Episode 76: Message From Ukraine

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Nahanni: Hi, it's Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women's Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

Since February, Russia’s brutal invasion has brought the plight of Ukraine to the world’s attention. Many of us have heard about the courageous leadership of Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Lesser known are the experiences of Jewish women and families in Ukraine. There are several hundred thousand Jews in Ukraine—tens of thousands have been among the millions of Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion.

Vlada Nedak is the Executive Director of Project Kesher Ukraine. Kesher means connection in Hebrew. Project Kesher is a network of Jewish women building Jewish community and women’s leadership in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Israel. Since the war began, Vlada has been working to support women and infants, internally displaced refugees, and those trying to leave Ukraine—all while taking care of her own family.

Vlada: The women made terrible, difficult choices. And every personal story of women… uh, they really need a personal Oscar for their decisions, for their strengths. We are really thankful for the military, but from another side, we should mention how much women take on their shoulders.

Vlada lives in Kryvyi Rih, in central Ukraine. Earlier in the war, missiles hit the suburbs of the city and a nearby nuclear power station was bombed. Vlada’s family fled to the Western part of Ukraine. Three weeks later, they decided to come back. They feel it’s safe enough, for now, even though it’s only an hour’s drive from Russian controlled territory and the front lines of the war.

I spoke with Vlada recently. She told me it’s important for her work that she stay in Ukraine. On a personal level, she’s also grateful that her 9-year-old daughter can sleep in her own bed again.  She has online school and still plays with her friends.

Vlada: Now we know how meaningful it is for the kids just to have all of this—um, it's absolutely another attitude from the beginning of the war.

Later in the interview, Vlada and I talk about how the war has affected the women in Project Kesher's network, and about violence against women more generally. But first, we’ll talk about her own experience. 

Vlada lives with her husband, daughter, a dog, two guinea pigs and three birds. Her 18-year-old son is studying in Kyiv. You’ll occasionally hear one of the birds in the background, a seemingly incongruous soundtrack of normal life. Vlada begins by describing the first day of the Russian invasion.

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Vlada: On February 24th, I woke up about five o'clock in the morning, uh, and just tried to get to sleep once again. Uh, and I get messages from my son, uh, who is a second-year student in Kiev state university. And he texted me, that mom, the war started. Ukraine is bombed. Kyiv is bombed. And I woke up my husband and said, “The war started.”

Physically I was absolutely stressed. I have trembling in my hands and I can't organize myself. What to do, what to gather, how to wake up the daughter,  what should we say? Uh, and it was really emotionally… several hours of really panic. I try to breathe and to calm. And I just can't believe that my life, in my 40s, full of so great…I don't know, achievements, plans, uh, of well-being, um, really huge plans for the future. And now it absolutely will be destroyed.

That day we decided to move to our close friends' house. It's a two-floor building with a great basement. They have three kid, and there were several families, and we felt that it's much better to be all together. We spent several days there and didn't leave this building. In three or four days, we went to check our, uh, apartment and to feed our birds and to take some stuff.

My first decision was not to leave Ukraine at all, and my city, because first, uh, I have a special connection with my son. And for me, it was the idea that when I stay here, he still has a home. He has the place where he will come back and, uh, me as a connection to him, me as the place where, uh, his mother will meet him. And the second, uh, I can tell that, uh, my deep love with my husband…I mean, we support each other, we inspire each other. And for me, it was really, uh, difficult to leave him.

But in a week, maybe less, uh, I know exactly that it was the moment when they bombed, um, Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Station, we were really afraid and frightened. And the panic was so deep and we decided to move. The next day, we just took our stuff, packed the car. The men decided to follow the women and the children to the border and help them to cross the border.

We traveled, like, maybe three days and it was one of the moments, uh, when thousands of cars moved to the west of Ukraine. And it was like, I mean, people moved so slow. And when we get to the Hungarian border, I turn to my husband and say, “You know, it's not really what I want.” And  I didn't cross the border. We stayed for two-and-a-half weeks in the western part of Ukraine.

Nahanni: And you decided not to go to Hungary because you would have had to go without your husband, since he wasn’t allowed to leave in case he was called to serve in the military, is that right?

Vlada: Yeah. Uh, I understood that, uh, I just can't leave him.

Nahanni: What about your son?

Vlada: My son stayed in Kviv. He was so strong in his decision. And maybe the first several days, I really had, like, the idea even to come to Kyiv to take him. But he's 18 years old. I remember my grandfather who was 17 when he joined the army, and I decided that, uh, we just should take the decision of our adults… They are not kids at all, they are young men who stay here, who make their choice, and I need to support him in his choice.

Nahanni: And how come you decided to come back home?

Vlada: Uh, it was not an easy decision. It was a lot of discussions, but I mean, uh, the circumstances…how many people stay here that the system works, uh, the factory continued to work, uh, hospitals, state departments, the shops beginning to open, we see that people are coming back.

