The Odessa I just saw was a cold and dreary remnant of an unfulfilled dream of splendor.
Such great Jewish visionaries as Ahad HaAm, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Joseph Trumpeldor and Chaim Nachman Bialik once walked the streets where the city's many hundreds of homeless children now sleep, and even the once-magnificent building facades crumble as a poignant and prevalent monument to the failed promise of the 20th century.
Yet I also saw the smile of children given new hope by a magnificent program called Tikva Children's Home. I helped a Jewish congregation welcome a Torah scroll into its midst. And even as I said Kaddish for my recent ancestors who never made it out, I sang the new melodies of a flourishing Judaism that promise to usher in a better future.
My journey was part of Shaaray Tefila's five-day fact-finding mission to the Odessa, organized by Tikva, and designed to help us learn more about the children's programs Tikva runs and about Judaism in the Ukraine.
Exhausted and jet-lagged, we were met at the airport by representatives of Tikva who had arranged VIP treatment for us. As VIPs, we bypassed the usual immigration procedures and took a van directly to a waiting lounge. There we surrendered our passports and luggage while officials decided if we could enter the country. Though there was very little that could go really wrong, the feeling of sitting in a room in the Ukraine without any travel papers while Ukrainian officials decided our fate was not an entirely pleasant one.
After perhaps an hour, our passports were returned with immigration visas, and we were on our way. (For reasons that I still do not understand, the visas were not stamped on the usual "entrance/exit visa" pages of our passports, but rather on the last page, the one reserved for amendments by the U.S. Government.)
After less than an hour in a private touring bus, we arrived at the Hotel Londonskaya ("London Hotel") near the Black Sea. Like almost everything else I saw, the hotel was glorious and decrepit at the same time. Uniformed hotel workers whisked our luggage from the bus to the magnificent lobby, while uniformed (and English-speaking) clerks checked us into our rooms, manually writing each of our names onto a registration roster. There was no computer. Neither were there electronic room-access cards. Instead, we each got a room key attached to a large wooden block upon which our room number had been stamped.
My long, narrow room featured a vaulted 20-foot ceiling and exquisite solid-wood furniture manufactured before I was born. In the five-star hotel room, I had a sagging bed, mini bar, and ornate writing table, but no computer outlet. On the other hand, I did have a view of the Black Sea.
From the hotel we took our private bus to an elegant kosher restaurant for a bountiful mid-afternoon snack. Located under the Orthodox synagogue, the restaurant serves kosher food to Jews and non-Jews alike, many of whom come for the reasonably priced gourmet food.
Then we visited two utterly impoverished homes, the first part of our "before and after" experience. Both homes, we were told, used to have Jewish children living in them (one without electricity), until Tikva took the children in. Some of the other children in the Tikva program were literally found on the street.
Most of the children looked happy, but their smiles did not entirely mask the deep sorrow that many of their eyes betrayed.
The girls live four to a room dormitory style. Each room is well decorated with matching brown carpets and blankets for the beds, but even just a roof over their heads would have been an immeasurable step up from the horrid living conditions we had seen just hours earlier.
We joined the children for a simple but healthy and well-balanced meal in a large room that served as the dining room. That was our first chance to talk with them. They all learn English and Hebrew in addition to the local Russian and Ukrainian, but even so, detailed conversation was difficult. On the other hand, we managed to have fun together, an amazing accomplishment considering where the kids came from.
After we distributed gifts, we left as the kids headed off to sleep.
I stepped off our bus into a crowd of perhaps 40 homeless children, all eager to say hi and hopefully to get a dollar or two. They ranged in age from about a year to 20 or so. Most of the kids knew just enough English to beg for money, and most of them knew of New York.
After a few minutes I found myself talking to a young woman. Though she was engaging and entirely presentable, it turned out that she slept on the street. Her parents were dead. Misjudging her age, I asked her why she didn't get a job. She told me that no one would hire a 14-year-old. And she couldn't go to school because she had run away from the State-run orphanage where she was mistreated. (She probably didn't know that the government allocates to the orphanages only twenty cents a day per child.)
I insisted. I told her she had her whole life in front of her and she could do anything she wanted. "How?" this homeless girl wanted to know. "I have no parents, no money, no home, and no chance of any education," she explained reasonably. Then she asked me if I would take her back to New York with me.
But before I could learn any more or even give her a few dollars, we were told to return to the bus immediately. Some of the homeless kids had boarded our bus, and the group leaders were concerned for our safety.
