All About Andrei

Journeys with the Federation’s Global Committee

For Andrei Lopatenko, coming to Odessa on a mission with the new Global Committee of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco was a homecoming of sorts. As a child visiting his grandparents in the Ukrainian countryside, Andrei remembers drawing water from the backyard well and waiting for the sun to heat it up before washing. As a teenager living in Odessa, he remembers a kind of Jewish community made up of academically motivated students whose interest in math and physics superseded any concern with religion. Andrei left Odessa in 1991, and somewhere between his first stop, for university studies in Moscow, and his current home in the Bay Area, his Jewish identity emerged in the form of religious observance, volunteerism, and tikkun olam.

Andrei Lopatenko

Now a 42-year old software engineer, Andrei's view of Odessa's Jewish community was a source of fascination for the entire committee. While many of us on the committee have roots in Ukraine, Andrei's very recent roots lent his interactions with Odessans an air of exuberance (when we saw Jews young and old building communities) and poignancy (when we saw the poverty that still afflicts many people 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union).

I interviewed Andrei on October 30, after we had spent four very full days in and around Odessa. Between visits to the city's two JCCs, Chabad orphanage and school, Orthodox Jewish day and boarding school, a volunteer-built and led Holocaust museum and memorial site, a Moishe House for young adults, kosher restaurants, and numerous social service and cultural programs, he managed to fit in visits with family and friends, and to share his appreciation of the city's beauty and history.

It is easy to see where Odessa needs help – there are people who live in houses without basic utilities, and the need for a Jewish orphanage is presumably not something one would find outside the former Soviet Union. In fact, Andrei wants to address the needs in a meaningful way by sending English-language textbooks to Jewish institutions in Odessa. However, he was also awed by the unwavering commitment of people working and volunteering in the Jewish community, and he said that he feels excitement for the future. "It is a big surprise to see this very bright spark of the people who live here," he said.

The following are excerpts from our conversation:

Q: What was it like growing up Jewish in Odessa during Communism?

A: In the Soviet Union, Jewish people always knew they were Jewish, but to be Jewish was to be a good mathematician or a good violin player, to be a good person or to have Jewish friends, but not to practice the religion.

Q: Did you experience anti-Semitism?

A: Not really. A lot of my friends were Jewish, and also I studied physics and mathematics and a lot of the kids I was studying with were Jewish, so, in those environments, I did not see a lot of anti-Semitism.

Q: You've spent the past few days touring Jewish sites around Odessa. What do you make of Jewish life in Odessa today?

A: I was very surprised at how vibrant and enthusiastic it is. People who left in many cases were the people for whom it was easy to leave: doctors, lawyers, physicists. You wondered who was going to stay and run the community, but then you go to the JCC and see how many programs there are, how vibrant it is. You see how committed the people are who work there. They even sleep there sometimes because they are so committed. Sometimes I feel like they are more devoted to Jewish life and more enthusiastic than our people in San Francisco.

Q: As the only Russian-speaker on the trip other than our translators, you were able to interact with people on the ground in a way that the rest of us weren't. Can you share anything that didn't make it into the official translation?

A: When we were visiting Belgorod-Dnestrovsky [2 hours outside Odessa], there was a man who was around 75 years old, who was complaining that many of his relatives – his brother, his nephew, his cousin – had moved in the 1990s to the United States. He was a welder and he has a pension of around $45 [per month], and, of course, it's very hard for him to survive. He had support from his brother, but since the brother died, no one supports him and now he feels completely forgotten by his relatives, and the only way he survives is by support from JDC [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and Hesed – Jewish organizations that provide services.

Everyone knows that if you are a pensioner here you get very little, and if you send something over from abroad – $50 or even some chocolates – it would be nothing for the person sending it, but would be like another pension for this man. My point is that people from Odessa interact with each other within their community living in Israel, or in the United States, but on a broader level, there is no interaction community to community, Odessa Jews in the United States sending something back here.

Q: And living in the United States, do you feel an obligation to help, even if it's not your family?

A: I feel it's our duty. This community raised us and we have a duty to return something to these people. Assume every Russian-speaking Jew in San Francisco would donate $50, something very little. If you multiply $50 by the thousands of Russian-speaking Jews in the Bay Area, it would help significantly. People donate to global warming or to whales, but I think this is a more important cause, and I think it's our duty as Jewish people to support this cause and to help these people.

Q: Was there a particular visit that really moved you?

A: I was really moved by this young child, Andrei, in the Chabad orphanage. [Andrei and his sister were brought to the orphanage after their mother was killed by their father in a domestic violence dispute.] He's so small, and what would have happened to him if Chabad did not take him? Our Shabbat lunch with local Hillel guys at Moishe House was another one. If you go to San Francisco, you see many Jewish teenagers, college kids and people who have just graduated; you see many young people who are not doing anything Jewish. Here you see young people who want to get involved in Jewish life.

Andrei and Andrei

Q: What is your message for people back home?

A: To Russian-speaking Jews: Don't forget your roots. We are all from here, and we should not forget about these people and this community. For Americans: Our standard of living is so high. Here there are people who have no running water. Today we met Etya, who has one meal a day, and she's been to the doctor five times in the past 16 years – only when she was taken for an emergency. We should not forget that such people exist – they are not somewhere exotic, they are in the middle of Europe, and we can help them significantly. There is a huge demand for our help.

Q: That said, do you see a long-term future for Jews in Ukraine?

A: Yes. Jewish people are very entrepreneurial and they can succeed in any economy, so I think many people will stay here and they will succeed here.

Melissa Schneider, a resident of Marin, is a member of the Federation’s Global Committee and joined the group for its mission to Ukraine and Hungary. In addition to traveling, she enjoys visiting cooking, hiking, and gardening.

The Federation’s Global Committee seeks to care for our global Jewish community through supporting humanitarian relief and revitalizing Jewish communities worldwide. Jewish communities around the world have confronted the unthinkable over the past century: famine, world wars, communist repression, political strife, and genocide. The Federation addresses the needs of vulnerable Jewish individuals and communities through strategic partnerships with effective and seasoned direct service organizations. A significant portion of our funding is directed to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a very experienced and trusted organization with which the Federation has partnered for decades.

Categories: Overseas


November 21, 2016


Melissa Schneider