Odessa's Orphans

LIKE MY OWN CHILDREN


Odessa's Orphans

by Rena Udkoff

October 28, 2019

The Ukrainian port city of Odessa has seen a Jewish Renaissance in recent decades. Its now robust infrastructure of Jewish schools and community centers, packed synagogues and kosher restaurants, is matched by a booming Israeli tourist industry. But the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 devastated local businesses and dried up most of the Jewish community’s resources. Inflation skyrocketed after the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, and the subsequent recession has lowered the average salary to just $236 a month.

The Jewish community, which provides hundreds of the city’s Jewish children with daily meals, shelter, and the education they need to hope for a better future, is now fighting for its survival. Today, community leaders describe a crisis that has reached “catastrophic” levels, leaving them without the critical funding needed to continue the most basic humanitarian services.

Aleksandra Zyeva was two years old when she was brought to the Mishpacha Orphanage in Odessa, Ukraine in 2000. Her mother was a single parent, an alcoholic in and out of rehab, without the resources to give her daughter a stable home life. The staff and her fellow housemates at Mishpacha soon became her family, and the orphanage became her home. In 2017, when Aleksandra was seventeen, she met Alexander Rudenko who had come to visit his three nephews and niece, ages one through six, living at the Mishpacha children’s home.

Like Aleksandra, Alexander had a similarly painful family history. His mother, too, was an alcoholic and a drug addict. With much in common, the two bonded easily. Fast forward to their wedding day, where dozens of Aleksandra’s “sisters” helped her with her wedding gown and led her to the chuppah. The Odessa Jewish community made the wedding and helped the young couple furnish their new home.

Since it opened its doors eighteen years ago, Mishpacha has cared for 285 boys and girls from the wider Odessa Jewish community. They are children like Aleksandra and like Alexander’s niece and nephews, orphans and “social orphans”—the victims of alcoholism, abuse, crime, and poor medical health who are brought to the orphanage but still have living relatives, and so for whom adoption by local or foreign families is almost never an option. 

Considered wards of the state (although the orphanage gets no government funding), the girls and boys at Mishpacha receive five meals a day, medical and psychological care, and access to educational and co-curricular opportunities. Even more fundamentally, the children live with a family at the orphanage where the father and mother act as surrogate parents. Most of its orphans find in Mishpacha—the Hebrew word for ‘family’—a nurturing stability and security that makes it possible for them to eventually lead productive lives.

Painful Cutbacks 

Anya has always loved to draw. Art has been her creative and therapeutic outlet, allowing her to escape the memories of her harrowing early childhood. At age two, she was abandoned by her alcoholic mother in an empty apartment on the outskirts of Odessa. When the neighbors finally discovered the young toddler, malnourished and delirious, they alerted authorities who identified the little girl as a member of the Jewish community. After being nursed back to health at a local hospital, Anya was brought to live at the Chabad-run Mishpacha children’s orphanage.

That was ten years ago. Today, Anya is a seventh grader at the Ohr Avner Jewish school in Odessa. Every morning, the eighty-three girls and boys who call Mishpacha their home, join 1,000 other students at Chabad of Odessa’s various educational institutions. From preschool through university, Mishpacha’s youth are fully integrated into all the classes, blending in with children who come from private homes. Mishpacha provides the orphans with special homework help in the evenings, gifts and parties on their birthdays, and stipends to purchase clothing and other personal needs.

Just like her other middle-school friends, Anya has a cell phone she loves to play games on and which she makes sure to hide from the teacher when sneaking it out during class. Having a cell phone, nice clothes, and other “normal” things that her friends enjoy has helped Anya—who has been diagnosed with mental health issues stemming from her childhood neglect—feel socially included. 

But Anya has recently noticed that some of her favorite activities are no longer being offered by MishpachaLike extracurricular art classes. And trips. And special snacks.

“Most of my friends have different classes that they take after school like music or gymnastics,” she says. “My favorite is art classes where we used to paint, but we haven’t had that it in a long time. Now when my friends talk about what they are doing after school, I don’t really have what to say.”

