Outlines of the cans, blankets and toothbrushes stretch my hands and spill beyond my fingers’ cracks into cardboard boxes that fill entropically with goods that volunteers lean over, arranging concisely to fit in more like three-dimensional Tetris players. The small room we are in is an arachnid’s web of goods strewn throughout, boxes for them to be packaged into, and women around them, realizing their wish of sending the products to Ukrainian children across the sea. There is no room for silence—the thumping of new items cascading to the ground, shouts over the noise of footsteps and the clipping of tape closing the boxes echoes in the room. The walls are blank and sunlight spills through the cracks of window panes, and the products of their work are boxes that outweigh the capability of their hands to carry.
Jookender Community Initiatives organized this fundraiser. Soon, the nonprofit would not only help Ukrainian families abroad but invite them to spend a few days of the summer with them at a retreat.
Founded in 2017, Jookender is a nonprofit organization aiming to “expose secular, non-affiliated Russian-speaking Jewish families to Jewish heritage and culture…and rekindle their Jewish sense of identity.” It does so by hosting activities in Russian over Zoom and at their newly established Framingham location. These include art classes, travel excursions and book clubs for adults; volunteer opportunities, leadership training and humanities classes for their adolescent children; and Jewish holiday celebrations and charity work for families in a respectful, second-home environment.
Russian-Soviet Jews (RSJ) identify as such not by a religion but a Soviet idea of nationality—a culture that is inseparable from them by means of family lineage and facial features. Jookender exposes its members to Jewish rituals and a belief in a Jewish identity by means of gathering people together under this context.
The organization is led by Sasha Grebenyuk, founder and executive director; Borislava Sardak, president and chairman of the board; and Irina Kovaleva, treasurer and accountant.
Grebenyuk, a former marketing professional, started Jookender because there was no local community center that served her identity group. “Other Jewish organizations in the area were about to give up on our community altogether…[so I became] attached to the subject,” she shared. “It was the right time, and people wanted it to happen.”
She identifies as a secular person who is Jewish by heritage. “I know that I am Jewish, my son knows that he is Jewish and this knowledge should stay through generations. Other than that, we are just regular secular people.”
Sardak’s journey to Jookender began “six to seven years ago.” As she describes it: “I was looking for my two sons—one is 19 and the other 16—to have different activities in which they could maintain their Russian language, meet children the same age and understand what Jewishness is—a light form of it, meaning that I wanted them to know that they are Jewish. I looked online and found Jookender. What Jookender is doing, in a light form, is teaching people about their history, about Jewishness and holidays, almost like a game, not forcing. It is very good [because it is] getting both children and adults to know who they are.”
On the evening of March 19, less than a month after Russian troops, under the command of Vladimir Putin and his advisors, invaded Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv as the beginning of the war that has, thus far, amounted to a minimum of 5,000 civilian deaths, Jookender organized its first event to fundraise money for an orphanage in Uzhgorod that serves as a transit point for children separated from their families seeking to flee the country.
Bringing donations and creations, volunteers, who were both Jookender’s regulars and other local Russian-speakers Grebenyuk found by social media, turned a room in Jookender’s office into a gift shop filled with paintings, books in English and Russian and Hebrew, woven animals, cat pins, platki (shawls), bracelets and more. Proceeds from the gift shop and independent donations raised $8,250 for the orphanage.
In the room beside it, the second half of the fundraiser took shape. Volunteers brought in and packaged 3,495 pounds of goods, such as clothing, blankets and hygiene items, to send to the orphanage.
Jookender followed with two more fundraisers—April 3 and May 14—raising about $4,000 and $6,000, respectively. For the May 14 date, an RSJ group from New York, JCH B’Yachad Leadership Institute, brought students up to volunteer, among whom were refugees from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian middle-school girls were mature and dignified; they carried themselves with a visible expression of their identity, awareness of others and convictions while treating one another with momentous respect.
Eleanora Gudina, a 13-year-old girl who arrived in the U.S. as a war refugee on March 5, led her cohort of three girls. She spoke first while they looked up at her and translated my English questions into Russian. (The interview began after the students had a brief banter over who could speak English, so the interview was conducted in Russian.)
Gudina wore black jeans, a striped black-and-white T-shirt and accentuated long black nails. Her blue eyes had a habit of piercing into the ones of her addressee, and the tips of her auburn hair were dyed a flaming Crayola red. “I want to go home,” she stated, when I asked about her thoughts about the war. “For everything to be over—to go home.”
When I asked her cohort, Kira Hozaikina and Evgenia Maltsovna, both 12 years old and American residents for one year, the same question, Gudina watched them steadily, or, if she was working on polishing as she was asked to, lifted her eyebrows and nodded to show she was listening.
Hozaikina, a freckled girl with short hair, explained that her family left Vladivostok because her father was an activist against Putin’s regime. When I asked her about her thoughts about the war, Kira looked at me earnestly and replied, “It’s just horrible. I have no thoughts. It’s just a shock.”
Maltsovna, a girl of wispy build, explained that her family left because of—half-scoffing, throwing the word like a gross food she chewed on but found distasteful—“politics.” When I asked about her reaction to the war, she seethed, “Uzhas.”
