‘They Will Return With New Enthusiasm’: Under Russian Fire, Ukrainian Jewish Women Pledge to Help Rebuild Country
When Vlada Nedak awoke on Tuesday morning, among her first thoughts was the realization that the Jewish holiday of Purim falls on Wednesday.
“I reminded my son, who is still in Kyiv, that it’s Purim tomorrow,” said Nedak, the executive director of the Ukraine branch of Project Kesher, a US Jewish organization that works with Jewish women in Israel and the former USSR. Now displaced to the western part of Ukraine from the capital, Nedak spoke on Tuesday afternoon during a conference call on the impact of the Russian invasion on women and children, organized by the Jewish Federations of North America.
Nedak explained that she was determined to carry on celebrating Jewish holidays despite the Russian onslaught. “My grandfather told me a lot about World War Two,” she said. “He told me that people didn’t celebrate for four years, they would be happy just to be together as a family. But for me, I say, I will celebrate Jewish holidays.”
Nedak’s organization has been working with Jewish women in Ukraine as well as Russia, Georgia and Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty years ago. Three weeks into the Russian invasion, Project Kesher has been forced to radically shift its focus. The group has been advising women of all nationalities on whether and how to evacuate, as well as renting buses and minivans to transport evacuees to safety — helping more than 700 people during the last week alone.
“We haven’t said ‘no’ to anyone,” Nedak stressed. “I don’t ask, ‘are the people in this family Jewish or non Jewish?’ It’s not important for us.”
Little advance preparation had been made when Russian troops stormed over the border. “We operate in 42 Ukrainian cities, but nobody was ready to take the decision to function in these difficult times,” Nedak said. Although she could have fled the country, Nedak said she decided “to stay in Ukraine, to stay with my family, to stay with my husband. It was a very difficult choice.”
Her work is presently concentrated on those women who have remained in Ukraine — in many cases, because their partners are serving with the country’s armed forces. The daily challenges range from questions about medical care for children to assisting women vulnerable to the prey of criminals. “During the last week, I’ve worked very hard with Ukrainian and European NGOs to protect women from [human] traffickers,” Nedak said. “We’ve seen some cases of this happening.”
On the same call, Inna Vdovichenko — a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in the souther port city of Odessa — reflected that her life was turned upside down in the early hours of Feb. 24, as news of the Russian invasion spread. The intensification of hostilities, as the Russians attempt to break Odessa’s resistance, means that she gets no more than two hours sleep a night. “Five a.m. is when the bombing starts in all the cities across Ukraine,” Vdovichenko said.
Vdovichenko emphasized that she had made a conscious decision to remain in Odessa. “I don’t want to leave my husband, and I also want to be with the other members of my family who now have to go through all these things that are happening in Ukraine,” she said. “Every morning, I have my personal checklist. I call my mom, who for these last eight years has been living in eastern Ukraine, which is at the heart of the crisis, and my brother’s family.”
Describing her work with JDC as “my life,” Vdovichenko said her professional calendar was entirely dominated by demands for immediate assistance. “Today, my first task was to bring chicken soup and sandwiches to the members of the evacuation team from the Hesed (local Jewish community center),” she said. “I talked to one of them a couple of days ago, and I asked him, ‘did you eat today?’ and he said, ‘yes, I had breakfast at 8 p.m.'”
Each morning, she continued, between two and nine buses have been ferrying evacuees from Odessa and other towns in the region over the border into Moldova. Those unable to leave are, for the time being, receiving some home care along with packages of food and medicine, Vdovichenko said. More than 300 volunteers have been gathering at the Odessa Hesed to pack food and medical parcels.
Despite living with the unprecedented hardship brought on by the invasion, both women have retained a sense of hope.
“I have this strong belief that we will win,” Nedak said. “I believe that most of the women, and most of the people, who have left this country will come back with a new enthusiasm to rebuild it.”