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I live in Ukraine. We’re under bombardment — but still working to serve our Jewish elders

Air raid sirens now set the rhythm of my life. This new reality, one of many that have emerged since the invasion of Ukraine, is marked by constant worry for relatives, friends and colleagues.

We lose contact with those we love for many long hours between the blasts, and we’re forced to acquire the grim new skills of life in wartime. A favorite topic of debate is the relative merits of two possible shelters. Which would you pick — the damp, unheated, no-emergency-exit basement of a high-rise, or a closed space in a building hallway on the sixth floor?

This is what life is like for us now in Zaporizhia. Our city in southeastern Ukraine sits on the Dnieper River between the major industrial center of Dnipro and Melitopol, the even smaller city where I grew up.

It was there, just inland from the Black Sea, that my parents and I experienced the rebirth of Jewish life after the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s where I began my journey to create Jewish community.

Though my family suffered as Jews during the Holocaust and under Communism, my parents eagerly joined in efforts to revitalize Jewish community in the late 1990s. They instilled in me a passion for getting involved — for being a pioneer, for building things from the ground up.

By the time I was an adult, I was a member of the boards of various Melitopol Jewish groups and professionally helped create a human service safety net for the neediest people in our community.

This past week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we’ve built here. When you are cowering from the booms and flinching at the sound of breaking glass, you need to focus on something that is so pure and so good that it outshines the darkness of conflict and fear.

It doesn’t always work, as anyone can imagine. We all live in terrible anxiety and concern — not just for tomorrow, but for what might happen in the next 15 minutes. And I’m always aware that my responsibilities extend far beyond myself, my husband and our three children.

The organization I run has since last Thursday been ensuring that the 2,000 people we serve are getting the care they need.

For the elderly we serve, many of whom are homebound, this is a living nightmare. One of them is Riva Litvak, a Holocaust survivor. She is 97 and completely alone in the world.

Hesed client in Ukraine

A Hesed client in Zaporizhia, Ukraine sits listening to a Zoom class during the pandemic. Courtesy of Michael Geller

She suffers from dementia, osteoporosis and had a fall in 2016 that caused permanent damage to both of her arms. Since then, Riva has had full-time home care. Her home care workers tell us that despite hearing loss, the rockets overhead and sirens screaming around her cause panic. She cannot sleep. Memories come flooding back.

Riva remembers every detail — being this scared once before in her life and enduring the hunger, cold, and death brought by World War II.

Thankfully, Riva has a hand to hold and a soft, gentle voice to say “I’m here. I’m staying. I’m not going anywhere.” Her home care workers help her welcome each new day with prayers for peace and silence. They read magazines and admire the sunshine pouring in.

They are with her because they, like me, feel tremendous responsibility for our clients. We keep working under such dangerous conditions because they need us. They count on us.

It hasn’t been easy, but we’re doing the best anyone can. Before the conflict erupted, we’d already made sure our people had the food, medicine and other essentials they might need for long periods of trouble. We also mobilized our volunteers, hotlines and online platforms, keeping them on standby in case people couldn’t leave home.

Sadly, nothing prepared us for how tough this situation would be. We are in a region with a lot of tension, and the fighting has been severe. In Mariupol, in Berdiansk, and in my hometown of Melitopol, colleagues tell me they spend hours hiding in cellars, sleeping in their clothes, carrying everything with them in case they need to run to a bomb shelter.

We’re adapting all the time to do our best to be there for all the Jews we care for. Some home care workers sleep in their clients’ homes to guarantee they are not left alone. We’ve also activated our virtual programs that provide remote check-ins, Shabbat celebrations and sessions with a psychologist to help ease their suffering.

In my Jewish community, in this place where I live and work, I have found the most profound wellspring of hope.

It gives me the strength to face this conflict, to face people like Riva and say: Stay safe. Stay alive. Don’t be afraid. We’re here for you. We’re here with you. Never let the fear win.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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