Art specialists and other auxiliary services that were once routinely offered to the orphans at Mishpacha have slowly been dropped from the program. Over the past year, the budget has been slashed by half. Anya misses her art classes most, but there’s more that’s been cut: the dinners at the orphanage are not quite as well-rounded as they used to be, and her once-weekly appointments with her psychotherapist have been reduced to twice a month.

Rabbi Avraham Wolff, Chabad emissary and Chief Rabbi of Odessa, is distressed by the painful cutbacks he’s been forced to make. “I look at the children in the orphanage and in our schools like my own children. Having to take anything away from them hurts,” he says.

Epidemic Poverty 

The most recent cutbacks have affected the quality and quantity of food that the Mishpacha children are receiving each day. The kitchens in all but one of the Jewish schools have been closed, with the high school kitchen now supplying meals to the orphanage and to all the other programs. The food quality has diminished, and expensive proteins like meat have been eliminated from the menu. Cheaper and filling sides such as rice and potatoes have replaced healthy vegetables. There are also no new school supplies or furniture, and much-needed infrastructure repairs have halted altogether. Salaries have been slashed, so some of the best teachers at the schools have left, and many school specialists, extracurriculars and psychological services have been let go. There are overdue notices on the rent and spiraling back pay on salaries.

“For a long time, we sacrificed in whatever other areas we could to keep things going as is,” Rabbi Wolff says. “When we couldn’t keep up, we first cut the extras and now we are forced to cut into the essentials.”

When Rabbi Wolff arrived in Ukraine in 1992, Odessa fit the classic narrative of a post-Soviet city ripe for renewal. Those were the days of great international support for Jews from the former Soviet Union, and ninety-eight percent of funding for Chabad’s programming came from overseas. Slowly, the Odessa Jewish community came into its own as local businesspeople stepped up to secure buildings for Jewish schools, fund a program to provide services for Holocaust survivors, and renovate a synagogue-turned-warehouse back to its former glory. Unlike the Ukrainian Jewish enclaves of Kiev and Dnieper, Odessa did not have prominent Jewish oligarchs with the financial capacity to donate millions. But Jewish Odessans took pride in caring for their own.

Until the Second World War, half a million Jews lived in Odessa, with over eighty synagogues and cultural centers active in the city. According to Odessa’s previous mayor, says Wolff, the city was actually majority Jewish in the 1930s, but official numbers were only allowed to report a forty percent Jewish population. With the onset of World War II, the Romanians and Nazis decimated the Jewish community. In the decades that followed, communism and the post-Soviet flight drove that number even lower. A comparatively paltry 30,000 Jews live in Odessa today, but the Jews who remain evince pride in their heritage and have been eager to support the city’s local Jewish infrastructure. By June 2008, ninety-five percent of Chabad of Odessa’s multi-million-dollar operating budget was supported by local Jewish donors.

Then came the financial crash of 2008 which effectively demolished the local economy.

“The effects of the economic crisis here in Odessa were extreme,” says Rabbi Wolff. “It wiped out so many people’s life savings and devastated our fundraising. Donors who had been contributing $100,000 with ease, couldn’t scrape a dollar together.”

The economic situation further deteriorated with the 2014 Ukraine war. Depreciation of the Ukrainian hryvnia spurred hyperinflation of nearly thirty percent. According to the city’s governor, the little money that locals had, disappeared overnight, resulting in “epidemic” poverty.

Around the same time, hundreds of young Jewish Odessans left for Israel, in fear of a national draft—and most have not returned. Before the political upheaval, Odessa had 700 university students attending its weekly STARS program (a popular Torah study group for which young adults receive a stipend to participate). Today, there are only 100 participants. 

Saving Jews, Saving Lives

Unwilling to compromise on its vast array of social and religious programming, Mishpacha cut all the excesses off its programming. 

