The menorahs in the Hesed social welfare centers in Odessa, Ukraine are alight with an added glow this Hanukkah.
The joyful lights match those in Ira Sborovskaya’s eyes. She can’t help but marvel at the progress her country has made in the 25 years since Soviet oppression ended. Ira didn’t discover she was Jewish until her late teens. But now, her seven-year-old wears a Star of David around her neck everywhere she goes and is even leading the Hanukkah celebration at the local JCC.
The Hesed centers are run by Federation partner the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). As JDC’s point person in southern Ukraine and Moldova, Ira is playing a vital role in this return, helping JDC spread hope to a community beleaguered by ongoing conflict and anti-Semitism. During Hanukkah, 32 Hesed centers in Ukraine are sponsoring food fairs, staging performances, providing classes and workshops, and of course, handing out menorahs. In Odessa, home to a 35,000-strong Jewish community, Ira makes every effort to include many of the 2,800 internally displaced Jews in the celebration. She wants them to know that Hesed and JDC are sources of warmth, joy, and comfort during yet another year away from home.
“It was forbidden here to be religious… when we celebrate Hanukkah so openly, it means we’ve really returned to our tradition,” Ira says. She’s especially proud of JDC’s work engaging children in the holiday, especially those at risk. “When we see young people, who do it very naturally, it means there is really another [Jewish] generation today in Ukraine.”
As a brutal, life-threatening eastern European winter begins, JDC is providing shelter, warm clothing, heating supplies and medicine to tens of thousands of Jews. It is this spirit of Hesed that makes Jewish life in Ukraine brighter this year.