, Tikva takes them in.

Now, I got all of this information from a fancy PowerPoint presentation by the director of the program, but then I saw with my own eyes.  We went to a home on the outskirts of Odessa.  It’s a home that I wish I hadn’t seen, but now that I’ve seen it, I can’t forget it.  It was filthy and dilapidated.  The surrounding grounds were like a junkyard.  The so-called outdoor kitchen was a fire pit with a few dirty pots and water bottles scattered around it.  There was an outhouse that I did not go near.  There was no running water and no electricity.

The owner of the house was a woman who is in her late 40’s, but looks much older due to hard living and presumably hard drinking as well.  One of her daughters – a woman in her 20’s – sometimes lives with her.  There are no men in their lives which is, sadly, very common in Ukraine.  This daughter – who was clearly under the influence of alcohol when we visited – had a child 6 years ago and abandoned him on the day of his birth.  She wanted nothing to do with him.  That’s when Tikva stepped in and made sure he was not left behind.

Today, that boy – Nikolai – is happy, healthy, clean and safe.  He is in school learning all the regular subjects plus Hebrew and Judaica.  He has people who love him – even if they are not his biological family.  He will NOT be left behind.  Thanks to Tikva, he has a future that includes Judaism and a college education.

Tikva is one of the ways in which the Jews of Ukraine are saying no one else will be left behind.

After leaving Odessa – Ukraine’s second largest city – we came to the small city of Cherkassy which is our sister community and the reason for our mission.  As we were taking a short tour of the city, we came across the Cherkassy Regional Museum which is located in a modern building, built by the Soviet regime in 1985 in the historic city center.  We didn’t go in, but Dmitry Spivakovsky, the head of the Jewish Community Center and our tour guide told us that among its 12,000 artifacts are twenty Torah Scrolls.

When the Nazis came in 1941, the 40,000 Jews of Cherkassy did one of three things: they escaped, they went into hiding or they were rounded up.  Twenty Torah scrolls were left behind.  A non-Jewish woman somehow found them and buried them in her backyard.  When the Soviets “liberated” Cherkassy in 1943, there was no real Jewish community to whom she could return them.  So, she gave them to the government who put them in a museum.

Today, the approximately 8,000 Jews in Cherkassy and the surrounding towns are trying to get those Torah scrolls back for the re-emerging religious community.  They don’t want to leave those Torah scrolls behind a second time.  As they begin the process of applying to the government for at least one of those scrolls, it is a reminder that they will not leave their tradition behind again.

The next day, we met a young man named Bohdan whom I won’t soon forget either.  He was charming, cute, intelligent and talented.  He made sure to show off the few English words he knows.  Then, he showed us the medals that he has won in Irish step dancing competitions – one fourth-place finish and two second places.  Yes, that’s right — there in the middle of Ukraine in a small industrial town, a young man has gotten involved in Irish step dancing!   Then, he actually gave us a small show in the alleyway outside his apartment building. (It reminded me of the movie and the musical “Billy Elliot” – about the British ballet dancer from a coal mining town.)

Bohdan’s loving, committed, single mother works very hard to provide for him and support his interests in music and dance.  The Jewish community helps out as well and they would not be getting by without that assistance.  If his mother can keep things together just a little while longer, I am confident that Bohdan will make a better future for them than their present. He will not allow his mother – or himself! – to be left behind.

And then we met a bunch of the seniors who benefit from the Chesed Dorot Center.  In the Former Soviet Union (FSU), every community with a Jewish population has a Jewish community center called a Chesed Center and each Chesed Center has a Hebrew name.  So, Cherkassy’s is called Chesed Dorot.  Among the first programs they set up was hiring what we would probably call home health aides to visit the elderly.  These aides provide medicines, food and companionship while also running errands and sometimes doing some light housework.  In a recent study, the Jewish community discovered that seniors with a connection to a Chesed Center live – on average – FIFTEEN years longer than a Ukrainian senior without that support in place.  The Jewish community of Ukraine will not allow its seniors to be left behind.

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a Jew in Ukraine over the last century – alternating between Soviet and Nazi regimes.  Because the Soviets were our allies in defeating the Nazis, we give them a bit of a pass, but they were nearly as successful when it came to destroying Judaism in their country.Time and time again, we heard from Ukrainian Jews that the way they found out about their Judaism was from the taunts of other children at school or in the neighborhood.  Then, perhaps, they would get some flat crunchy crackers at some time in the spring.  Yet despite all that, most of them refused to leave behind their Judaism.  They refused to be left behind.

After one short trip with our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, I can say that they neither want nor need our sympathy or pity.  They want our partnership and our friendship.  They want to benefit from the wisdom we have gained living in freedom while they suffered through oppression.  After all, we know how to build communities and institutions in a way that they just don’t.  We have had access to information that they were denied under totalitarian regimes.  But now that they are free to learn about our common heritage, to build up their community institutions, they are enthusiastically restoring Judaism in the FSU.

So, after an all-too-brief visit, we returned to this country, and I continue to think about those whom I’ve left behind and my obligation to them.  The truth is I have not left them behind at all.  I left a piece of me with them and I have brought a piece of them with me.  I cannot count how many Facebook friends I now have from Ukraine.  Despite the language barrier, we have been wishing one another a happy new year and an easy fast all week.

I have brought their stories with me – of a group Bar Mitzvah ceremony, of young single mother choosing her Hebrew name and receiving her first tallit, of seniors proudly singing Yiddish songs that they remember from their youth but were afraid to sing 25 years ago, of the young man who wants to study SOMEWHERE to become a rabbi and then come back to serve the community in Cherkassy.  And the truth is, through Federation, we – Greater Metro West – have invested over a million dollars in their community for schools, senior centers, youth homes, synagogues and more.

So, the people who live in Cherkassy are no longer simply those who were left behind.  They are the ones who choose to stay to rebuild a Judaism that was nearly annihilated by the one-two punch of Nazism and Communism – in a land that gave rise to Chasidism and helped incubate modern Zionism.  And if they are going to stay, they need our help and support.  As the Talmud says, “All of Israel is responsible for one another – כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה (BT Shevuot 39a).”

But we shouldn’t think it’s just a one-way street.  While we certainly have resources, experience and know-how that can benefit them, they have a passion and excitement for Judaism that can inspire us.  I think that is why so many of you responded when I asked for help in buying tallitot for the kids who were becoming B’nai Mitzvah.  It’s inspiring to know that young Ukrainian people are taking their place in the covenant of God just as our young people do.  I hope that we can find more ways to support their efforts this coming year.  Because, the truth is – it’s easy for us to take for granted our freedom, our access to knowledge and our wealth.  It’s a lot harder to do so after meeting a group of people not so different from us – whose grandparents may have grown up with our grandparents – who are just getting their first taste of these blessings.

As a result of my participation in this mission, I have been asked to serve on Federation’s Israel and Overseas Commission.  Six months ago, I had not heard of Cherkassy and I had no knowledge of this commission, but now I feel compelled to say yes.  I hope that through this commission, I can find new opportunities for our congregation to support our fellow Jews in both Cherkassy and other places while also learning from them and finding inspiration in them.  And in so doing, we give life to the principle of “All of Israel is responsible for one another – כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה (BT Shevuot 39a).”


L’shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Avi Friedman.


About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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