From Odessa with Love

The Federation’s Global Committee embarks on a trip to Ukraine and Hungary

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill

There are countless quotes that capture the wonders of travel, but none has yet been found that truly captures the unique and fulfilling experience of visiting distant Jewish communities with like-minded travelers from home.

A small group of lay and professional leaders has just begun a journey to Ukraine and Hungary on behalf of the new Global Committee of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, yet we already have a sense that this will be a special week in Odessa and Budapest. After each traveler found his/her own way through a somewhat grueling multi-stop journey through various transit points familiar (Washington) and less-so (Zurich, Frankfurt, etc), the group came together in Odessa on October 27, a bit jetlagged and weary but clearly excited for what lies in store.

Our goals for the trip are pretty straightforward: education, gaining a better understanding of the historical, demographic, economic, political and other factors that make Odessa and Budapest unique, and engaging with Jews in each city to find common ground, share best practices, learn of local challenges and opportunities, and connect – both with each other and with our local counterparts – before bringing back stories to share with our Federation family back home.

Odessa, founded by Crimean Khans, was captured by Catherine the Great in 1794 in order to establish a strong seaport on the southern border of the Russian empire. A uniquely open and diverse enclave in the tsarist empire, Odessa’s remote location and appeal as a port city exposed it to many immigrant cultures, contributing to all the benefits – and challenges – that broad diversity brings. By the end of the 19th century, Odessa had become a world center for Jewish life, with Jews comprising some 37% of the local population and serving leading roles in banking, industry, and trade. The city, however, was sadly a center for pogroms as well, which led many to Zionism (among others, Ze'ev Jabotinsky called Odessa home).

Soviet control suppressed Jewish life in Odessa for many years, followed by the horrors of the Holocaust. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), our host for this trip and the Federation’s key global partner, entered Odessa in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since then, they have worked hard to help many Jews with the basic needs of daily existence (from the 500 at-risk Jewish children and their families that it serves, plus some 6,500 needy elderly that live amid political and economic instability), and to help rebuild the Jewish community’s institutions, such as JCC recently created through the generosity of San Francisco's own Grand family.

The above is just a snapshot of a complex history and current conditions; our group is very excited to learn more as our trip gets officially underway. At our opening dinner, JDC's Asher Ostrin, Senior Director for International Affairs and one of the world's foremost experts on post-Soviet Jewish life, briefly addressed the group and touched us with some photos connecting our visit with JDC's efforts. As we enter the rhythm and landscape of Odessa, I look forward to the many new people and places that we will soon encounter.

Brian Perlman is chair of the Federation’s Global Committee. He enjoys visiting Jewish communities around the world and trying to help with local needs. Brian lives in San Francisco with his family and is the managing member at The Ron Kaufman Companies, LLC.

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


October 27, 2016


Brian Perlman