The girls, with eyes narrowed in focus on cleaning, continued their task with sharp commentary and conversation. Gudina said she felt old and that their friend, a 16-year-old American-born Ukrainian, Ben Korlatnik, who quietly cleaned with them, was an old man.
When I mentioned my age to be 20, someone sighed about how interesting my life must be. Compared to them, I am a child.
The first Eastern European Jews were inhabitants of ancient Greece after Alexander the Great’s conquest of Israel in 300 BCE. Like the members of Jookender, they existed in a voluntary diaspora, identified as Jews culturally and demonstrated this identity.
According to “A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People,” being connected to Jerusalem by pilgrimages to the Second Temple and the Halacha authority but residing in Greece, Jews identified as “Jewish by virtue of his ethnic origin, Greek by virtue of his language, dress, and daily habits” and felt “at ease within the general culture…yet loyal to his ancestral religion and eager to represent it.”
The ancient Greek Jews adapted to the foreign society, which valued intelligence and shared their beliefs such as Philo of Alexandria, a philosopher who argued that the Torah was a precedent to Greek philosophy; the Jewish elders who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in the middle of 200 BCE; and Jews who encouraged many notable Greeks, such as Queen Helena, to become Jewish.
Grebenyuk envisioned a summer camp for Russian-Jewish children when she sought a community for her son of middle-school age. In 2015, Ronni Saltzman Gutin, a director of Camp Avoda, a Jewish boys’ overnight camp in Middleboro, Mass., hired Grebenyuk to help recruit campers. Beginning in summer 2016, Grebenyuk, with her friends and acquaintances, created a three-day family retreat at Camp Avoda that became a Jookender tradition. Centered on the closeness of family and the provision of age-appropriate activities for each member, each nuclear family unit lives in a tent or cabin along the perimeter of the soccer field, bordering a thin slip of trees by the lake, the wood-chipped center of the camp or the forest.
Attendees join together for communal activities such as kosher mealtimes, campfires and presentations, such as petting zoos or the instruction of Shabbat rituals. In between, the camp separates its three age groups into planned and voluntary activities. After brief periods of free time in the morning before and after breakfast, adolescents spend the majority of the day as volunteer camp counselors, in which pairs have a group of children that they supervise during and in between scheduled activities. Such endeavors for children include painting, pottery, archery, cooking and soccer. Depending on the level of difficulty, these activities are taught either by adolescents themselves or adult volunteers.
Their parents attend classes by volition, which include lectures, painting, table tennis and pottery. The voluntary nature of these lessons allows for many to, instead, talk by the lake or disappear into the sauna. In the evenings and mornings, campers have leisure time, which may include swimming at the lake, tetherball, table tennis, playing musical instruments, art and having conversations.
Despite the organizations’ identity as Jewish, the Jookender program welcomes members of all nationalities and religions. More than their separate spun yarns about collective memory and religion, the immediate situation of existence in a foreign country in a unique tongue and mother culture unites them.
In a novel describing a similar irony, Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” which centers on the dialogue between first-generation Chinese immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters in the 1980s, one of the mothers, Lindo Jong, recalls how, despite having descended from a wealthy Chinese family in California, where she immigrated to, gave limited job opportunities due to her ethnicity and lack of English fluency. She took the only job available to her that offered dignity—at a fortune cookie factory, where her coworkers came from various parts of China, speaking different dialects in Mandarin and Cantonese, tied to the same new fate by a false perception by the dominant culture, causing a new reality. Lindo’s new friend at the factory, An-Mei, solidified this new group of “Chinese,” something Lindo never identified with since the country has diverse traditions, languages and social classes, when she suggested that she marry a man whom Lindo identified as Cantonese. To this, An-Mei explained: “We are not in China anymore…Here everybody is now from the same village even if they come from different parts of China.” Likewise, Jookender represents this same concept: a shared reaction to newness binds people together, regardless of their past.
“We decided that refugees from Ukraine would come as families,” Sardak explained. “We thought it would be good to invite them. They would be welcome. I want our camp to be a second home. I want them to become part of our community. If they want help, we are not only a camp. The idea is for Jookender to be an organization that you can always talk to, that is reliable and will always help. Here, for example, let’s say a family with a 7-year-old child arrives and they go to the camp. Mom wants to take her child to camp, and, for that family, it would be free. We’re doing it so that it would be a help. Since we know that the mom can’t work [due to visa restrictions], we’ll let them go to events for free. Again, it will change and depends on what will happen. Right now we think this way, further it can change since, let’s say, tomorrow, someone needs to move…it will change constantly.”
The camp will run from June 3-5 with its regular Jookender members and 15 Ukrainian refugee families. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has stepped up to cover the cost for the Ukrainian families. All will speak Russian, watch sunsets and play games. Songs at the campfire, family games, nature hikes and time at the lake will make people feel welcome and will make people forget about the war for at least a day or two, member Ekaterina Taradai described.
Everyone creates their story, a narrative of one’s life, a day-to-day diary, and a personal history book. Within this war, a new narrative of Russian-speaking people continues to form.
All Jookender programs are supported by The Jewish Federations of North America, with generous funding from the Genesis Philanthropy Group and powered by CJP Teen and Young Adults Community Impact Grants.
R.E. Tolmach is an aspiring young adult writer who resides in the Boston suburbs and will begin university this year.
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