JDC is in Turkey Helping Provide Relief and Recovery After Devasting Earthquakes

As of February 7th, 4:00 p.m. local time in Turkey, JDC is one of the few international organizations that have managed to arrive in areas hardest hit by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and its many aftershocks. JDC’s disaster relief expert and the director of our operations in Turkey are on-site, coordinating with local and incoming international partners to assess emerging needs among both Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

JDC has joined in the frantic efforts on the ground and is focused on search and rescue, clearing massive piles of rubble from pancaked buildings and shattered cars, and addressing the immediate needs of people whose homes were destroyed or damaged. Many people are afraid to return home, worrying that further quakes are yet to come. People are sleeping in their cars, huddling in cafes, and sitting outside on benches in the dust-filled, wintery air. Some are standing by collapsed buildings of family members, trying to keep hope alive as disaster crews work. Thousands of volunteers are desperately helping these crews with their ungloved hands. Hospitals are filling up with body bags and injured people, and ambulances continue to arrive. The mood is a mix of shock, despair, and dwindling hope that missing loved ones will be found alive.

In Turkey, 5,894 people are confirmed to have been killed. There are fears that the toll will rise inexorably, with World Health Organization officials estimating up to 20,000 may have died.

This situation in Turkey is both dire and devastating, and the images and videos coming out of the country are nothing short of heartbreaking.

JDC is moving quickly to care for the immediate needs of the Jewish and non-Jewish survivors and implement a short-medium term recovery plan.


Winter Survival In Ukraine: How JDC Is Helping Those In Need

Winter Survival In Ukraine: How JDC Is Helping Those In Need

Not only does Ukraine have a nearly year-long war to contend with, but it is facing its deadliest winter in years, with the country being frozen for months.

JDC is committed to easing the pressure on Jewish people in the country by providing them with inter-relief aid such as heaters, cooking stoves, sleeping bags for sub-zero temperatures, rechargeable torches, blankets, fleece-lined clothing, wood, coal and energy bill subsidies.

See how we are helping below:

Energy supply cuts caused by Russia’s heavy bombardment of the country’s infrastructure are combining with freezing cold winter weather to create a deadly cocktail, the World Health Organization has warned.

“This winter will be life-threatening for millions of people in Ukraine,” according to Dr Hans Henri Kluge, the United Nations health agency’s regional director for Europe.

One Refugee Worker In Moldova Discusses Her Lifesaving Work With Jewish Refugees

One Refugee Worker In Moldova Discusses Her Lifesaving Work With Jewish Refugees

Since the war in Ukraine Liudmila MeSincchina has worked tirelessly as part of JDC’s Ukraine crisis response, bringing food, medicine, and hope to Ukraine’s Jews.

Host. Therapist. Driver. These three terms, and more, described Liudmila when she was Logistics Coordinator at the JDC-supported Dacia Marin refugee centre in Vadul lui Vodă, Moldova.  Now she is revealing the JDC’s refugee response, her own JDC story, and the values that power her life-saving mission.

Here is her story in its entirety:

The refugees arrive without a change of clothes. They are exhausted, angry, and terrified. But I welcome them, make them feel at home, and take care of logistics.

Almost all their stories are the same, aside from small differences. All of them escaped, some with their children and elderly parents. And everyone wants to return home. Like anyone would, they want to get back to a sense of normalcy.

My responsibilities are many: I welcome refugees, distribute food, provide accommodation, and coordinate logistics for people’s eventual departure. Me and my team also provide mental and physical support––some people aren’t mobile–––and entertain the children: Everyone gets individual attention.

We give all we can to ease their pain. I gather clothes and shoes for the children and elderly. And after a few days, they calm down. They see that people like me are here who help, to help process their documents, help purchase their tickets, help with whatever they need, emotional, physical, and spiritual. 

We don’t just treat the whole person––we help their animals, too, if they have them.  Many people bring pets, so we have to help transport them by air. We also give people the contacts of veterinary services which can microchip and vaccinate animals.

I bring more than 15 years of Jewish organizational experience to this work, and, in a strange, imperfect parallel to the people I help, my own pain brought me here.  

It all began at the JDC-supported Kedem Jewish Cultural Center in Chișinău. When he was little, my son enjoyed the kids’ activities there,  and I felt like I wanted to share a part of myself there, too.

Around that time, I had just turned 50, and I had needed cancer surgery. My surgery happened on almost the same day as my 50th. The doctors told me the operation had happened at just the right time. On top of that, my husband and I divorced when my son was four; I raised my little boy on my own a single mother.