It's really important for people for the Project Kesher Network…I mean, for the Jewish community, for the women’s community here. When people hear that I stay in Ukraine, I stay in my city, they feel much better. Maybe for somebody’s decision, it's an additional reason to say, okay, she's here and I'm here and it's fine. And we’re all here. I'm not alone in Ukraine. I'm not alone who stay in my city. Emotionally, it's really important for people to understand that the person who is leading the organization, uh, continues to operate from her city and the Project Kesher Ukraine office. And they were happy to have me back, emotionally to support them, that I didn't leave them.

Nahanni: So maybe you can tell me about Project Kesher, the network and how big it is, what you do…You know, just introduce our audience to Project Kesher.

Vlada: Uh, Project Kesher is a women's organization with thirty years’ history, uh, created at the moment when the Soviet Union was broken. And, uh, the understanding that not all Jews, uh, made aliyah to Israel or the United States—the Jewish population still exists and continues to stay in the country of the former Soviet Union.

Two women with Jewish background—one from the United States, one from Russia—met each other, uh, in the Moscow region and, uh, designed the Jewish, women's leadership organization.

I joined Project Kesher in 1998 when I was an 18-year-old student, and for me, uh, it was very interesting to, join something feminist, uh, with Jewish education programming. And from that moment I grew up in the organization and from 2020, I take the position of executive director.

Nahanni: And what has Project Kesher been doing since the war started?

Vlada: We continue our mission, even in the war. During the war, we help Jewish people. It doesn't matter where they stay, or if they take the decision to evacuate, to help them, uh, with this from one side. Uh, and we continue, um, Jewish online programming—we had Purim, we had Pesach. We try to support and to have this feeling of Jewish life, history, Jewish traditions, to continue, and I feel very proud of this.

From another side, Project Kesher is a well-known organization in the women's movement of Ukraine. For this moment we supported, uh, almost 250 women with their families in difficult situations. We had, uh, cases when kids, uh, lost their parents and we have a request from grandparents.

We work hard to help women stay safe crossing the border. I mean, uh, prevention of trafficking in women and kids, and we cooperate with different women's organizations in Europe. We help to be one more resource for women, of good information, and we can collaborate and share, state hotlines, European hotlines. I mean, we work all together, with the women's community, uh, here in Ukraine.

Nahanni: So that's something that Project Kesher is involved in the broader community, not just the Jewish community.

Vlada: Uh, yes, absolutely. Yes. We had some series of webinars about how to help women during the war. We have great speakers—how to speak with kids about the war, how to find a job or to change your resume, how to stay in Europe. We did, um, I mean, a mental health component, uh, which is great. And now we are jumping in a big initiative to help protect women of from sexual harassment and rape. Uh, because all the world heard about Kyiv region, about Bucha, Irpin, and a lot of cases, and it's unusual.

And people try to say, “No, it will not take me, it won't happen to me.”  But we understand that, um, everyday we live like, uh, everything has changed and can change during the day, and we want to protect women and to give them the understanding that if it happens, there is special medicine, uh, that you should take…

We say that even in Ukraine, we have no vocabulary to translate a “rape kit,” uh, which is, um, the initiative from our American partner to bring, um, contraception and this rape kit and share it, especially in the region.  Because we have no experience—in my 40s, I heard about this rape kit for the first time. I have no idea that it exists, uh, something like this.

Nahanni: Vlada, will you please, you know, talk a little bit about what's been happening there and how rape is being used as a tool of war.

Vlada: The cases of women rape is really terrible.We know that people, especially from a village, uh, which is close to suburb of Kyiv uh, staying from the first days of the war, uh, under Russian army. There was a group of 16, 15- year-old, uh, teenagers, uh, who were raped for several weeks. And now this group, some of them are pregnant and (sighs).

I mean, I can't cover all my emotions, because I have a nine-year- old daughter and we have absolutely progressive language and discussions, but now I should cover some issues I didn't have any idea I will explain so early. Because, uh, yeah, we live close to the region where the Russian army occupied the territory and, um, just to protect ourselves, it became something that we should share and discuss between, uh, the women, between friends and even with my husband.

Nahanni: So it sounds like it's more widespread than just this one village.

Vlada: Uh, absolutely. Um, it's not the big cities, it's areas where the people, I mean, live, maybe with less access to the information than people in the cities.

Nahanni: So Project Kesher works with groups of women in Ukraine, in Russia, in Belarus, as well as Israel and America. What kinds of connections before the war existed between the Ukrainian and Russian women in Project Kesher?

Vlada: The idea of Project Kesher, it was the idea, uh, to connect to women in the region, to help each other, to rebuild Jewish life and to help with different initiatives.

