February 25, 2009

JSC Volunteers Learn Life Lessons of Tolerance and Unity from Righteous Gentile

Several months ago, newly wed Dina and Sol Adelsky, a young married couple, returned to the former Soviet Union—the area that their parents emigrated from—as JDC Jewish Service Corps (JSC) volunteers serving the local Jewish community of Odessa. As the University of Michigan graduates grow accustomed to life and work in Odessa, they start by visiting some of the clients of the JDC-supported Hesed welfare network—an eclectic group of the world’s neediest elderly, whose backgrounds can sometimes come as a surprise.

“The interesting part is that on our visits to the elderly, we sort of assume the person we are spending time with is Jewish since they are Hesed clients,” Dina explains. But visiting the home of Irina Ivanovna Yegorova, Dina and Sol learned why this special non-Jewish woman receives vital JDC aid.

Irina is 88 years old and lives alone in a communal apartment. She has been officially recognized by the State of Israel as a Righteous Gentile for her selfless deeds during the Holocaust. As the war raged on, she and her mother hid Irina’s Jewish friend in their house. When the officers came, they instead took Irina Ivanovna to the labor camps. Irina’s friend spent the duration of the war living with Irina’s mother and survived because of their bravery. When Dina and Sol asked Irina why they took her instead of her friend to the concentration camp, Irina simply said, “No, that is just what happened,” as if responding to an unasked question.

Sol elaborates, “She doesn’t want to blame her friend for the time she spent at the camps.” While the young couple expresses that meeting Irina was personally inspirational and uplifting, they have also come to gain valuable insight into their new home from this woman’s moving tale.

“During the Holocaust, many Jews were killed or exposed to the soldiers by their Ukrainian neighbors. Odessa, however, is unique in that it is a city characterized by dozens of ethnicities living together peacefully,” Dina explains. “Many of the elderly we meet emphasize that this is a city of tolerance and unity. Irina embraced this tolerance wholeheartedly in saving a Jewish life during the Second World War.” Now this atmosphere of unity extends to the 25 Righteous Gentiles living in Odessa by including them in the services for the Jewish elderly offered by JDC. Irina receives a range of assistance that makes living each day a possibility for her: a homecare worker that comes to her apartment to help clean, arrange things, and do shopping; a delivery of food packages twice a month; an allowance of money for medication, and more.

But this life-sustaining support is in danger of being eliminated since restitution funding sources deem that Righteous Gentiles cannot be considered Nazi victims, meaning that these individuals may not receive funds alotted for victims of Nazi terror. Instead of stripping Righteous Gentiles of their services, JDC continues the search for local donors to replace those funds, so these desitute elderly who risked their own lives to save Jews can continue receiving the same services as their Jewish compatriots.

In the meantime, Dina and Sol continue on their mission as JDC Jewish Service Corps volunteers. They visit elderly Hesed clients in their homes, engage young and often vulnerable Jewish families in community life through JDC’s Jewish Family Services, teach English to youngsters at the Mazel Tov early childhood development program, and work with college-age students on Jewish renewal and volunteerism programs.

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