Alone and stressed, my Jewish life gave me strength and community. And throughout this time, JDC provided unceasing support. Eventually, I was invited to come work at Kedem. They knew my skillset, and thought I could contribute a lot. I worked my way up to become Kedem’s, Chief Administrator. And since I studied developmental and child psychology, I know how to communicate with people of different ages. I still work there to this day: All’s well that ends well.

This experience has allowed me to give the people here the best possible assistance.

And here in Moldova, we’re seeing the results right in front of our eyes. Thanks to JDC, many people have already left to start new lives. Bit by bit, we have streamlined our system to meet everyone’s needs quickly and effectively. Moving countries is confusing and bureaucratic at the best of times. In the throes of crisis, it feels nearly impossible. 

Luckily, JDC helps people every step of the way. 

At night, my head is full of thoughts about whether people managed to get to their destinations, if they’re safe if they’re happy. I am so glad when they call me with good news. Because of these worries, I can hardly sleep. 

But still, I keep going.

As the Ukraine Conflict Continues, JDC Increase Its Life-Saving Care for Jews and Jewish Refugees in Europe

As the Ukraine Conflict Continues, JDC Increase Its Life-Saving Care for Jews and Jewish Refugees in Europe

Ukraine’s vibrant Jewish community is one of the largest in the world, home to an estimated 200,000 Jews prior to the current Ukraine crisis. Since the collapse of communism, JDC has worked across the former Soviet Union (FSU) to save Jewish lives and build Jewish life. In Ukraine alone, JDC has been serving over 42,000 Jewish elderly and 2,500 poor Jewish children and their families through our network of care services, Jewish community programs, and Jewish leaders.

As the world prepares to commemorate one year since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) continues expanding its life-saving humanitarian relief efforts for tens of thousands of vulnerable Jews in Ukraine and Jewish refugees in Europe. This includes ever-widening aid to survive the winter months; material support such as food, medicine, housing and utility subsidies; integration support for refugees in European Jewish communities; and trauma support through six trauma centres around Ukraine.

“Although the crisis no longer carries every headline, the most vulnerable Ukrainian Jews –including the elderly, the new poor, the internally displaced, and refugees – are still living through this conflict every day, and we must redouble our efforts to ensure their ongoing care and community life now and for the future,” said JDC CEO Ariel Zwang. “We can take a pause and note all we have achieved – and acknowledge an endless debt of gratitude to our heroic staff and volunteers and to our stalwart partners and supporters – but our work continues. We urge the Jewish community and all people to join us in sharing stories of Ukrainian Jewish perseverance and hope to remind the public that more needs to be done to support this community.”

Right now, you can help us continue to be a lifeline for Ukraine’s most vulnerable Jews caught in the devastating throes of conflict.

Donate today.

hannukkah dreidel

All You Need to Know About Chanukah

All You Need to Know About Chanukah

hebrew candlestick holder burning


Also known as the festival of lights, the festival begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which generally falls somewhere in December on the regular calendar. 

The reason that it changes each year is because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which signifies that dates of holidays change from year to year. 

So why is Chanukah celebrated, why does it go for 8 days, and what’s the significance of the candles? 

Here’s all you need to know. 

Historical Context 

The Ben Ezra Synagogue is the oldest Jewish temple in Cairo, dating from the 9th century AD.

The story begins in ancient times, some time after the death of Alexander the Great, who conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea (among many others). He was a relatively benevolent ruler, and allowed people religious autonomy. 

However, after his death, the Holy Land was ruled by Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) who attempted to force the Jewish community to abandon mitzvah observance and belief in God.

As you can imagine, this oppression greatly saddened the Jewish populus. Led by a man named Judah the Maccabee, a small, modestly armed militia of Jews went to take the Holy Temple back by force from the Greeks. 

By nothing short of a miracle, the Jews managed to defeat the vastly superior Greek army and drive them out of the lands, reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and once again dedicate it to God, and servitude to him. 

Here’s where the significance of Chanukah’s iconography starts to emerge. 

When the victorious Jews entered the temple to light its Menorah (seven light Candelabra), they realised to their dismay that only a tiny portion of olive oil had been left uncontaminated by the Greeks. 

Once again, against the odds, they managed to light the Menorah with the little remaining olive oil and the minute supply of oil lasted for a stunning 8 days, while new oil was being purified for use. 

And thus, to commemorate this extraordinary series of events for the Jews, the sages at the time decided to commence Chanukah, which is celebrated to this day.