From 2014, maybe, we understood that, uh, Ukraine and Russia have different opportunities in women's issues. And, uh, Ukraine had a direction to Europe and we were more progressive with, uh, some democracy process, with the question of LGBT, with the question of, uh, feminism, with women's presence and opportunities. And the only connection was Jewish community life and Jewish celebrations, women's Jewish celebrations. Um, we saved our Jewish traditions and shared, and it was the way we helped each other and communicated to each other.

But it was difficult to travel to both countries. And we feel the difference in languages, because Ukrainian, uh, was, with the years, trying to be more Ukrainian.

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Nahanni: As Ukraine asserted its own identity, the political and cultural tensions between Ukraine and Russia were also felt in Project Kesher… even before the war started. As Vlada says, focusing on Jewish programming was a way to find common ground.  Just before the Russian invasion, Project Kesher celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah with ceremonies in Odesa, Moscow, Jerusalem, and New York.  On a chilly January Shabbat, the Russian and Belarusian women gathered in Moscow. The Ukrainian women gathered in Odssa.

Vlada: And I had Covid and I couldn't join the ceremony. Uh, but I felt it inside, that it's something we achieved and it's so meaningful to us and, uh, I really wanted to celebrate, because I felt that it will be our last gathering.

Nahanni: And it was the last joint gathering. A month after the invasion, Project Kesher Russia was officially removed from the Project Kesher global network, and the Russian and Ukrainian groups are no longer in touch. The decision was made for legal reasons, as well as for the safety of the women involved.

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Nahanni:  How do you cope with the situation around you… the violence, the fear, the total disruption of your life and your country’s existence?

Vlada: Um, how do I deal with it? I draw, uh, a little and when I draw… one of my first pictures was, uh, the broken cup. And I say that my life is like… it looks like every day, my cup is broken. I take old pieces, I put it all together, and I'm the cup once again. But I know that it's difficult. And, um, I try to be useful as the cup, but…I really feel, uh, at some moments very happy, and at these moments I think, can I feel happy? Maybe I'm wrong. Uh, we have the war. But it's what helped me and helped me, uh, to help other women, other people to smile, to support my family, to support my neighborhood, to come to the post where we sent a lot of volunteer staff and to meet the guys and to buy coffee for them.

And, um, I say that it's my mission. To know that somewhere, uh, in a future, um, the new life, the victory. Um, the moment when people will come back and we will rebuild—physically rebuild, emotionally rebuild—the country. It's something which will be in my life—I mean, not in my daughter's life or in my son's life. Uh, I'm sure, I believe in this, that it will be in my active years. It will be soon.

Nahanni: Yeah. I hope so.

Vlada: I never asked my grandfather how they spent four years, five years in a war. I asked a lot of questions about the war and I didn't ask him about the reconstruction—I mean, rebuilding of the city, of the country. I didn’t have, in my childhood, these questions to ask him. But I'm the person who will have these answers for the next generation, to share how we lived during the war and how then we um, rebuilt the country.

I will tell my,  I don't know, grandkids, uh, or just everybody who wants to see, and to hear these memories.

Nahanni: For a lot of American Jews, our ancestors or grandparents escaped from Ukraine and that part of the world. And I think for some people here, it's hard to understand what Jewish life could be like there now. Could you describe your relationship to Ukraine and to being a Ukrainian Jew?

Vlada: Um, I guess it's the only reason why I stayed in Ukraine, to feel so connected to my family, uh, roots, who made their choice not to go to Israel after the war. My grandparents, my mom—they lived their life here.

And I had no experience of some terrible antisemitism—maybe some kind of, uh, during my school ages, some kind of cases, some anecdotes or jokes. But generally I always, and from the moment I joined Project Kesher, I openly say that I'm in a women's Jewish organization.

And my son, uh, went to the Jewish school and we have, like, several generations of young people who, uh, had full lives, I mean, from their births, Jewish cycle. And we have great synagogues—some are big, in some places small—and I've never experienced that somebody suffered, uh, from the nationality they had here directly in Ukraine.

I love this ground. I love these views. I love these people. For me, it makes sense, uh, to stay here, to struggle for this. I can't imagine myself somewhere in Israel or in the United States, in Europe. I won’t be the person I am here.

We still have plans. We still have dreams and we, uh, live everyday life, uh, to bring the victory as soon as we can. I don't want to sound too patriotic but, um, I am ready to be here to the end.

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Nahanni: Vlada Nedak is the Executive Director of Project Kesher Ukraine. Visit projectkesher.org to learn more about Project Kesher’s work and to make a donation. One hundred percent of donations to Project Kesher’s Emergency Fund for Ukraine support the needs of Ukrainian women and children, whether they have remained in Ukraine or moved abroad.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum.  Special thanks to Jenny Sartori. Our theme music is by Girls In Trouble. You also heard Tionesta from Blue Dot Sessions. You can listen online at jwa.org/canwetalk, or wherever you get your podcasts. Please help us spread the word by sharing this and your other favorite episodes with your friends.

I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 76: Message From Ukraine." (Viewed on November 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-76-message-ukraine>.

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