On the way back to our hotel, it occurred to me that this anonymous girl, like everyone else in the homeless group, was not a victim of war or violence. She was a victim of indifference.
Once again, we were treated to a variety of performances. We also had a chance to visit the students in their classes. Many of them could carry on a simple conversation in English or Hebrew, in addition to their native Russian.
All of the schools, which teach secular and religious topics (including Hebrew), are attended by the children in Tikva's children's homes, by many of the children of the teachers and Tikva staff, and by some other local Jewish children. Even though (in large part due to Tikva's programs) all of the students were well dressed and fed, it was frequently easy to identify the ones who slept in the children's homes: they were so starved for attention that they would cling to almost any adult.
During one of my conversations, I explained to a four-year-old that I didn't speak Russian very well because I'm an American. "I'm not," the child responded simply in Russian. "I'm Jewish."
Tikva is actively building more space to house the children in a more
spacious setting, but the children seem to keep coming faster than
space can be built for them.
By a curious coincidence, the congregation had rented space in the same building as the Tikva kindergarten (though we didn't know it when we were looking for the place and when we went to the wrong address). In spite of the building the two shared, the two organizations couldn't have been more different. While Tikva was an Orthodox establishment whose ceaseless fund-raising efforts were finally beginning to pay off, Emanu-El, located in the basement, could afford only well-used furniture and plastic chairs. But entering the room was like coming home.
The chief Reform rabbi of Ukraine, Rabbi Alex Dukhovny, had arrived via overnight train from Kiev in honor of the ceremony, and he greeted us, along with the local spiritual leader of the congregation, Julia Grischenko. Perhaps a third of the 60 or so members in attendance that evening were from the youth group, "Netzer Odessa," as their sign on the wall proudly exclaimed.
The ceremony consisted of a brief Ma'ariv service, including a wedding procession for the Torah --- because the Torah was marrying the congregation, Rabbi Dukhovny explained --- a Torah reading, and a chance for representatives of each community to speak. (Read more....)
Rabbi Greenberg spoke on our behalf, telling the group that his grandfather had left Ukraine with nothing in his hands but Torah in his heart. How proud and perhaps astonished would his grandfather be to know that his grandson was physically welcoming Torah back into the lives of Jewish Ukraine.
At the end Rabbi Dukhovny gave us the opportunity to say Kaddish for our many relatives who were from the Ukraine.
The music, liturgy, and style of the service all come from New York. Odessa, originally home to one of the first Reform congregations in the world and formerly one of the great centers of Jewish thought, is reaping the fruits of the seeds it sowed so many years ago. And Odessa is but one of the Ukraine's 30 progressive congregations. Sadly, though, those 30 congregations have to make do each year with about $200,000 among them all, a pittance compared to the many millions that Chabad has at its disposal.
We could hardly tear ourselves away from our new-found Jewish family at Emanu-El, but we had promised the girls at the orphanage that we would return to join them for dinner.
Back at the orphanage we were again confronted with the reality that welcoming Torah is a luxury some Jewish children cannot afford, and that even the success stories were singed with sorrow. One little girl proudly showed us her photo album, including pictures of her mother back in Moscow who didn't want her any more.
Equally, the girls showed us that life goes on. Another girl had used her time at the orphanage to learn to play the piano.
The city seems unable to keep up with modernity. Its famous opera house has been under renovations for years, with no end in sight. From time to time, water and electricity are cut off. Local residents seem to accept both of these as unavoidable parts of their post-Soviet life, a sentiment I recall from my first trip to the Ukraine. Yet along with the problems, the local love of art and culture has survived. Every school we saw had at least one piano; it seems unimaginable to the local leaders to put children in an environment without one.
The city has also lost most of its Jewish flavor. Once 30 percent Jewish, and once home to perhaps more influential builders of the State of Israel than any other city in the world, Odessa's Jewish character doesn't currently go much beyond the remaining Jewish Street downtown. (It's called "Jewish Street.") But our Jewish ideals have not left the city. The street children lucky enough to have been born Jewish have been given a second chance at life.
Long before there was a City of Odessa, the prophet Isaiah called for a time when the "downtrodden and broken-hearted" would find new life. Seemingly against all odds, we have begun realizing Isaiah's prophesy even in the poverty-stricken city of Odessa. Jeremiah, too, would be proud. For he also promised a future of hope, a future of Tikva.
Please help keep their dream alive.
Emanu-El Congregation can be helped directly through the World
Union for Progressive Judaism.