How Is Chanukah Celebrated?

Hannukah celebration JDC

At the core of every Chanukah celebration is the iconic lighting of the menorah. 

The menorah is known to hold nine flames, eight which are located on the candlelabrah and the one used to light them all. 

On the first night, the first candle is lit, followed by a second the following evening. This proceeds until on the remaining eighth night, all candles on the menorah are kindled and providing light. 

In respect to Shabbat, the menorah is lit before the Shabbat candles and extinguished after. 

Menorah’s are lit everywhere in the Jewish community, ranging from houses, synagoges and public spaces. The lighting is frequently accompanied by special blessings, traditional melodies and music. 

Along with this, celebratory meals and exchanging of money and gifts are usually essential components of a Chanukah. 

Chanukah Iconography

So what things are you likely to find in a contemporary Chanukah celebration? While there exists variations in Jewish communities worldwide, here’s a few things you’ll find quite common at Chanukah celebrations. 


hannukkah dreidel

During Chanukah festivities, it’s customary to play games with a Dreidel, which is a four sided spinning top with each side possessing a letter of the hebrew alphabet (Nun, Gimel, Hey or Chai, and Shin)

The game dates back thousands of years, and is quite fun to play. Here are the rules if you’re interested in learning how to play.


Chanukah gelt coins

Gelt is typically the name given to the money gifted during the festival of Chanukah (although there is chocolate gelt), most commonly to younger individuals. 

This shiny gift has also been known to be given to teachers and is also frequently given in conjunction with the dreidel game. In more recent times (last few centuries), Chanukah has come to be associated with the Hebrew word for education chinukh. 

Chanukah Foods

Since the significance of the Chanukah holiday is centred around the miracle of the oil burning for 8 days, it’s quite customary to eat foods covered and fried in oil. 


closeup fried potato latkes

Latkes are a renowned favourite when Chanukah rolls around each year. They’re essentially fried potato pancakes which serve as a reminder of the oil miracle in the Chanukah tale.

As it goes which fried potato products, there exist numerous variations to this recipe that are enjoyed all over the world. 

A few of these examples include Latkes made with sweet potatoes, cheese and red pepper, butternut pumpkin, and zucchini. These delicious treats usually are served with sour cream and applesauce.



If you’re looking for something sweet, but still fried in oil and reminiscent of the miracle of Chanukah, then look no further than the beloved favourite known as Sufganiyot. 

Sufganiyot is a fried doughnut, packed full of jelly and sometimes other goodies, making it the perfect dessert after a large holiday meal. 

In Jewish communities in the US and Israel, they are referred to as sufganiot, the Hebrew word for doughnuts. 


roasted beef with herbed bread

This mouthwatering dish is commonly seen as an entree for many Jewish holidays as well as Chanukah, including Rosh Hasanah and Passover. 

Unlike its American counterpart, Jewish brisket is always braised and served hot, often in accompaniment with ingredients such as potato kugel, tomato based sauce with carrots and onions, and a bunch of other vegetables. 

It’s a very hearty dish and a perfect way to kick off a dinner celebration. 

Global Jewish Reflections | Finding a Modern-Day Mishkan in Jewish Bulgaria

As we celebrate Sukkot, Rabbi Evan Sheinhait reflects on the mishkan — the mobile tabernacle the Israelites built in the desert — and connects it to the Jewish community of Bulgaria.


Rabbi Evan Sheinhait, left, poses for a photo at a home visit in Sofia, Bulgaria during his recent JDC Entwine Insider Trip with Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

By Rabbi Evan Sheinhait – JDC Entwine Participant | October 7, 2022

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

In Exodus, we describe a new dwelling place for God in excruciating detail — the mishkan. This is a structure that the entire community will help construct, support, and carry with them as they move through the desert from slavery to freedom. The latter half of Exodus is devoted to the intricate details of the mishkan. From blue, purple, and crimson yarns ordaining the outside to golden almonds and pomegranates decorating the ritual objects within to even the surprising mention of dolphin skins, it’s a structure that would make even the streets of Paris and Barcelona look simple.

While we don’t have the biblical mishkan today, this idea has inspired our sacred spaces from the Temple in Jerusalem to the structures we build during the holiday of Sukkot. For a week, we live in ornate sukkot. Decorated with tapestries, twinkling lights to brighten the night, and of course, the New England fall necessity — a pumpkin, the sukkah becomes an extension of our homes. It illustrates, quite literally, the values we live by and the traditions sacred within our hearts. The mishkan and the sukkah exist as models for the Jewish people searching to create a home wherever in the world they are.

