Celebrating close to 25 years of the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership
Jonathan Kolker was the treasurer of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the early 1990s and was one of the first on the ground in the Former Soviet Union to assist with Jews who chose not to emigrate but rather to sustain their lives in Eastern Europe.
Odessa was one of the first major former Soviet cities where JDC set up services and positioned a full-time person. The Baltimore-Odessa Partnership, spearheaded by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, was one of the first Soviet-American Jewish community pairings. By the late 1990s, there were dozens of these partnerships.
At the time, recalled Kolker, JDC was operating on the same two fronts it does today: assisting those in need and providing Jewish renewal. But because of the situation of many elderly Jews at the time, the latter took greater focus.
“The most pressing and immediate problem we found in the FSU was [that] with the political collapse came also a financial collapse and the people’s pensions stopped flowing,” said Kolker. The elderly who had worked their entire lives as teachers, doctors, firemen, who had retired with a pension, their pensions had stopped coming.”
Kolker said JDC found 300,000 Jews across the FSU in this situation, with literally nothing to eat. An initial partnership between JDC, the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany infused $10 million in food packages to these people. By the late 1990s, as other investors joined, JDC was spending $60 million per year in what was one of the largest humanitarian service programs in Jewish life in centuries.
In Odessa, The Associated was instrumental.
Suzanne Levin-Lapides was among those who were involved with the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership early on. She said the community invested “so much emotion, time and energy in making sure [Soviet] elders were fed and cared for.”
Over the years, missions to Odessa were about visiting elderly people in their third-floor walkups, bringing joy to the abandoned and delivering hope to the downtrodden.
Today, the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership is much more.
“Today, there is a Jewish education component,” said Lapides. “We learn from each other, and we celebrate what we are all about.”
Lapides said that in recent trips, while there are still visits to elderly residents, there are talks with students involved with the Odessa Hillel — young adults volunteering at the nursery schools and day schools and senior centers.
Kolker said he knows it, too.
“There is a tremendous desire for reconnection with the Jewish world,” he said. “There is a curiosity and hunger for Jewish life.”
Vadim Kashtelyan, who moved to Baltimore from St. Petersburg in 1992, said he went back at the age of 16 to visit his hometown. Then, when he wore his Jewish star necklace, one which his grandmother had purchased for him in Israel, he was asked to take it off for fear of anti-Semitism. After that trip, in 2005, his view of the FSU was one of “bad stuff, communal apartments, no money.”
But today it is very different.
Kashtelyan traveled with The Associated to Odessa in May 2013 and described the situation as “the opposite.” He described a revitalized city, a youthful Odessa, creative with its Jewish culture and Jews who have “a burning desire to stay in Odessa.”
Kashtelyan said today the two communities are learning from one another.
“They [the Odessians] kind of want to mirror our system” of volunteerism and how we work with youth,” he said. “We are learning from them and what they do [to take care of their] senior citizens.”
Recently, The Associated hired Marina Moldavanskaya to serve as the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership coordinator.
In a column, published on jewishtimes.com, Moldavanskaya wrote, “I am excited to help develop projects between our two communities that will generate mutual relationships and connections between people. The future projects will create long-lasting bonds that will educate us about our Jewish family around the world, as well as make the connection between Baltimore and Odessa even stronger.”
To learn how you can get involved, visit associated.org/globalimpact.