Russia’s Invasion Forces Jewish Orphanage to Flee Ukraine

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  • Rabbi Shlomo Baksht moved to Odesa in 1993 to rebuild the city’s historically significant Jewish community.
  • His group, Tikva Children’s Home, provided shelter and schooling to the city’s Jewish inhabitants.
  • Baksht and hundreds of other Jews fled Odesa following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

By 1900, more than a third of Odesa’s population was Jewish. But the 20th century was not kind to this population, in Ukraine as elsewhere.

Today, the city of more than 1 million on the coast of the Black Sea is home to some 45,000 Jews. At least it was.

The Russian invasion — sold as a campaign of “de-Nazification” in the only country outside of Israel with a Jewish head of state — has once again forced this persecuted minority to flee.

Earlier this month, Odesa’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Baksht, who had come to the city in the 1990s to help rebuild its Jewish community, decided it was time to get out.

As VINnews reported, Russian bombs had fallen near the orphanage run by Baksht and his group, Tikva Children’s Home. Soon after, its nearly 300 young inhabitants were put on buses that, days later, brought them to safety in neighboring Romania.

“We had a great miracle that we got out of there on time,” Bakshit told the outlet.

Yanna Begelman is the director of development at Tikva Children’s Home. She spoke to Insider on Wednesday about her group’s work in Ukraine, the impact of Russia’s war on the country’s Jewish community, and what it has been like to see Jews once again forced to evacuate their homes due to a war in Europe.

What was your group doing in Odesa prior to the war? What was the situation like?

So Tikva Children’s Home has been around for about 25 years now. Our rabbi [Schlomo Baksht] came in the ’90s  to help rebuild and revitalize the Jewish community and the Jewish life. He started schools, he started community engagement, and then he became aware of the plight of orphaned, homeless, abused, and abandoned Jewish children. There would be children in state orphanages, there would be children that would just be abandoned — not necessarily because any one person or any one Jew or anything was bad. It was more just because of the situation in the country. Ukraine historically for many years has had the lowest GDP in all of Europe. Because most of the people are below the poverty line and the average monthly pay would be something like $200, people were just struggling to make ends meet and struggling to support their families. 

And they would resort to things like — many of the men would become criminals to try of food on their family’s table, and then they would get caught and end up in know jail. Women would try to make money by prostitution. And alcoholism and drugs is absolutely huge. And all the UNICEF stats report just really staggering rates of those children who are affected by drugs and alcohol. 

And so when Tikva came we kind of wanted to help. We wanted to take all these children off the streets. We wanted to help them break the cycle of poverty by giving them education, by giving them the necessary Jewish values they needed in order to persevere in life, to persevere in their communities, and in order to be able to raise families and be contributing members of the different communities, wherever they end up, whether in Ukraine, whether in Israel, or whether anywhere else in the world.

Over the last 25 years, we’ve had about 2,500 graduates from our Tikva programs, both from our homes and from our schools. Right before this whole situation hit, we had about 300 children living in our homes. That’s separate infants’ homes, girls’ homes, boys’ homes, and the two dormitories, separate for girls and for boys. And we’ve had an additional 600 children from impoverished and underprivileged families in the region that would attend our schools. So altogether we had over 900 children in our educational system. 

And in addition to that, it was a community. So there was a shul, there was other institutions supporting this community who were doing a meals-on-wheels program for the elderly, a lot of whom were like Holocaust-survivors age. It was really just like a huge, thriving, beautiful community and family. And it was in a place that once used to be the fourth-largest Jewish population in the world before World War II. It was just like a beautifully rebuilt community — and then we know what happened.

Could you speak a little bit more to the state of Jewish life in Odesa prior to the war? Because you said the rabbi had gone back there in part to rebuild this community. Outside of your organization was the community thriving?

The community was definitely thriving. There was a lot of young families. They’d been able to reconnect, a lot of the disconnected Jews, after all the the everything that the Jews have been through on that part of the world — between all the war and the pogroms and everything else, going through multiple destructions. Some people knew they were Jewish, but they didn’t know what it meant. Others knew what it meant, but they were afraid to practice it or didn’t know how to properly practice it. So [Rabbi Baksht] got back to basically try to rebuild it and try to do everything he can on his part to bring Judaism back into Odesa, into that part of Ukraine, and into those surrounding regions. He didn’t realize anything about the actual children, about the state orphanages — that’s something that came a little bit later, and that’s something that kind of just emerged and fell into his lap. It’s not something that he came looking for, necessarily.