Rabbi Evan Sheinhait
Rabbi Evan Sheinhait

On a recent JDC Entwine Insider Trip in tandem with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, I entered a modern mishkan at the Sofia Synagogue in Bulgaria’s capital city. This third-largest synagogue in Europe dominates the skyline of the city center and the Stars of David glimmer in the sunlight for all to see. It’s a central home for the local community, and it was at the synagogue where I was introduced to the Beyoncé of Jewish Bulgaria: Lika Ashkenazi. Lika’s warmth envelops you the moment you approach her and she becomes the aunt you didn’t know you had. She leads the Ladino choir as they sing classics of secular and liturgical Ladino music, from “Ein Keloheinu” to Sephardic love ballads. She sings on the steps of the Sofia Synagogue as if it’s the TD Garden, and we joked that she only needs a smoke machine to make her performance tour-ready. Though we’d only met an hour earlier, Lika led our group in song and taught us traditional Bulgarian Jewish dancing, the cousin to the hora. In the shadow of the massive synagogue, I joined the community in laughter and dance.

Written on Lika’s face are the stories of her ancestors, and it’s become her mission to keep the Bulgarian Sephardic tradition alive. Many Bulgarian Jews have lost the ability to speak Ladino, just as many American Jews have lost the ability to speak Yiddish and the other languages of our ancestors. Despite not knowing the language, community members share in Lika’s delight in their traditional culture. Lika has taken it upon herself to be the preserver and distributor of Bulgarian Jewish culture. She becomes a celebrity because of her obligations. Despite a language barrier, she communicates her tradition beautifully so we understand and appreciate it in ways beyond words. Lika takes your hand and brings you into song and dance. She hands over guardianship, making you a chain in this beautiful tradition. With Lika’s commitment. the community feels whole. Lika transforms the synagogue from a beautifully ornate but static building into a place that reverberates love and wisdom. In the center of the Bulgarian capital city, the Sofia Synagogue exists as a mishkan for the Bulgarian Jewish community.

A home is more than a building. A synagogue is more than just a synagogue. These spaces are inspirations to celebrate contemporary Jewish life. What defines a mishkan in our modern time period is the ability to take our traditional values and update them with modern practices. It takes the simple bricks and stones of our buildings and transforms them into sacred living.

“A home is more than a building. A synagogue is more than just a synagogue. These spaces are inspirations to celebrate contemporary Jewish life”.

As I danced in the synagogue’s courtyard, the questions of contemporary living came alive. As I roamed the streets of Sofia, I witnessed people take their identity and generate honest expressions of Judaism. And as I sit in my balcony sukkah this year, decorated with some new souvenirs, I will delight in the power of the mishkan, an idea that keeps our communities thriving and dancing into the new year.

Mo’adim l’Simcha!

Rabbi Evan Sheinhait is a passionate community builder who celebrates vibrant and meaningful Jewish identity, exploring what Jewish life can and must look like in the 21st century. Throughout his rabbinate, Rabbi Evan has worked with Hillels and synagogues across the East Coast. Evan is a proud graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a Bachelor of Arts in Judaic Studies, and ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2019. Evan has participated on JDC Entwine trips to Ramle, Israel — with the Beta Israel (Ethiopian) community — and Sofia, Bulgaria. On the side, Evan loves to read spy novels, travel to new places with his dog Lilith, and cook dishes from around the world with his wife Micaela.

JDC has had a decades-long relationship with the Bulgarian Jewish community, supporting welfare and community development.

Jews fleeing Yemen by plane

Operation Magic Carpet – The Little Known Mass Evacuation of Yemen

Yemen Jews on the tarmac making their way to Israel. Photo credit: JDC Archives.


Chances are you might have heard of the modern exodus of the Jews of Ethiopia during Operations Moses and Solomon, which together airlifted some 22,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel over 1984-1985, which was an astonishing feat for its time.

However, there also happens to be another mass evacuation of Jews that occurred some 35 years before.

The dramatic exodus in question is the post WW2 evacuation (referred to as Operation Magic Carpet) of over 48,000 Jews from Yemen from 1949-1950.

So why was this evacuation so significant?

For Yemen Jews, life in the 20th century was for the most part, desolate. They were categorised as second-class citizens, having gradually seen their rights and autonomy crumble over generations.

In fact, life as a Jew in Yemen had been like this for a while.

