Two Lives, One Journey

You could say this is a story about conflict. You could say it’s about survival. Those are both true statements, but most of all, this is a story about love.

Shimon Leib and Esther Zuckerman were children of the Holocaust who fled Russia to save their lives during WWII. Shimon’s father died during the war, and Shimon lived for a time in an orphanage (JPost). After the war, he met Esther, the love of his life.

In the following decades, he and Esther built a life together in Lugansk, Ukraine, albeit one that wasn’t easy. Living in the Soviet Union as Jews, they were unable to have a religious wedding and continued to face prejudice and persecution. Determined to persevere, Shimon worked as an economist and academic, spending more than fifty years as a university instructor (JPost). They had two children, and eventually four grandchildren. No matter how difficult the circumstances, Shimon and Esther always looked towards a brighter future, and their Jewish heritage was important to them.

However, war and strife would pursue the Zuckermans in their senior years, just as it had when they were children.

Leaving Lugansk
In 2014, as the conflict between Russia and Ukraine intensified, cities in Eastern Ukraine came under fire, including the Zuckermans' hometown of Lugansk.

They fled the shelling in Lugansk, leaving behind their home and most of their possessions, and went to stay with their children in Donetsk, a city 150 miles away. For a time, that distance would represent the difference between life and death for the Zuckermans.

But as water and electricity were cut off in Donetsk, and the shelling there increased, the family made the decision to once again abandon all semblance of a normal life and run for their lives. This time, they chose to seek refuge in Dnepropetrovsk (Dnep).

 

Finding home…at last
Located along the Dneper River another 150 miles west of Donetsk, Dnep is both a refuge from the conflict further east and home to a strong Jewish community. It has made strides since Soviet times, and has become a welcome destination for those fleeing the fighting.

 

In 1992, as the Soviet Union dissolved, The National Conference for Post-Soviet Jewry matched Dnepropetrovsk and Boston as sister cities, and CJP and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) launched the Dnepropetrovsk-Kehillah Project (DKP) to help reestablish Jewish life in Dnep and build a social services infrastructure. Because of the DKP, humanitarian services which didn’t exist during the Soviet era are now accessible. This comprehensive assistance includes healthcare and medical training, crisis support during uncertain times, economic advancement programs, exchanges and missions.

Along with many other internally displaced people, the Zuckermans were offered refuge at Beit Baruch in Dnep, the only senior home in the former FSU, which took in both Jews and non-Jews. Beit Baruch is one of the major undertakings of the DKP.

A joyous day
As the Zuckermans settled in to a more secure life, a wonderful opportunity was presented. At the Menorah Center, not far from Beit Baruch, they were able to have the wedding they had always dreamed of. Both in their eighties, Shimon and Esther finally enjoyed the traditional Jewish ceremony, including shattering a glass wrapped in linen. Their children were present, the mood was euphoric, and, at long last, the conflict that had brought them to Dnep was transformed into unity and peace.  

Old and young celebrated as one that day at Beit Baruch. Those who had been displaced and were forced to leave behind everyone that was close to them, came together as a family. The rooms filled with unexpected laughter. Generations connected. The Zuckermans felt comfortable at Beit Baruch; they were safe, married, and as much in love as they had ever been. Life in Dnep was very different from what they had known—in a good way.

The Zuckermans joined many who have found their way in Dnep. “We have a very vibrant community, a good education system, and are able to provide essential services and support,” says Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk.

And Dnep’s Jewish community has seen remarkable growth. “In the last three months alone, we’ve helped 270 people to identify that they are Jewish. Now, for those 270 people that we helped, all have an average of five dependents, so there are so many who are becoming Jewish,” says Rabbi Kaminezki.

Visitors from Boston
In the winter of 2014, about a year after their marriage in Dnep, the Zuckermans met Ann Levin, a Boston-based CJP volunteer and chair of the DKP. “They were a lovely, sweet, beautiful couple, and the fact that they were finally able to have a Jewish wedding made them kind of celebrities,” she says.