How has the war changed that?

How has the war changed that? Obviously, we were running out of 12 physical facilities. We were a community of over a thousand and everybody’s been displaced. And I think the most heartbreaking part is the fact that these children, a lot of them already came from homelessness, from abuse, from abandonment, from state orphanages, from terrible conditions, and after they found finally a safe home at Tikva they’re faced with this situation that displaced them once again. It’s heartbreaking for everybody, but when it happens to orphans — I mean, I can’t imagine this can be good for their psychological state. I just can’t imagine that it can be good all around.

Where are they now? And do you think the children understand what is going on?

The children do understand a little bit of what’s going on. We try to distract them. We’ve been trying as much as possible to keep them occupied, to give them all kinds of games and classes and lectures, and just all kinds of things to really get their attention away from everything. Obviously, it’s been very, very, tough because, you know, it’s like you see things happening all around you — you see tanks going by you when we were trying to escape from Ukraine. It’s been a really, really tough journey for them.

The children, and some of the other refugees, they’re all in Romania right now. Our children are now safely across the border and in safety in Romania. It’s more like a camp facility type of setup that’s close to the water in Neptun, Romania, is the name of the city. By the end of this week, we will have a total of 800 refugees in our facilities, which include our children from homes. And so far we’ve moved a total of 2,300 people to safety out of Odesa. So in addition to our community and our children, we’ve been helping community members, elderly. And at this point we’re trying to help as many as possible. Obviously, it’s very tough because the numbers are just so — they keep rising every day and it’s kind of becoming just difficult to keep up. But at this point, our main goal is just to get as many people out to safety as possible while keeping our children and community afloat and safe and fed and warm and all of that.

People on a bus in Ukraine

Children were boarded on to eight buses in Odessa and spent nearly 60 hours fleeing to safety in Romania.

Tikva Children’s Home

What kind of long-term plans do you have? You’re saying this facility in Romania is more like a camp — is that meaning like tents or are we talking like a summer camp where they’re kind of dorm-style buildings? And then where from there?

Yeah, so it’s more like a summer camp facility. Just yesterday, they purchased heaters because it’s very, very cold. The timing was definitely not helping this whole situation. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to remain in Romania while this whole situation sort of figures itself out. It’s hard to say where the wind is gonna blow tomorrow, so it’s very hard to predict where things will go and how we will go with the flow. We are constantly exploring options.

It’s also very difficult and very expensive to move such a big group. We’re obviously trying to minimize the amount of moving, because they’ve already been moved multiple times before they made it to this location in Romania. They just got to Romania right before this past Shabbat; before that, they were spread among other facilities and camps all around. 

Why did you make the decision to evacuate Odesa when you did? 

First of all, there were some bombings. There was a station I think that was hit that was about a quarter-mile away from us. There was something else that was hit right next to our girls’ homes. And for us, we’ve planned well in advance. Unfortunately, we were hoping that the plans — the contingency plans — we were making before the war were just going to be plans that hoped we would never have to use, but it turned into the situation. At that point, it was just all about the safety and it was all about not taking chances because it’s much harder to move such a large group of people, children specifically, than it is to pick up and put a family of three or four in a car or in a bus. So it’s a very massive operation that required a lot of security, that required a lot of supplies, expenses, etc., that we had to plan for. So we had to make the moves when things started really going down before it was too late.

How has this war affected Jews across Ukraine?

There’s obviously some Jewish organizations that have been helping. I know that there’s been some anti-Semitism. I read some articles already yesterday that there was somebody, from a Jewish orphanage — who worked for the orphanage — that attacked some Jews because they felt that they were favored. So we thought that something like that can happen. Obviously, historically, it’s always, been when there’s been wars there’s been a nationalistic uprising, kind of hand in hand, more often than not. So that was obviously one of the big concerns also, especially when it comes to an organization that’s clearly Jewish, clearly has the rabbis and clergy that’s attached to it.

