From Surviving to Thriving in Odessa

Journeys with the Federation’s Global Committee

One of the great benefits of travel is that it helps you put your life into perspective: sweeping vistas, exotic foods, and lingering jet lag can help banish the minutiae of day-to-day life that wears us down. A successful trip, in my opinion, is one that ends with priorities rearranged and the emergence of a bigger picture.

In Odessa, during a recent trip with the Federation’s Global Committee, the bigger picture — our responsibility as Jews to one another — came into sharp focus on our first day in the city. At the confection-filled Kids Café, Jewish parents from “at-risk” families came to speak with us over tea and heaping platters of fruit and sweets, as their children played games and ran themselves ragged under the supervision of the café's hired staff dressed as pirates. 

This is a café that would flourish in the Bay Area, yet it is inaccessible to the families assisted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) – the Federation’s partner in Odessa. The visit was planned as a mitzvah outing by the local Hesed, a JDC-supported Jewish service center assisting more than 8,000 elderly people in Odessa, providing home care, food, and therapy.

It is heartbreaking to witness how quickly a family living in Odessa can go from being high-functioning to at-risk. In a country that lacks a social safety net, we met Ira at the café, a mother of two who fell into the at-risk category when her daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease at age 7. Now age 11, her daughter can no longer walk, and is in dire need of a specialized wheelchair that costs a staggering $10,000 – far beyond the means of most families in a country where the average monthly salary is $180. JDC has committed to helping the family purchase a wheelchair, but until it arrives, Ira carries her daughter wherever she needs to go. 

Ira’s daughter was among the many children playing and devouring pastries in the café – a beautiful, happy group of giggling girls. She blended in seamlessly.

The purpose of the outing was for these families to leave their problems behind for an afternoon, and it was clearly working! 

Back at the adult table at the café, another 11-year old girl, Lira, ran over to introduce herself. Our group had previously heard about Lira. When she had not started talking by age 2, her parents were told that she was deaf and had an intellectual disability. If Lira's parents hadn't contacted JDC, her life would have been set on a far different trajectory.

The state allowance for special-needs children is less than the minimum subsistence level of $55 per month, according to Hesed director Anatoly Kesselman, and inflation has priced out many medications and therapies. Children with disabilities face serious obstacles, including discrimination and lack of access to quality education.  

Lira (foreground) with a JDC staff member and Catherine Lewi,
a member of our Global Committee, at the cafe


Luckily, the family did contact JDC, where a specialist confirmed a hearing impairment, corrected the mistaken diagnosis of intellectual disability, and recommended cochlear implants. JDC assisted the family financially with the surgery and, today, Lira is a talkative 5th grader at a Jewish school who loves knitting, painting, and performing in an award-winning theater troupe. "I'm proud to be a girl of many talents," she told us cheerfully, before running toward the music coming from the kids section. The JDC staffer who translated Lira's words teared up, and so did we. 

I know it's trite to become thankful when faced with the overwhelming needs of a distant Jewish community, but meeting Lira was equivalent to meeting a version of my youngest daughter, whose every health issue has triggered meetings with specialists, consultations, second opinions, and a general culture of concern. It makes me happy to know that the funding provided by the Federation to the JDC is giving a little girl in Odessa the same opportunity to be sassy and confident that my daughter, born in the U.S., inherited as her birthright.

Today, 3% of Odessa’s one million residents are Jewish – approximately 30,000 people.

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 07, 2016


Melissa Schneider