Ann had come to Dnep to understand the situation on the ground and meet with internally displaced people. She was drawn to the Zuckermans’ compelling story of struggle and displacement, of losing their home and then their children’s home, and finally being left with nothing. “You can only try to imagine yourself in those footsteps,” she says. “When conflict strikes really vulnerable, elderly people, it’s all the more poignant. When you get to your 80s and you know you’re looking at more days behind you than ahead of you, it’s so much more difficult to start over. By virtue of Beit Baruch, for the Zuckermans and hundreds of other people, we’re able to take away some of that anxiety.”

As other internally displaced people moved on from Dnep, including Jews who made Aliyah to Israel, the Zuckermans decided to stay and continue living at Beit Baruch.

In March 2015, they learned another visitor from Boston was coming—CJP President Barry Shrage. Aware that the generosity of Boston’s Jewish community was in part responsible for their new life, they requested a meeting with Barry to express their thanks.

Sitting around a table in a bright, comfortable room, Shimon and Esther told Barry about their lives, and how they had fled their home and finally found safety in Dnep.

“In the name of the all the refugees, I want to thank you for this huge love you share with us. This is the kindness that doesn’t put us down. This kindness builds a new home for us. We want to go home of course, but we are thankful that now we have a home,” Shimon said.

“We’re glad that you’re here and safe,” Barry said. “The fundamental thing is to love and take care of your fellow Jews. That’s what we’ve always done for each other. The help you got is from this community, from these people. We help just a little bit.”

The meeting ended with hugs, smiles and handshakes. At that time, Shimon and Esther couldn’t know they would only have a few more months together.

Saying goodbye
In the fall of 2015, Esther fell ill. She was taken care of around the clock by the Beit Baruch staff until she needed to be admitted to the hospital.

While in the hospital, doctors from the DKP Jewish Medical Center constantly checked on her, and Shimon stayed by her side. Sadly, Esther’s illness overcame her, and she passed away on November 12, 2015…just 2 days past her 83rd birthday

Shimon was inconsolable, and was comforted by his son, the local community, and the Beit Baruch staff. Esther was buried in the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Dnep.

“Though we could not spare them the trauma of the war in the East, we were able to make the last year or so of their life together warm and loving, and to care for Esther until the end,” says Ann. “We were able to do more than help them survive. We gave them another home, and a community.”

A legacy of caring and volunteerism
The cemetery where Esther is buried has its own connection to Boston. In June 2011, CJP and JCRC ran a Young Leaders Service Mission to Dnep. Participants came from Boston and Haifa to join with some neighbors in Dnep to clean up the cemetery where Esther would later be buried.

The cemetery had been neglected for decades. It was overgrown, littered, and anything but comforting to those who visited.

Among the participants was Dave Shoenig, currently chair of the Dnepropetrovsk-Kehillah Project Next Gen Initiative. “At first the young adults from Dnep didn’t understand why we would travel so far to perform this task,” says Dave, who knew there was more going on than just cutting tree limbs and removing overgrown vegetation. “We came together to change one small piece of the world because we are all one Jewish world and one Jewish community.”

The project was so big it couldn’t be finished in one trip. When the Boston participants left, they were unsure how the cleanup would be completed. “The concept of volunteerism really didn’t exist in the Soviet Union,” explains Ann. “There was no ethos around the idea, and this was the Dnep’s group first experience with it.”

However, the spirit of working together inspired some of the young people of Dnep to get involved.

“About one year later, I returned to Dnep to find that the young adults continued the project on their own, clearing the cemetery section by section….and that they had even started other outreach projects in the community,” says Dave. “They said to me, ‘We get it! We understand now.’“

Today, the beautifully kept cemetery serves as a reminder of how people can come together.

"To see these kids pick up on the idea of volunteerism, to keep it going, is really heartwarming,” says Ann. “Shimon can go to the cemetery and visit his wife. It’s something we take for granted here.”

For now, Shimon continues to live in Dnep, where the community invites him to Shabbat dinners, the staff at Beit Baruch checks in on him all the time, and he can visit Esther in the cemetery. Whether he will move to Kiev with his son or continue his life at Beit Baruch remains undecided.

Background information for this story came from JPost’s article 19 Weddings and a Refugee Crisis by Sam Sokol

Learn more the Dnepropetrovsk-Kehillah Project

Read our Q&A with Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk

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