It has been nearly two years since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, escalating the conflict between the two countries to new heights and making it visible to a global audience.
In Baltimore, community members have been making considerable efforts to aid Odesa, Baltimore’s sister city in Ukraine, as well as the country at large. More specifically, The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore’s Baltimore-Odesa Partnership has been working to support Ukraine’s Jewish population through fundraising and sending aid. The partnership has also been working with Ukrainian refugees who have made the long journey from Ukraine to the United States to escape the war.
“Volunteering has become one of the most important areas in all Ukraine since the war began,” said Oksana Nelina, the Baltimore-Odesa Partnership coordinator on the ground in Odesa. Nelina has been a coordinator for the partnership for over seven years, long before the war escalated to its current state, and she helps oversee the delivery of donations and aid to Odesa citizens and organizations. “Prior to the war, the Odesa Jewish community had a volunteer arm but it was nothing compared to what is going on now,” she added.
During Chanukah, The Associated held a virtual candle lighting that featured all three of its partner cities: Baltimore, Odesa and Ashkelon in Israel. Both Odesa and Ashkelon are undergoing significant turmoil due to wars in both countries.
“[The candle lighting] brought additional light to this very dark time,” Nelina said. “People from Ashkelon, Baltimore and Odesa sang together, recited the blessings over the candles and were strengthened by seeing each other onscreen and commemorating the holiday together.”
In addition to holding events meant to benefit Ukraine, The Associated has also been providing financial support. Portions of funding from The Associated’s annual campaign are sent to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel, both of which have representatives in Odesa.
The Baltimore-Odesa Partnership itself also allocates funds to five Jewish-focused organizations in Odesa. In addition to JDC and JAFI, it supports the local chapters of Moishe House and PJ Library, as well as ORT Jabotinski School #94, a vocational school for Jewish students.
“Since the outbreak of the war, there has been a government requirement for schools in Odesa to have shelters for in-person learning,” said Neil Katz, one of The Associated’s Baltimore-Odesa Partnership ambassadors. “The Odesa ORT Jabotinski School #94 did not have the infrastructure to make this possible, so students have been learning virtually since Feb. 2022. Thanks in part to the generosity of The Associated’s Baltimore-Odesa Partnership, funding was directed towards the implementation of an underground shelter, and the school opened in person on Dec. 4. … This is such welcoming news at a devastating time.”
For it part, PJ Library used its funds to translate children’s books into Ukrainian to send to families who may have had to leave their personal collections of books behind while fleeing war zones or taking refuge in other countries.
While the situation in Israel has taken much of The Associated’s attention, it has helped Jews in both Odesa and Ashkelon to establish connections with each other due to their shared experiences. Much of this is based on the idea of “Kol Yisrael Zeh Bazeh” — that all Jewish people are responsible for one another.
“It is amazing to see how the two partnership communities are supporting one another at these devastating times through social media and personal messages,” Katz said.
Currently, Katz and Nelina believe that the most important thing that people outside of
Ukraine can do to support Ukrainians is to stay informed about the conflict. They suggest following the partnership’s Facebook page, where they post stories from Odesa.
The partnership is also planning a program to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the invasion and discuss the progress they have made in Ukraine, as well as their future goals as Odesa’s sister city.