“We stopped all the renovations we were doing to update our Soviet-era buildings and we reduced salaries,” Rabbi Wolff said. “Our goal was to hold on to everything we had built because the stakes of letting even a single program go were just too high. We would lose Jews.”

The fear that losing Jewish programming and Jewish institutions would lead to “losing Jews”—to assimilation and non-affiliation—is a credible concern for Jewish leaders in a city like Odessa, where Jewish institutions are for many their only link to their heritage and identity. Even more so, without Chabad’s humanitarian institutions like Mishpacha, Jewish lives would be lost to a host of harrowing circumstances, such as those experienced by orphans housed in state-run orphanages or those neglected children who never make it into orphanages at all.

Of the more than 100,000 “social orphans'' living in orphanages throughout Ukraine, sixty to seventy percent who graduate state orphanages become involved in prostitution or organized crime. Ten percent go on to commit or attempt suicide. Less than one percent make it to a university or higher education. Abandoned children who are not placed in orphanages have it even worse. They usually don’t make it through the winter. Orphans with disabilities, like Anya, are the most vulnerable to disease and death, resulting in one reported death every three months, according to local NGOs. 

By contrast, at Mishpacha, ninety percent of the orphan graduates go on to pursue advanced education, often in Jewish settings. One hundred and one alumni have made Aliyah to Israel, and fifty-six of them have served in the IDF. At least fifty alumni have married Jewish spouses and have since established functional families of their own. Mishpacha, among other Jewish institutions in Odessa, is saving Jews and saving lives.

“Screaming into the Void” 

Rabbi Wolff shares a letter he once received from a fifteen-year-old girl in a state orphanage, begging to come to the Jewish orphanage. She describes being assaulted every evening by the older boys in the institution. For complex bureaucratic reasons, Wolff was unable to help that girl. Her plea still haunts him.

“The need is so great, but we cannot take in more children who need help, since we don’t have where to put them,” Rabbi Wolff says. “We are struggling to care for the children we do have.” 

The current Mishpacha girls’ and boys’ homes have eight beds per room, and every single bed is filled. The cost to care for an orphan is $540 a month. Plans to build a spacious new girls’ home, which would expand the orphanage’s capacity to over 100 new beds, have been put on hold until funding comes through. New cases are temporarily referred to other Chabad orphanages in neighboring cities, until more space becomes available.

This is not an isolated circumstance. In almost every Jewish community building in Odessa, there are signs of work stopped mid-project. In the preschool, a skeleton of an indoor playground stands cordoned off. Crumbling walls have been given a temporary facelift with colorful murals of Aleph-Bet and Shabbat symbols. Two toddler bathrooms stand side by side. One was renovated with an infusion of funds by a one-time donor. That bathroom is clean and new, each stall designed to look like a smiling child-friendly bus. Next door, the second toddler bathroom has rust on the walls and holes between the broken tiling.

“If I had $10,000, I would fix that bathroom,” Rabbi Wolff says, “but realistically if that sort of money comes in, I would pay my teachers, since they need to eat.”

Key to the challenge is that Chabad of Odessa does not receive any financial support from any American Jewish philanthropic organizations. Funding currently comes only from small private donors overseas. 

Thinking about the children that organizations like Mishpacha is serving, Rabbi Wolff says, “The cases that come to us are horrific. Any one of them would make national headlines in a Western country. Here it is disturbing, but unfortunately not unusual.

“I feel like I am screaming into the void to help us pay for food and to keep the lights on.”

Choosing to Stay, Committed to Grow

But the news is not all depressing. Even as funding has slowed to a trickle, the staff and caretakers, therapists and teachers are actively molding a better present and future for Odessa, the local Jewish community, and its children. 

One bright light in this challenging landscape is the continued, and even growing degree of Jewish engagement and interest. Enrollment in all the Jewish schools is up, as second-generation students join the community. A Lag BaOmer event that was scaled back to a simple picnic and bonfire (whereas past years’ programs included elaborate arcade games and bounce houses) drew a record crowd of 500 people. Moreover, across Odessa-based Jewish institutions, teachers, rabbis and community organizers continue to serve their constituencies for little or no pay. College students volunteer to cover gaps in staffing, setting up and cleaning up events. The ten Chabad emissary couples in Odessa continue to host Shabbat meals although they haven’t received paychecks in over a year. 