By multiple accounts, it is believed that the Jewish community in Yemen had been established since the turn of the second century. Yemenite Jews have their own customs and practice of Judaism dating back to this period and are in that sense unlike Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other Jewish groups.

One Yemenite Jewish legend tells that Jews came to the Arab Peninsula during the reign of King Solomon, having sent Jewish merchants to Yemen to prospect for gold and silver. A southern Yemenite Jewish (Habban) tradition details their descendants belonging to a brigade sent by Herod the Great to assist the Roman legions fighting in the region.

Life until the arrival of Shiite-Zaydi clan in the early 10th century was relatively peaceful for Yemenite Jews, enjoying freedom of religion on the condition of paying tax and little to no persecution from the tolerant Sunni Muslims in power at the time.

Unfortunately for the Jewish community, after taking power, the Zaydi rule stretched for over 1,000 years and marked the beginning of a long history marked by persecution, oppression and subjugation by the population and the state.

Cruel decrees from the state included second class citizen status, inability to touch a Muslim’s food and banned from defending themselves if attacked by Muslims.

One of the more notable of these suppressive motions was the Orphan’s Decree.

This stated that if a Jewish youth’s father died, the child was to be taken by the state and then converted to Islam, by force. During the Ottoman rule, the law was swept to the side, largely ignored, and rarely enforced.

A major catalyst for the evacuation of Yemenite Jews was the enforcement of the Orphan’s Decree by the hand of Imam Yahya.

Jewish orphans were abducted from the community, with little opportunity for release. The families and communities rallied for solutions and the return of their youth, including moving them to large cities and hiding them with other Jews, or marrying them off to give them the status as an adult.

As this cruel law was strictly enforced, the Jews of Yemen began to emigrate to what was then Palestine.

In 1947 following the partition vote in which the UN voted to split Palestine giving half to Arabs and half to Jews, Arab Muslims in Yemen caused a riot, killing 82 Jews in Aden and destroying hundreds of Jewish homes, while in the process torching the Jewish quarter.

This traumatic period compounded with a chain of events, notably gradually rising tensions between the Jewish and Islamic community (especially after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948) led to the emigration of virtually the entire Yemenite Jewish community between 1949 and September 1950.

As Egypt had closed the Suez Canal to the Yemenite Jews, they had little choice but to travel by air to Israel.

Britain agreed to establish an air transit camp in the Crown Colony of Aden where Yemenite Jews could embark on their airlift to Israel.

Titled Operation Magic Carpet, the JDC planned, organised and financed the passage of 48,000 Yemenite Jews from Aden to Israel.

Close to 450 flights were chartered in collaboration with Alaska Airlines, airlifting the entire Jewish community from Yemen to Israel. Yemenite Jews travelled hundreds of kilometres crossing deserts, mountains, and borders, often on foot to arrive in Aden from where they were taken to Israel.

Today, the majority of Yemenite Jews live in Israel and are all that remain of the 2000-year legacy of Yemenite Jewry. It is estimated there is one Jew remaining in Yemen, with allegations that there may be more practicing in secret.

Rosh Hashanah typical sweets

Rosh Hashanah, What You Need to Know

It’s coming up to that time of the year on the Jewish calender when Jews will be sending greetings and wishes of “Shanah Tovah” around the world.

Rosh Hashanah typical sweets

Why are they doing this you ask?

Shanah Tovah means Happy New Year in Hebrew, which as you might have guessed, means Jewish New Year is right around the corner.

If you’re not familiar with Rosh Hashanah, the time of Rosh Hashanah for the Jewish world is the celebration of the arrival of Jewish New Year.

Let’s dig a little deeper into why this is such a special day for the Jewish world and what exactly it involves.

What is Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Year is a two-day religious holiday that marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays each fall.

The phrase means “head of the year” in Hebrew.

This religious holiday is also known as the Day of Trumpets, since according to tradition a wind instrument called a shofar is used. It is made from the horn of a kosher animal, whose sound symbolizes the blowing of a trumpet when a king is crowned by his people.
How is Rosh Hashanah Celebrated?

Rosh Hashanah begins at dusk on the first day of Tishrei (the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar) with the sound of the shofar, to awaken people from their slumber. It commemorates the creation of the first man, according to the Torah.

According to tradition, after the horn sounds, candles are lit during the two nights of Rosh Hashanah and the typical dishes of this religious festival are eaten. Some Jews make a habit of turning off electrical and electronic appliances.

As a curious and interesting fact, the horn is not blown if one of the two days of Rosh Hashanah falls on the Sabbath.