That was definitely a concern. And that was definitely one of the reasons we opted for the international security firm because we knew that, eventually, the reservists would be called and we wouldn’t have any of our normal security that we have guarding our buildings, our children, guarding our community. Jews have never been favored historically in Ukraine, specifically, during times like this. 

I think maybe the point that you’re making is that maybe things weren’t great, but war always exacerbates anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

Exactly. I think that Odesa has historically always been considered a Jewish city. It’s always been one of the more Jewish-friendly cities, as opposed to many others in Ukraine. It has a very rich history, from Isaac Babel to Dizengoff, who lived there for a number of years. It’s got a very rich Jewish jury. It was better off than many others, but obviously, in situations like this it’s just, things get so dire, and so out of hand that, that that’s just something that tends to happen — and, clearly, is already starting to happen from what we’re seeing in the news.

And speaking of what we’re seeing in the news, is there anything that you think media coverage is missing or should emphasize? Or that people should know about the situation that’s just kind of being overlooked right now?

I think that the impact is yet to be realized, especially how difficult all of these situations are going to be and where people are going to end up, and, aside from these evacuations, how costly it will be for everyone. There’s price-gouging happening everywhere, for everything, from buses that used to cost $800 a bus that are now costing upwards of $35,000 a bus, and more — and supposedly that’s a really good price these days, there in a war zone — to accommodation, to having just shortages. There were no European countries that were truly prepared to take on that many refugees. No one really thought that this would happen to this degree. People thought it was going to be just another city or two in Eastern Ukraine. That would be that. 

And the fact that it just spread like wildfire in a very short period of time, without any one place, having a proper infrastructure for it, I think it’s going to affect the economies of all these places. There shortages. We were trying to find accommodation in one of the other neighboring European countries and it wasn’t even about the price — they just didn’t have facilities big enough to accommodate. It’s definitely going to be a big issue.

Rabbi with children

Odessa’s Chief Rabbi Shlomo Baksht and the residents of the Tikva orphanage fled on Shabbos to escape Russian bombs.

Tikva Children’s Home

What do you think is the most effective way that people can help? If they’re watching TV or reading articles like this and feeling sad about the situation, should they be donating materials or directly donating money?

I would say that the best way to support is to donate funds just because a lot of funds are needed towards things like accommodations and things like transportation and things like security and food, which none of these things you can really ship. These are some of the bigger expenses. Also for a lot of refugees, and a lot of organizations, wherever they are is probably temporary. So it’s not like they can really stock up on too much stuff and it’s not like you can know, really, where to ship anything because they don’t know if they’re going to stay there for a week or if they’re gonna stay there long term. A lot of people are still trying to figure out where the wind is going to blow and where long term will be. A lot of these shelters are very, very temporary and the shipping times are very hefty. 

So far, most efforts of people collecting supplies — I haven’t really seen it be worth it. Shipping costs and the shipping turnaround times, especially when it comes to Americans supporting, I’ve just never really seen it make much sense to begin with given the customs and given the timelines and the shipping costs, especially when it came to Ukraine. I mean, a lot of times we would have something that was shipped to Ukraine and the shipping cost was much higher than if we were to buy that same stuff on the ground. 

I feel like people feel better when they send certain things, because they feel like they’re doing something that’s like a little more tangible. But, in reality, when it comes to impact, I would without a doubt say that in most cases money just goes a much longer way and goes into where the funds are needed most at that time, whether today it means medication, whether tomorrow it means purchasing heaters like we had to purchase — over 50 heaters just yesterday. Just to put things into perspective, the needs are endless and they’re going to keep coming up because we left everything behind. There was nothing that we could take or any other organization or individuals could take with them. 

I know we’re just two weeks into this war and you can’t predict the future, but would the goal would be to someday return to Odesa and provide once again the same sort of services for the people there?

Yeah, I mean, Odesa was always our home. We’re Tikva Odesa. We’re very proud of our community. I think that most people are very sad and very heartbroken to have left the place they called home. It’s also a culture component, right? It wasn’t just a place of a community. There’s certain culture that comes with that. And so, you know, we would hope to come back to our home and to be able to rebuild once again, and be stronger for it. But who knows where the wind is going to blow and where this whole situation is going to take us? We just pray to have enough support to be able to keep our children and community safe for however long this goes.

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