As we watch with horror the brutal situation unfold in Ukraine, we want to take a look at the longstanding partnership our Greater MetroWest community has with the Jewish community in Cherkassy, Ukraine. We are not watching an attack on strangers across the world — we are watching an attack on our friends and our family. Our Global Connections team has been in touch with their colleagues in Cherkassy, monitoring the situation and doing everything we can to help through our international partners on the ground.
To gain a deeper perspective on our relationship with Cherkassy, I reached out to Paula Saginaw, a dedicated and passionate GMW lay leader. Paula has a long resume of leadership roles in GMW: she was president of Women’s Philanthropy, general UJA Campaign Chair, and the first chair of Global Connections when it was re-imagined from the Israel and Overseas Committee. She’s held national leadership roles and remains on our Federation and Jewish Community Foundation Boards. Paula has been integral in nurturing relationships with the Jewish community in Cherkassy. She shared with me her personal experiences in Cherkassy and the incredible work we do to support the continually developing Cherkassy Jewish community.
Paula provided historical perspective on our partnership. In 1996, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) reached out to Federations throughout North America asking them to support the Jews of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). In 1997, MetroWest sent a small delegation to Ukraine to see where we could help. MetroWest had a history of taking on small, underserved communities in Israel and building their infrastructure to help them not only survive but thrive. We wanted this type of community in Ukraine. Rather than match with a large city, as JDC had envisioned, our Federation preferred to find a smaller community where we could make a significant impact. Cherkassy fit the bill. It was a microcosm of the Former Soviet Union. About two and a half hours south of Kiev, Cherkassy was a city and a region. Seeing needs in both the elderly and young Jewish community, MetroWest decided this would be our mission.
In 1999, Paula personally became involved when she, a paramedic, went on a mission to the region as part of a group consisting of primarily medical providers. The mission participants realized that helping Cherkassy meant they would need to support elderly, infirm, and impoverished Jews with food, medical, and humanitarian aid and young people seeking Jewish identity and community. Understanding the whole picture by seeing Cherkassy and the FSU firsthand was critical to GMW’s decision to provide support.
Paula was captivated by the people she met, the opportunity to improve their lives and care for the senior citizens. She visited the Hesed center, which JDC established as a Jewish Community Center providing educational and social activities to instill a feeling of Jewish peoplehood in Jews of all ages. Paula witnessed their thirst for Jewish knowledge and strong desire to connect with their Jewish heritage.
One of the ways in which the Hesed center educated the community was through a Jewish Sunday School. Paula watched them find joy in learning Jewish prayers and participating in celebrations. Paula sat amongst the children and felt a connection to a sister and brother both younger than ten. She loved singing with little Yana and Max and wanted to embrace them and be part of their lives. Understanding that this was a one-time visit, she didn’t dare think she would ever see them again. Surprisingly, Paula had another chance meeting with them at a concert later in the trip. Sitting in the balcony, Paula suddenly heard young voices crying out, “Pola, Pola!” There were Yana and Max running up to her and sitting with her throughout the concert. She watched them singing Hebrew songs with pride and her heart filled with love. That meeting in 1999 started a relationship that lasts to this day. Paula returned to Cherkassy almost yearly for about ten years and has remained connected with these young people. This experience not only helped the Jewish community of Cherkassy, but enriched Paula’s life immensely.
The Hesed center continues to be a Jewish communal hub. Our Federation and JDC support Cherkassy in establishing a strong Jewish community, and by providing food, medicine, and home care for the elderly. They have held bnai mitzvah there and they organize a Family Camp each summer that connects the Cherkassy community with members of GMW in NJ and in Israel. Despite the uncertain times and potential for war, we continue to provide support and, through JDC, ensure that their essential needs are met.
Our work in Global Connections undeniably impacts our Jewish family around the world. We look forward to sharing the stories of how we make a difference one step at a time.