Another hopeful sign comes from young couples who are marrying and choosing to stay in Odessa and give back. Among them is newlywed Aleksandra Zyeva, now Rudenko, who is completing her studies at Chabad’s Jewish University (see sidebar) and teaching part-time at the Jewish day school. Alexander, her husband, has meanwhile stepped into a position as the kosher supervisor at one of the Jewish community restaurants. He also assists at the Mishpacha boy’s orphanage, where he regularly checks in on his young nephews.

The commitment of the young people who are choosing to stay in Odessa and build despite the difficult circumstances inspires hope in the older Jewish generation. Marina Shlepakova, the longtime principal of the Ohr Avner Jewish school says that she joined the Jewish congregation through her children. “The children get involved and are excited about their Judaism,” she says, “and that pulls their parents in.” She sees the same thing happening with the Jewish students in her school.

The continuity of Jewish life in Odessa still surprises some of the old-timers. This past May, on Victory Day—when Ukrainians commemorate victory over Nazism—a group of Jewish schoolchildren visited a site where Nazis had murdered thousands of Odessans. “I shared a picture of the event, where the children were reciting Psalms with the rabbi, on my personal Facebook and I got an outpouring of responses from friends. They could not believe that in Odessa today there are Jewish children who practice their traditions proudly, even publicly.”

Despite the financial and social crises, those numbers are growing. A “Mazal Tov” wall at Odessa’s Jewish University displays two dozen photos of graduates celebrating their Jewish weddings. Many have chosen to stay in Odessa to raise families of their own. 

For Alexander, Odessa would be the place where he and Aleksandra would finally establish a stable family of their own. “This community has given us and my nephews and niece a place to live, food to eat, and the opportunity to get a Jewish education. No matter what comes our way, this is home.”

Odessa’s Jewish University: A Path Out of Poverty and Into Jewish Service

Fifty students from Odessa and abroad currently attend Chabad’s Jewish University in Odessa. The Jewish University is the only institution of higher learning in the region where students can earn accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business, law, and humanities while also engaging in Jewish studies. Tuition, including room and board, is paid for by the Odessa Jewish community. A comparable degree could cost up to $3,500 a year at a public college in Ukraine, a price that is unaffordable for most. The Jewish University networks with three prestigious Ukrainain colleges, and degrees are granted jointly by those institutions. 

For many, the community-funded program is their only hope for a better life. Not only does the university offer degrees, they also assist graduating students in securing jobs through connections with the Jewish community. Rivka Bendetskaya grew up in the small town of Zaporozhye, Ukraine, where she attended the local Chabad school. Her non-Jewish father was a day laborer and her mother worked up to seventy hours a week. There was barely sufficient money to cover the family’s basic necessities. At sixteen, Rivka moved to Odessa to attend the Jewish University where she is now pursuing a degree in business management. She says she loves her studies, particularly her classes in Judaism, and is looking forward to starting a career in managing programs for Jewish youth in Ukraine. 

The financial strain that has affected Mishpacha and Odessa’s other Jewish institutions has also impacted the University, especially its ability to financially support its students and faculty. “The students used to receive a monthly stipend for living expenses,” says Evgeni Bronshtein, the Dean of the Jewish University since its founding twelve years ago. “Our lecturers received bonuses. Now, we are struggling to keep our best professors.” 

Despite the current financial hardships, Bronshtein and Bendetskaya both recognize the significance of a Jewish University in a country where anti-Semitism has at times barred Jews from receiving an advanced education. Here, Jewish students are free to follow their life paths.

Some last names have been omitted to protect the privacy of minors. 

To donate to the Mishpacha Orphanage under the auspices of Machne Israel use the attached envelope or go to www.lubavitch.com/mishpachaorphanage

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