2012-08-08 / Federation


Vicki Zell (left) and Martha Karasick (right) take a breather from Israeli dancing with JAFI camp teens. Vicki Zell (left) and Martha Karasick (right) take a breather from Israeli dancing with JAFI camp teens. “Of all the places on my bucket list, Odessa didn’t even come close to making it to the top 10,” admitted Martha Karasick, Jewish Federation’s Annual Campaign director, who in partnership with Vicki Zell, Annual Campaign chair, attended the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) 2012 Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission. They were joined by over 100 leaders from across the country and Canada, including Gail Norry, Cherry Hill native and JFNA National Women’s Philanthropy chair.

Yet, in spite of Karasick’s reservations over their destination, on July 9, these two women found themselves gazing at the Potemkin steps leading to the Odessa Harbor. So why was it important to go to Odessa, and why is it important to our community? By the early 20th century, Odessa was the second largest Jewish community in all of Russia, but by the end of World War II there were only 60 Jews left.

Illya and Dina express appreciation for the help they receive from JDC. Illya and Dina express appreciation for the help they receive from JDC. The mission included a visit to the Odessa Holocaust Memorial in the square where tens of thousands of Jews from Odessa were killed. Zell was overwhelmed, saying, “It was the first time I had stood on the hallowed ground where such atrocities had taken place. The experience of saying Kaddish, lighting candles, and placing stones from Jerusalem at the site would have been powerful in and of itself. However, as we approached the site, the extreme heat of the past three days broke with a torrential thunderstorm complete with hail. Our translator said there hadn’t been a deluge like that in years. It was as if the heavens themselves were railing at the injustice of what took place on that site.”

Enjoying a moment together are sisters from Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center. Enjoying a moment together are sisters from Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center. Fast-forward to 50 years later, when the Ukraine became its own country and The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and World ORT began to operate in Odessa. Together with funding from Federations across North America, they are helping to rebuild the Jewish community and care for impoverished Jews.

Today approximately 35,000 Jews live in Odessa, about 3.5% of Odessa’s population. Ten buses filled with Jewish students ride by the Holocaust memorial every day on their way to four Jewish day schools, three Sunday schools, and two kindergartens supported by Federation dollars. Jewish life in Odessa is experiencing a period of renewal and revival.

One of the most moving experiences took place when Zell, Karasick and several other mission participants visited Dina and Illya. Walking up five flights of steps reeking of cat urine, they were welcomed into a small room with peeling wallpaper and two sofas, one having been provided by JDC and serving as 10-year-old Illya’s bed. After Dina humbly showed them the rest of their apartment, including a kitchen in great disrepair with virtually no appliances, they went to the grocery store where Dina was given a food card to use for shopping. It was extremely upsetting to see how little that stipend provided and how carefully Dina stretched her allotment. The group felt inadequate in what was done for this family and wished they could do more.

Karasick explained, “Many previous missions I attended only focused on helping vulnerable Jews around the world. The tone of this trip was clearly focused more on the renewal and revival of the Jewish community in Odessa. The overwhelming emotion during this trip was one of hope for the future.”

One example of the growth and strength of Odessa’s Jewish community was the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center. Entering a vibrant and exciting hub of activity, Zell and Karasick witnessed the variety of programs and services provided by this facility, which serves as a hub of Jewish life in Odessa. The Hesed Center which feeds the elderly and provides activities such as singing, dancing, arts and crafts, the kindergarten, the youth club and programs for survivors exemplify how the Beit Grand builds community and serves as a magnet for Jewish life. The programs cost $1-million per year, half provided by JDC and half from the local community.

“But I think for all of us,” Zell commented, “our favorite experience was at the JAFI Camp located right outside of Odessa. About 200 gorgeous teens met us at a rented facility where they attended an eight-day program about Israel. They were just like our kids, flirting with each other, laughing, dancing, and building the kinds of relationships that lead to Jewish marriages, raising Jewish children and a connection to Israel. And as we ended our visit, we placed notes in their ‘Wall’ with our wishes for the campers, and they gave us notes to take with us to Israel to be placed in the real Wall on their behalf.”

“The point of all of this,” said Zell, “is that if our parents/grandparents hadn’t made the decision to move away from their homes in places such as Russia, the Ukraine, Germany, Poland, this would be us, or our children, if we were lucky enough to have survived. That’s why we do what we do.”

As the fourth day of the mission began, Karasick and Zell boarded a plane departing for Israel. “I can’t tell you the overwhelming feeling of warmth and joy I felt as we landed in our Jewish homeland,” said Karasick.

The first night ended at the Taglit- Birthright gathering of 3,000 Jewish young adults from all over the world, including, Brazil, Argentina, France, Ukraine, South Africa, Canada and the United States. The setting was amazing, with fireworks, singing, dancing and an Israeli Naval ship in the harbor. Over 300,000 young Jewish adults as well as Israeli soldiers have participated in Taglit-Birthright. Mission participants met earlier in the day with several students and soldiers who talked about how they would bring their experiences back to their communities. Some of the most powerful stories came from the Israeli soldiers themselves, who said that participating in the Taglit program helped them see Israel through new eyes and appreciate their country even more.

The next day’s itinerary included a visit to an absorption center for Ethiopian Olim. It takes the Ethiopian Olim longer to assimilate than Olim from other countries. They not only have to learn Israeli culture and Hebrew but how to work in a modern society. The group learned that it costs $100,000 per Ethiopian Oleh to integrate into society. There are still approximately 2,600 Ethiopians remaining who should be making the journey to Israel by March 2013.

In spite of the challenges with the Ethiopian population, there are also many successes. There are Ethiopian Israelis in the Knesset, those serving as officers in the army, and several who are working for JAFI to help “pay it forward.” At a special luncheon, Zell spoke with David, a 20- year-old medical student, who has received an Ethiopian National Project Scholarship through JAFI. He will spend seven years in medical school and then five years in the military, part of which is payback for his education. He was inspired to go to medical school when his older brother was injured in combat. David felt if his brother could deal with his struggles, then he should be able give back.

There were so many incredible speakers and presentations throughout the mission, but the highlight was having a visit from President Shimon Peres. Part of what he shared with the group was his conviction that a Jew is a person who does whatever he can so that his children will remain Jewish. He said there are three overriding things Jews should do: Be moral, be dissatisfied and seek peace.

Zell commented that she has been asked why it is necessary to have the Campaign chairs and directors go overseas? She said, “Because what we do is not a spectator sport. We can’t sit on the sidelines to do fundraising or to provide services. We need to experience and create our own story to share with our donors so they understand why they support what we do.” Zell and Karasick thanked South Jersey’s donors for all that they are already doing for Dina, Illya, the Taglit-Birthright students, the Ethiopian Olim, and all the others they met on their mission.

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