In Hebrew, “tikva” means hope. “Tikva” also means hope for hundreds of Jewish children in Odessa, Ukraine who are orphans, or suffering from extreme poverty, neglect or abuse. Tikva is the name of the orphanage that takes these children in—feeding, clothing, loving and helping them to heal.
In the early 1900’s, Odessa, the third largest city in Ukraine, had a thriving Jewish community, making up over thirty percent of the general population. After the population was decimated by the Nazis, the rising Communist government attempted to destroy what was left of Jewish life. As was in the case of most of the Soviet Union, they nearly succeeded, leaving behind a city with thousands of Jews who had no idea what it meant to be Jewish.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht traveled to Odessa, not knowing what was needed but knowing that he needed to help revive the Jewish community there. While he originally started out by creating a small Jewish school as well as social and educational programming, he soon learned of the decrepit state of the local orphanages. In these orphanages, a child was lucky if she or he had a bed, let alone the love and care that she or he needed. Rav Baksht leapt into action, bought an apartment, and removed six Jewish children from a state orphanage.
This “children’s home” was just the start of what became Tikva. Today, Tikva includes an Infants’ Home, a Girls’ Home, a Boys’ Home, and a university, all of which combined house hundreds of Jewish children. They also serve meals to the homeless every day and even send employees to bring food to the elderly.
Unlike most orphanages that will accept children only when they are brought to them, Tikva actively researches and locates Jewish orphans throughout the region. According to their website, as of 2011 Tikva has thirty full-time employees whose collective job it is to “seek out, document and rescue destitute Jewish children from the southern regions of the former Soviet Union, specifically Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Russia.”
While Tikva is colloquially referred to as an “orphanage,” that is not an entirely accurate term, for two reasons. First, under Ukrainian law, an organization like this can only be registered as either a school or an orphanage. If Tikva were registered as an orphanage, they would have full control and responsibility of their children, but would not be able to have their own school, and would have to send the children to the extremely sub-par city schools. As such, when Tikva grew, Rabbi Baksht and his team made the decision to register Tikva as a boarding school. This way they have the opportunity to house, clothe, feed, love, and educate the children to the best of their abilities. The only downside is that since it is not an orphanage, Tikva is not legally able to allow people adopt their children.
This is not as big of a downside as it would seem, because of the second reason that Tikva isn’t actually an orphanage. While about ten percent of their children are technically orphans, the majority of the children have some family, or are “social orphans,” meaning that their parents are abusive, alcoholics, drug addicts, or cannot financially afford to take care of them. When Tikva locates a Jewish family in any of these situations, it sends employees to meet with the families, showing them the opportunities that it can offer their children. For many parents, although it is difficult, they understand that Tikva can offer their children what the children need. Together with a Tikva staff member, the children travel to Odessa, where they live in the dorms, and return home twice a year for holidays.
The children grow up there—receiving a sophisticated primary education before continuing on to university, if they so choose. They live with the warm sense of community, knowing that Tikva is available if and when they want its support.
While this sounds like a clear-cut system, the reality is far from simple. Every child that comes to Tikva comes with his or her own story and needs. Many are abused but still insist on going home for the holidays. Some children, coming from truly destitute backgrounds, go home to houses with no electricity or running water. Some parents sell their children’s belongings and send them back empty-handed. Still other children have families who live nearby, and often go home for a night. Parents also come to visit their children. Whatever the situation, Tikva works individually with each child and family, deciding what will be best for the child.
One might wonder why Tikva will do so much for the children, and so little for their families. While Tikva would love to help every Jew that they can, they have extremely limited resources. Tikva has a bottom-up philosophy, meaning that it works with the children, hoping they will create a revitalized community, thereby producing a new generation that will eradicate homelessness and destitution in the Jewish community.
Tikva is, in fact, the foundational Jewish life organization in Odessa today. Around the corner from Tikva’s office is the true nucleus of community: the synagogue. In a city that, pre-Holocaust, was over thirty percent Jewish, the synagogue is a symbol of the hope and revival of the Jewish nation for many locals. The large, beautiful synagogue is the center of the community, hosting prayers, weekly Shabbat meals, weddings, graduations, youth groups, and the only local kosher store and restaurant, as well as community meetings and activities.
In addition to the synagogue, Tikva also has a large school called Ohr Sameach, which educates both the children in the orphanage and Jewish children throughout Odessa. Parents of non-Tikva children send their kids there because it is free of charge, and students receive an excellent secular and Jewish education. Ohr Sameach won the award for being the top school in Ukraine, not once, but five years in a row.
A New York-based high school, Ateres Bais Yaakov, sends a group of Juniors for two weeks every winter to create a camp for the children of Tikva. The students prepare lessons and activities, and spend the time playing, dancing, and laughing with the kids, transcending the boundaries of language and background through laughter and love. The purpose of the trip is two-fold. The first goal is to bring joy and light to the lives of the children of Tikva, showing them that they truly have a Jewish family around the world. The second goal is to give the students from this Monsey school an opportunity to work with other students while also exposing them to their own “extended” Jewish family.
Most students describe the trip as life-changing. Living in their New York setting, it’s very easy for Jews to lose sight of how fortunate they are. For them, if someone is “poor,” it means they can’t send their children to summer camp. It may mean that they can’t get new clothes. It doesn’t mean cooking on a gas range outside. It doesn’t mean that they lack electricity or running water. It certainly doesn’t mean taking a shower at the “rich” neighbor who has an indoor shower.
Every year, at some point on the trip, Tikva takes the Ateres girls to visit the home of one of their children so they can see how the children live when outside of Tikva. When they arrive, the child’s mother is usually drunk, and, though in the dead of winter, they shiver as they take a tour of the dark hovel. The next day, the girls are brought to visit the Infant Home (part of Tikva), and playing with the children, they meet the child whose home they just visited. Seeing this child—happy, healthy, learning and growing—while simultaneously knowing where he comes from and what his fate could have been, evokes immense empathy.
In the past few years, things have been more difficult than ever. With the current economic recession, donors have not been giving as much as they used to, and Tikva is dealing with an extreme deficit in their budget. On top of that, the war in Ukraine has added new difficulties, both financially and logistically. While the fighting is hours away from Odessa itself, there were points where Tikva received warnings about extreme anti-Semitic sentiments, and fearing riots, evacuated the entire community for a week. They have stockpiled food, water, and essentials, tightened security, and are doing all that they can to prepare for any eventuality.
While Tikva has done, and continues to do, incredible work for the Jewish community in and surrounding Odessa, there is still much work to be done. Tikva’s experts estimate that there are around 2500 Jewish children still living on the streets of Odessa. Tikva continues to work on rescuing these precious children, and through strengthening the general community, they will hopefully reach their goal soon, which as they say, is “to one day put themselves out of business.”