The Avinu Malkeinu (Jewish Our Father) is recited during these important dates and the phrases shana tová (which means good year) or shana tová metuká (happy and sweet year) are said.

The Jewish New Year begins with 10 days of repentance, known as Yamim Noraim (the Dreadful Days). It is the name of the days that pass between the new year and Yom Kippur (Day of Forgiveness or Atonement), considered the most important celebration in Judaism.

Subsequently, the Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated, which commemorates God’s protection of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert in search of the Promised Land.

Modern Day Rosh Hashanah

young jewish men celebrating Rosh Hashanah

Jewish life today is characterized by its diversity and Rosh Hashanah is no exception.

There are many different ways of celebrating this holiday, depending on the type of observance of each individual Jew as well as on family traditions, many of which have to do with the historical geographical dispersion of Jews throughout the world, during which communities developed their own special rites.

In addition to the rest and blowing of the shofar, many Jews around the world greet the holiday with one or two symbol-filled family dinners.

Many will ring in the year by attending special services in synagogues while for others the holiday is welcomed with family or friends.

Of course, as befits any Jewish celebration, there is wine and there is usually a lot (some would say too much) food.

We’ll touch more on this topic in the next section.

Foods of Rosh Hashanah

An essential (and fun) aspect of all Jewish holiday celebrations around the world is the food.

And it makes sense, is there really a better way to bring people together?

Among the foods that are consumed during Rosh Hashanah, the following are very tasty notable standouts:

Gefilte fish (ground fish with onion, carrot and parsley that is baked in the form of a stick or boiled in the form of meatballs.

Lajmayin (a kind of meat pie).

Reshta (pasta and chicken).

Apples dipped in honey (symbolizing the wish for a sweet new year)

Apple cake with honey (as pictured below)

apple and honey cakes for Rosh Hashanah

Photo credit: Monday Morning Cooking Club

Round Honey Challah (a sweet bread).


Various types of jams

How Can You Help This Jewish New Year

While holidays of this nature are always a fantastic opportunity to enjoy the company of family and friends, it’s also a time to reflect that there are those less fortunate.

Not everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a meal and take some time off with the ones that matter most.

Which is why at JDC, we’re raising money to support the individuals in Ukraine who are most affected by the deveasting situation unfolding in their country currently.

If you’d like to support the cause, check out this page for info on donating to Ukraine this Rosh Hashanah.

JDC staff helping a woman in Ukraine

Polensky family

A Tale of Two Photographs by Ian Grinblat

On Sunday 15 May, seventy-five members of the extended Polonsky family gathered in a private home for a reunion. The original Polonsky settlers have all passed on but the reunion brought together one remaining daughter of the original group, fourteen grandchildren and many great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. To mark the occasion, members of the family donated to The Joint to recognise its role in the original migration. Below is an extract of the family’s journey.

Polensky family
Polonsky Family, Nikopol, Ukraine, April 1909


Back L-R: Jack (1892), Yochanan (1886), Aron (1890), Yechezkiel (1894)Seated L-R: Raphael (1885), Chassia (mother, 1862), Ephraim (father, 1860), Mechlia (1884), Myer (1880)At front L-R: Alec (1903), Ben (1900), Harry Spivakovsky (1906, son of Mechlia)

Two family-group photographs bookend the migration of the entire Polonsky family from Ukraine to Australia.
The portrait above was taken in Nikopol, Ukraine, when the entire family had gathered at home for Pesach. Yochanan, second from the left in the back row, was on leave from the Army; Jack, Aron, Raphael and Myer worked in various trades in distant towns; and Mechlia lived in a forest town with her husband Chaim. Only Ben and Alec were still living at home with their parents.

In 1911, when Yochanan returned from military service, he and Raphael set out to the newly developed far eastern port city of Harbin (Manchuria) where they hoped to improve themselves. After a two-week rail journey which carried them across the Russian Empire from west to east, the brothers reached their destination only to find that the city was experiencing a serious economic slump.

Early in 1913, Raphael and Yochanan decided to seek new opportunities. Together with a friend, Lazar Frack, they travelled south by train to Shanghai where they embarked on a ship for Brisbane where some other Russian Jews, disillusioned with Harbin, had settled successfully. Without any English, they could only find work as labourers, at first in the cane fields, and later the railways. Unused to the heat and the hard physical labour, they resolved to return to Russia as soon as they could accumulate some money, but something changed for them because after twelve months of back-breaking work, they sent £100 to their father, Ephraim, to pay for the whole family to join them in Australia.
At the time he received the money, Ephraim had already relocated with Chassia and Alec, to the provincial city of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov; the construction company which employed him had won an important contract to extend the Berdyansk pier.

