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Mission to Ukraine, Israel shows power of JFSA giving

Incoming Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Campaign Chair Ronnie Sebold with Sonia, a teenage Ethiopian immigrant, at the Ben Shemen Youth Village in Israel on July 13 (Courtesy Ronnie Sebold)

few months ago, I accepted the daunting responsibility to chair the 2018 campaign for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. I have been a staunch supporter of the Federation since I moved to Tucson 37 years ago, and having recently retired from Tucson Hebrew Academy as their director of admissions, I knew it was the right time to volunteer my efforts to a cause I hold dear to my heart.

Stu Mellan, JFSA president and CEO, suggested I attend the annual mission offered by Jewish Federations of North America to witness firsthand how our dollars are spent for overseas needs.

The trip was short but intensive — two days in Kiev, Ukraine, and three days in Israel.  I had visited Israel before, three of those times on Federation missions, so I assumed I was knowledgeable about the various programs that Federation funds. I was about to be truly educated.

Bella Lozhechnik, a homebound Jew in Kiev, Ukraine, talks with visitors from the Jewish Federations of North America July 11, as her husband,
Viktor, looks on. (Courtesy Ronnie Sebold)

First stop was Kiev. I have a personal connection to the area as my grandparents were from a shtetl (small Jewish town) named Pokitilivo, located midway between Odessa and Kiev.

But Kiev is no shtetl — it’s a beautiful, bustling city. I strolled the promenade and visited the 130 year-old Brodsky Synagogue, wondering if my grandparents had ever done the same. I questioned why Federation dollars would be needed in such a beautiful place. I soon found out.

Kiev is the sight of the infamous Babi Yar Massacre. During the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jews from this area were murdered. The most vulnerable were left behind with no family and no support system. They were disenfranchised, unaffiliated, and not allowed to practice their religion.

Now, 70 years later, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as JDC, is working hard to revitalize Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. There are estimated to be more than one million Jews in the FSU who know very little about what it means to be a Jew. With the help of Federation dollars, they are rediscovering their Jewish heritage and culture or, in many cases, being introduced to it for the first time. If no action was taken, Russian Jewish life could have disappeared within a single generation.

The JDC is a lifeline for Ukraine’s most vulnerable Jews. An estimated 110,000 of these Jews receive JDC aid of some kind, in the form of food packages, food cards, bankcards, or medicine. About 27,000 are elderly and homebound. We visited one sweet 83-year-old woman, Bella, who recalled celebrating Hanukkah as a child. She lost a daughter who was shot during military duty in Israel, and now she waits eagerly for the JDC caretaker to visit, help her with the housework, provide companionship and bring her groceries to bolster her $70/month pension. In her twilight years, we are there to give her the dignity she deserves, the loving companionship she needs and the Jewish compassion she craves.

For those who are not homebound, there is a beautiful Chesed Center (aptly named, since “chesed” means kindness) for the elderly where they celebrate the Jewish holidays together and rekindle their connection to Judaism. They sing and dance to Israeli and Jewish music and socialize with their peers. Our dollars provide this much needed interaction.

Day 3 of my mission abroad brought me to Eretz Israel. So many good things are happening in Israel! They are building a high-speed train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv; the travel time will be 27 minutes. It will tunnel under the territories and provide bomb shelter capabilities to thousands. Ben Gurion airport, with its state-of-the-art security, is a model for the world. There are new office buildings, apartment buildings, shopping malls and new archeological digs uncovering thousands of years of Jewish history. Although I marveled at the modern growth of Israel, Federation dollars are not a part of this progress. Federation dollars are used exclusively for social and educational services for Jews who are at risk or in need. Not for government, not for military, not for infrastructure — only for helping our fellow Jews in need.

During Operations Moses in 1984 and Solomon 1991, the world witnessed a miracle as more than 25,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel, saving them from the ravages of drought and famine. Since then, a trickle of Ethiopian aliyah has continued. Adjustment to modern society is a challenge, and the majority of Ethiopian immigrant families live in low-income areas. The Ethiopian National Project’s School Performance and Community Empowerment program helps students who are immigrants or children of immigrants overcome cultural and socio-economic barriers and achieve their full potential.

The focus is on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. After successfully completing this program, high school graduates are appointed to excellent commissions in the Israel Defense Forces. A meaningful IDF service is a ticket to success in Israeli society. At the Ben Shemen Youth Village we met with some Ethiopian teenage participants, who shared with us their dreams: to become doctors, lawyers, and teachers. These ambitions are a far cry from life in the impoverished villages from which they’d come.

Our Federation dollars accomplish remarkable things throughout our global community, including in the former Soviet Union (which also encompasses
war-torn eastern Ukraine), Israel, and right here in Tucson.  As I take on the charge of campaign chair for the upcoming year, I am empowered by the needs I witnessed. Please join me in raising the necessary funds to help Jews in need.  Consider these stories when making your pledge to the 2018 campaign. If you could see how your Federation dollars transform Jewish lives every day, you would be compelled to care. Let’s make this world a better place!