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Odessa Jewish orphanage doesn’t fit the stereotype


Chava Melamed, director of the Tikva Children’s Home facility for small children, leads a group of boys in a rendition of Chiddy Bang’s "Mind Your Manners." (Alex Weisler)

As we pulled up to the orphanage, located in a historically Jewish Odessa neighborhood called Moldavanka, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I’d never been to an orphanage before. Was I in for something out of "Annie"? Would I be greeted by the Ludwig Bemelmans vision of "in two straight lines, they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed"? Or would this be something bleaker — gruel and rags and the sort of dismal grayness we’re all too quick to associate with Eastern Europe?

What I wasn’t really prepared for was the vibrant facility I found.

I was visiting the orphanage as part of a look into the operations of the Tikva Children’s Home, an Odessa-based group founded in 1996 that tackles the complicated issue of caring for the underprivileged and orphaned Jewish children of the city — and indeed the entire former southern Soviet Union, a region encompassing parts of Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Belarus.

The charity operates three homes in Odessa — a home for young children of both genders, and two homes for older boys and girls. Tikva also runs boys’ and girls’ schools and a university operated near Odessa’s main synagogue that is operated in connection with the Crimean State Humanitarian University.
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My guide for the day was Alina Feoktistova, an Odessa native and student in the Tikva university who now works for the organization in a variety of roles.

She took me to the small children’s home and the girl’s home, located in a gleaming building built in 2006 called Leah’s House, named after Leah Frankel, one of the organization’s main benefactors along with her husband Ed, who serves as chairman of its board of trustees. We didn’t have time for the boys’ home yesterday, but my plan is to meet with Alina again and visit it later today.

Feoktistova told me that she considers the organization unique in Ukraine, and it’s something she’s proud of.

"It’s really charity. We help a lot of people just have a safe future, a prosperous future," she said. "And we show everyone that Jews are still alive in this part of the world."

Upon entering the home for small children, I was greeted with a shriek and a fierce hug from a 2-year-old named David. Soon after, I was surrounded by boisterous toddlers happily babbling away in Russian. A small girl showed me the contents of her purse, the prized possession being a plastic coin bearing the image of "Beauty and the Beast" star Belle.

My digital camera was the main star, though, as friends who had visited similar facilities in South Africa last year had predicted it might be.

I took nearly 70 photos in just 15 minutes or so — toddlers sticking their tongues out, older boys wrestling on their play room’s mats, dainty girls smiling coyly and proudly displaying dolls and drawings.

Upstairs was a music class, led by the facility’s director Chava Melamed and featuring about 20 slightly older boys rehearsing Chiddy Bang’s song "Mind Your Manners."

It was all I could do not to cry as the boys stood (yes, in two straight lines), beamed and sang, "Take a second look at me, there is no one like me."

Some of these kids are true orphans, others are social orphans and still more are the children of single mothers or large families unable to properly support them.

When I was inside the building, I was somewhat blinded by the frenetic energy of kids clambering on my back, mock-punching me with big boxing gloves or shouting for pictures.

It was only when I left that I reminded myself: Alex, that was an orphanage — they live there. You get to leave, they don’t.

"How can you just leave?" "Take them all home with you!" These are the stupid things you say to yourself after you visit an orphanage. My cell phone doesn’t work in Ukraine and my laptop was dead, but I was struck with an unshakable urge to call my siblings — at 14 and 13, much older than the children I visited in Odessa — and tell them that I love them, give them a transatlantic, virtual hug.

How can you just leave?

But then I thought about Tikva and the important, necessary work its staff and volunteers do to ensure that no one will "just leave" these kids, not in a real way. I might be flying back to London on Friday, but Tikva is sticking around — providing for these kids’ material needs, sure, but also their educational and spiritual ones.

Providing a variety of services to nearly 1,000 children, Tikva’s sticking around — in a major way.

Miss Clavel, eat your heart out.