World War I broke out in August 1914 and almost immediately, Jack and Yechezkiel were called up for military service. This was no time to emigrate; Ephraim put the money in safe keeping intending to emigrate with his family after the end of hostilities. Ben, just a lad of fourteen, who had been under Jack’s care in Warsaw, working as a messenger, returned to his parents. Although both Jack and Yechezkiel were posted to the Austrian front, they were in different sectors. In 1915 Jack was taken prisoner by the Austrians, but in August of the same year, the family received the report that Yechezkiel had been reported missing and was now presumed dead. Aron was called up in 1916 and was taken prisoner by the Turks on the front in the Cauacasian mountains. When he learned that Aron was also a prisoner, Jack who was working in an administrative role in the POW camp in Reichenberg, Bohemia (now Liberec, Czech Republic), arranged for Aron to be transferred to the same camp. After the February Revolution in St Petersburg, the Russian Provisional Government continued to prosecute the war and even Myer was conscripted despite being a husband and father.

After the Communist Revolution took place in October 1917, the new government under Lenin abandoned their British, French and Italian allies (Entente Powers) to make a separate peace with Germany, Austria and Turkey (Central Powers). The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918 whereupon Aron and Jack were freed from Austrian prison camp but had to make their own way home over a great distance. Myer’s unit disbanded and he was able to return to his family, but Aron and Jack, having already taken many months to reach their sister’s home in Cherkassy, under Red control, were forced to remain there until the spring of 1919 because Berdyansk was under White control. The civil war interrupted all communications within Russia and Ukraine and as a result, all contact between the family in Australia and Russia was broken.

Only a short time after Pesach 1919, the White forces re-took Berdyansk and both Aron and Jack were conscripted once again. Aron returned six months later seriously sick and was nursed back to health at home. The unending civil war destroyed people’s livelihoods and Ephraim found himself jobless when work on the pier had to be abandoned; he used the £100 to rent a small shop and stock it with salted, smoked and dried fish which he imported from Kerch, at the entrance to the Sea of Azov.

In the Spring of 1922, a two-pronged relief arrived – essential foodstuffs and medical supplies were distributed by the American Joint Distribution Committee, and the family received a reply to Aron’s letter. It was unequivocal – Aron and Jack should marry without delay, and the family was to come to Australia – no-one should remain in Russia. Yochanan was in Constantinople (now Istanbul) with Australian visas for them all; he instructed them to go to Batum (now Batumi, Georgia) and enclosed US currency for that purpose. Yochanan had closed his shop in West Wyalong New South Wales, consigned all his stock to Raphael’s larger shop in Hay, NSW, and proceeded to Melbourne, then the seat of the Australian Government, to obtain visas for the entire family including children and fiancées. He sailed to London where he learned about the work of The Joint in assisting Jews to leave Russia. On that basis, he travelled across Europe by train (The Orient Express) to Constantinople and began to work with the fledgeling Jewish relief fund.

Aron and Rita married in November 1922 in her parents’ home in Crimea. Jack and Shiphra married on Christmas Day 1922 in her mother’s home in Cherkassy, and immediately, the first group began the long journey. Fourteen-strong, the family could ill-afford to attract attention; the second group left two-weeks later in January 1923. Under Red control, the railways were operating reliably but inflation was rampant causing ticket prices to be re-issued every day – one US dollar could purchase fifty million Russian roubles.

The rail journey to the Black Sea port of Batum, proceeded smoothly in three stages: first to Rostov-on-Don (270 km), then to Baku, in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea (1300 km), and finally to Batum (700 km). The small Jewish community of Batum was almost overwhelmed by the influx of Jewish refugees. A local grocer, Mr Fantalis, worked as the agent for The Joint; he shuttled repeatedly between Batum and Tbilisi, the capital, (an uncomfortable day-long rail journey in each direction) to obtain exit visas for the refugees, and it was he who negotiated with the captains of cargo vessels to carry groups of Jews to Constantinople in the empty holds.
When the Polonsky family embarked from Batum, a Friday afternoon early in April 1922, the Jewish passengers assembled on the deck for Kabbalat Shabbat and, according to Alec who was twenty years old, everyone participated, their singing strong and heartfelt. He remembered it vividly in his old age – such was their relief at leaving Russia behind.

