Why We Help- Reflections from Moldova

"We don’t help them because they are Jews; we help because we are Jews."

These words are still ringing in my ears after returning from an intense two-day “fly-in” to Kishinev, Moldova, to see first-hand the impact of the JDC (“the Joint”) and Federation’s life-saving and life-changing work. Olla, a staff member at the Jacobs Jewish Cultural Center in Kishinev, shared what drives the incredible efforts of the staff, the volunteers, and the entire Moldovan Jewish Community to support Ukrainian refugees, care for Jews in need, and to renew and rebuild Jewish life in the poorest country in Europe.


Inna Vdovichenko, from the JDC in Odessa, spoke with us on our first morning. She traveled 5 hours by bus from Odessa to help us understand what life in a war zone is like. She showed us the envelope of essential papers she keeps with her at all times. She sleeps fully dressed. She described life without reliable power: no streetlights, no cell phones or internet, no heat, and no stoves. She brought a sample of the orange, murky water from Nicolayev, one of the hardest-hit cities in Ukraine. It must be seen to be believed. Yet the JDC Chesed centers and countless staff and volunteers in Ukraine provide material and social support, even in these impossible circumstances.


We visited with Olga and Mihail in their small hotel room, where they have stayed for ten months “watching the war” and praying to return to their home, which Olga described to us through what seemed like a bottomless well of tears. More than 85% of the buildings in their home city of Nicolayev have been destroyed. They escaped after all of the surrounding buildings were bombed, their windows were shattered, and the city lost access to safe drinking water. The JDC, in large part through contributions from Federations like ours, helps cover the costs of their hotel, their food, their medical needs, and more.


Lesya Firsanova, the program director for Hillel International in Kyiv (also supported by Federation), took three trains and traveled over 24 hours to spend a few hours with us. Hillel students continue to meet—having shifted from students to heroes—volunteering in cities under siege to help others in Kyiv and Odesa as well as in cities across Ukraine.


But the story in Kishinev, a city with a dark history of brutality against Jews, including infamous pogroms and horrific Nazi atrocities, is not just a story of refugees: it is one of Jewish renewal. Teens and families are reconnecting with their Jewish roots and traditions after generations of being forced to deny their heritage in Soviet Russia. Elderly Jews gather weekly at the Chesed center for music, exercise, and social connection, receiving care and medical support. A thriving JCC, established with the generosity of San Diego's own Joan and Irwin Jacobs, serves as the central hub for Jewish life in Kishinev. We saw a whole lot of inspiration mixed in with the trauma and heartbreak people bravely shared with us.

These stories are just a fraction of what we experienced and a much tinier slice of what has taken place in this small country of 2.5 million people and 15,000 Jews. More Jewish refugees have come through Kishinev in a single year than Jews live in the entire country. During our final reflection, one of my fellow participants reminded us “the heart can’t feel what the eyes can’t see”. And we saw a lot. I now understand more than ever the essential, lifesaving importance of the ongoing, core funding our Federation and our community provides every year to our partners in the Former Soviet Union. The extensive support infrastructure, the talented staff already embedded in the community, the volunteer network, and the existing facilities meant that when war broke out on February 24th, JDC, Hillel, JAFI and World ORT were already there, ready to pivot. The additional dollars we raise go directly to material support, goods, and rent subsidies, as well as to medical, psychological and other critical needs. And while our attention may be turned elsewhere, given all that is going on around the world and at home, the most significant European military conflict since WWII continues without an end in sight, and people still desperately need our help. I go back to Olla’s words: we help because WE are Jews.

Heidi Gantwerk
President & Chief Executive Officer

Reflections from Moldova

Inna Vdovichenko brought a sample of the orange, murky water from Nicolayev, one of the hardest-hit cities in Ukraine.


Refugees, Luda and Liana. Liana is in 1st grade at the World Ort School.

Olga and Mihail in their small hotel room, where they have stayed for ten months “watching the war” and praying to return to their home.

Trying to give strength and positivity to Olga. She did not want to let go and it was so hard to leave.

At a World Ort school, which is one of most sought after schools in Kishinev, 70% Jewish, but all students study Hebrew and Judaic. The school has welcomed many refugees.

These are teens who are part of Haverim/AJT (Active Jewish teens) most attended Jewish camp and are now spending more time at JCC than at home. They are part of a local chapter of BBYO which has chapters around the world, including San Diego.

Kate and Irina are teens volunteering with Republican Volunteer Center (RVC) at Kedem JCC. Both are reconnecting with distant Jewish roots and making calls to help Jews from Kishinev and refugees, and to Jews still in Ukraine.

Refugees Yana ( 7th grade) and Anna who left husband behind on the front. Yana is excelling in 7th grade says school has been so warm, welcoming and she loves her classes especially physics.

Ruth and David Musher, longtime JDC supporters who have travelled the world with JDC and other Jewish organizations in search of meaning and purpose.

Osik Axelrod, Regional Director for Hillel International in the Former Soviet Union.

This is Leysa Firsanova, Program Director for Hillel in Kyiv. She came from the warzone, which took 24 hours and three trains, to talk with us.

With Jeff Schindler and David Bark at the Kishinev Jacobs Jewish Cultural Center, the heart of the Jeiwsh community in Kishinev and Moldova.