A member of Congregation Shirat Ha-Yam in Odesa, Ukraine, with a power generator donated by members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.
A member of Congregation Shirat Ha-Yam in Odesa, Ukraine, with a power generator donated by members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

Congregation Beth Am is sending vital aid to Ukrainian Jewish communities

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In the dark winter months following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, residents of the port city of Odesa had electricity for just two hours a day, from midnight to 2 a.m.

During those precious hours, 17 Jewish families, members of Congregation Shirat Ha-Yam, were able to plug in donated power packs, giving them enough energy to run their heaters, charge their phones and cook their food in the day that followed.

Some 350 miles northeast in Poltava, members of that city’s small Reform congregation received an emergency generator last fall, which provided heat and light for the space they use as a Shabbat and meeting place.

The life-changing power packs and generator were paid for by Los Altos Hills’ Congregation Beth Am, which has supported the two Ukrainian Jewish communities for years. It has stepped up its aid dramatically since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

“It’s all about heat and light and warmth and food, and keeping them as safe as possible,” said Cherie Half, the longtime head of Beth Am’s Poltava/Odesa Committee.

In the past year, her committee has raised more than $75,000 from congregants, which has paid for the power packs and generator, as well as medical supplies and vouchers for food. Beth Am continues to send $2,000 a month to Poltava to buy food and medicine, items in short supply in the beleaguered country.

“The congregation has been very generous, donating ‘in memory of,’ or ‘in honor of,’” said Half.

J. spoke recently to the leaders of both Ukrainian congregations via Zoom to see how they are managing.

Both Poltava and Odesa have suffered in the Russian invasion, particularly Odesa, which had a population of 1 million before the war. Odesa suffered shelling and airstrikes throughout 2022, which caused extensive damage and civilian casualties. On May 16, Russian missiles struck Mykolaiv, just 70 miles north of the port city.

Members of Beth Am in Poltava, Ukraine, with groceries purchased with vouchers sent by Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills.
Members of Beth Am in Poltava, Ukraine, with groceries purchased with vouchers sent by Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills.

Poltava, a city of 280,000 situated about halfway between Russian-occupied Donetsk and the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, saw missile strikes in the early months of the war, and residents have been sheltering in basements periodically ever since. Russian drones hit the city as recently as late April.

More than 8 million refugees from Ukraine have entered Europe since the war began, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and some 5 million Ukrainians are internally displaced. Some who fled the country have returned. An unknown number of Ukrainian refugees are outside Europe; 270,000 have been admitted to the United States. It’s a very fluid situation.

Some 50,000 Ukrainian refugees were admitted into Israel the first year of the war, but just 15,000 or so were found eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. Most of the others have since left the country. In the Bay Area, hundreds of recent arrivals are being helped by Jewish agencies.

The last time J. interviewed Poltava’s congregational leader, Eugenia Noshenko, it was late February 2022 and she had to speak to J. from her basement shelter as explosions shattered the night air above her city. Her daughter Zhenya, then 19, had recently immigrated to Israel, and her husband was fighting the Russians somewhere on the front line.

Eugenia Noshenko (right), leader of the Beth Am in Poltava, Ukraine, with her daughter Zhenya in Ashdod, where Zhenya now lives.
Eugenia Noshenko (right), leader of the Beth Am in Poltava, Ukraine, with her daughter Zhenya in Ashdod, where Zhenya now lives.

When we spoke again this month, Noshenko, 40, was visiting her daughter in Ashdod, near the Gazan border. It was supposed to be her respite from the war in Ukraine, but she arrived just as rockets from Gaza began raining down on the Israeli city.

“There are rockets and bombings, and it’s horrible,” Noshenko said.

In Poltava, her husband was preparing to rejoin his combat unit after being badly injured in the fighting and recuperating in the hospital. Despite her own troubles, Noshenko has continued to run online services for her congregation every week, and at times has sheltered entire families in her home.

“I don’t know how she does it,” said Zhenya. “I’m scared for her every single day. There was one time when she was really scared during a bombing, and she said, ‘I don’t want to live if they come into my house, I don’t want them to kill me, I’ll do it myself.’ I wanted her to come here for a rest, but look what’s happening with the bombings here!”

Noshenko shakes her head as her daughter sings her praises before quickly turning the conversation to the rest of her Poltava community.

“I’m so grateful to Cherie and to Beth Am,” she said. “We have elderly people who need medicines, and we were able to buy them. We didn’t have a warm place to meet in winter, and then they gave us the generator. We have a disabled person in our community, and Beth Am gave us money for the medicine he needs. He’s recovering from surgery and is unable to walk right now.”

“He really likes the way I sing in Shabbat services,” Zhenya adds. “I try to sing as much as I can, to make him happy.”

“Thanks to the support from Beth Am, we got power banks for our phones,” added Noshenko. “In wartime it’s really important to have a connection with people — where are the bombings, how you are feeling, if you feel a panic attack coming on you can talk to someone.”

Noshenko received some training in how to counsel panicked people, and she provides what she calls “emergency support” for members of her congregation.

“It’s really hard for children,” she noted. “One child asked me, ‘Am I going to die?’ It’s excruciating to hear that from a child.”

Over the two decades that Beth Am has supported the Poltava community, its membership waxed and waned, with the most Jewishly literate young people usually leaving for Israel. Today Noshenko says the congregation has 26 members. She lives alone, with the weight of the community on her shoulders.

Members of Congregation Shirat Ha-Yam in Odesa, Ukraine, with a power generator donated by members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.
Members of Congregation Shirat Ha-Yam in Odesa, Ukraine, with a power generator donated by members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

That’s why, she says, she is so grateful that the World Union for Progressive Judaism brought her to Israel for an international conference in early May — with the added bonus of being able to see her daughter for the first time in two years.

“I felt the support of the entire community,” she said of the conference. “Feeling the connection of a community is so important.”

Shirat Ha-Yam in Odesa is a much larger Reform congregation, with some 200 members on the roster before Russia’s invasion. Beth Am began their support four years ago, at the request of the WUPJ. Russian-born Rabbi Julia Gris is their spiritual head, but when the war began she left for safety in Germany, where she continues to lead online worship services and Jewish studies classes for those who remained in Odesa. She also ministers in person to about 40 congregants who accompanied her to Germany.

Elena Izmailova, 34, grew up in the congregation and is now its chair. She has been in London since December looking for work while continuing to support those who remain in Odesa, processing food vouchers and other financial aid from Beth Am. Her husband, who is of military age, remains in Ukraine.

A former marketing executive, Izmailova says she tries to do her own fundraising to help “my friends fighting in the Ukrainian army,” as she describes them. But it’s not easy. “People are tired of hearing about Ukraine. It’s harder to collect money than it was a year ago,” she told J.

She, too, is effusive in her thanks to Beth Am, a Reform congregation with more than 1,300 member households.

“They really help us, all the time,” Izmailova said. “The [power packs] were a huge help. We had terrible trouble with electric power from November to March, we had to do everything in those two hours a day. With the generators, it’s a quick-charging battery we could use all day.”

The material support makes a huge difference to the Jews in these two Ukrainian communities, Izmailova and Noshenko said. But just as important is the moral support coming from Los Altos Hills. It shows that they are not alone, that someone on the outside cares about them.

“Cherie is like a mother to us,” said Noshenko’s daughter Zhenya.

“I call her our angel,” Izmailova added.

To that, Half responded, “The people there are so brave. It’s really amazing.”


How to help

To contribute to Congregation Beth Am’s fund to help Reform congregations in Poltava and Odesa, visit betham.org/poltava-odesa.

Other ways to help refugees and displaced Ukrainians:

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].