After celebrating Pesach in Constantinople with Yochanan, the family proceeded, again in two groups, to Port Said, where the first group embarked on Ville de Strasbourg, a French ship, disembarking in Melbourne on 22 May 1923. The second group expanded to include Yochanan who had devoted nine months to working as a volunteer with The Joint while he waited for his family in Constantinople. Together they travelled on Moreton Bay, a new ship of the Australian Commonwealth Line, disembarking in Melbourne approximately two weeks after the first group.

Although Yochanan and Raphael paid the cost for their family’s travel, the migration would not have been possible without the work of The Joint, a remarkable organisation established by wealthy American Jews to improve the welfare of Jews everywhere.

The second bookend is a portrait, taken in late 1924, of a family that in remarkably short time learnt English and settled in Melbourne. Raphael never withdrew his guidance and support until his untimely death in January 1941. Just four months after their parents had disembarked, the first Australian-born members of the family, Roy and my mother, Miriam, were welcomed in October 1923. Five years later, Jack, Myer and Yochanan established Polonsky Brothers, one of the first Jewish-owned Kosher butcher shops in Melbourne. Chassia the matriarch lived until 1935 with her daughter Mechlia who was active in a welcome group for new Jewish arrivals, most of whom settled initially in the suburbs of Carlton and North Carlton. Other members of the family participated in congregational work and as volunteers with Jewish organisations. Myer’s grandson, Irvin Rockman, served as Lord Mayor of Melbourne from 1977 to 1979. Susie, who was just eight years old when she landed in Australia, acted as her son’s Lady Mayoress.

Polonsky Family Australia
Polonsky Family, Melbourne, Australia, 1924

Back L-R: Aron, Ben, Raphael, Jack, Alec, Shiphra Holding Roy (Ephraim) born Oct 1923, Harry Spivakovsky (Mechlia’s son), Mechila Spivakovsky nee Polonsky Seated L-R: Pearl (Myer’s daughter), Rita holding Miriam born October 1923, Chassia, Myer, Yochanan, Rae Spivakovsky (Mechlia’s daughter) In front L-R: Myer’s two younger children, Susie (Shayndle) and Peter.

The photographs on the wall behind the group are of the members of the family who died before the migration L-R: Yechazkiel, Mania Polonsky nee Orloff (Myer’s wife), Leib-Ber Polonsky (grandfather), Ephraim, Chaim Spivakovsky (Mechlia’s husband)

Polonsky Family reunion

At its most recent reunion, on Sunday 15 May 2022, seventy-five Polonskys and descendants marked the occasion by donating to The Joint which once again is working to rescue Jews in Ukraine.

Polonsky Family Elders enjoying the occasion L-R David Yaffe,Greta Polonsky and Leonard Yaffe OAM.

Tauma counselling for Ukrainian Jews

JDC Offers Trauma Counselling for Ukrainian Jews

With the help and generosity of our supporters, JDC is working to respond quickly and effectively to the Ukraine crisis. One of the ways we are doing this is by offering trauma counselling.

Tauma Relief for Ukrainian Jews
Zoom session with a psychologist in war-torn Mykolaiv

While images of destruction and physical devastation dominate the news, the crisis in Ukraine is also taking a less visible toll: the hundreds of thousands of victims suffering from trauma and PTSD. This week’s bulletin highlights the support that we provide to Ukrainian Jews coping with the trauma of fleeing their homes or living under constant threat.

Trauma & Stress: JDC Responds to War’s Hidden Toll

Trauma takes many forms. Over the past few months, JDC has assisted people suffering from domestic violence, anxiety, depression, and some traumas that are unspeakable. This impacts both emotional and physical functioning – making it harder to breathe and at times even move.

  • Hundreds of refugees received trauma relief through JDC
  • Hundreds more expected to receive long-term care
  • 1,500+ served by the trauma hotline

With your support, we are bringing relief to victims of trauma. This work takes place in Ukraine, where we run a trauma hotline for older adults, displaced people, and strained JDC staff. We connect those in need of deeper assistance with those equipped to help.

Recognising that symptoms of trauma persist long-term, we are already preparing for the months ahead. We plan to open trauma centres across Ukraine. These centres will offer group and individual assistance, catering to older adults who never imagined their lives would end up this way, and parents struggling to help their children work through deep-seated anxiety.

While the lion’s share of traumatized and displaced Jews remain in Ukraine, many are refugees in Europe. Since day one, we have offered psychological first aid to distressed refugees. Today, we work hand-in-hand with local Jewish communities.