There are few examples of how Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City and its partner agencies help Jews overseas that are as dramatic as Masha Shumyatsky’s story. If it weren’t for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which receives support from Jewish Federation, Shumyatsky’s life in Kharkov, Ukraine would be very different today.
“My life is a good example of what JDC does in the Ukraine and all over the world,” Shumyatsky, 27, said.
Shumyatsky’s first experience with JDC was as a girl, when her grandmother received monthly food baskets from the organization. Her second encounter came years later, at age 18 when she participated in JDC’s young leadership program.
It was an experience that changed her life.
Through the leadership program, she learned the concepts of volunteerism and taking responsibility for her community. She also learned the importance of being a giver, not just a receiver. These concepts inspired her to start a program that provided food to elderly Ukrainians. At the age of 19, using just her pocket money, she launched Selfie With A Granny (later renamed Kulyock, which means “plastic bag” in Russian).
In 2014, at age 23, her life and her food program were well established. But Shumyatsky’s world turned upside down when pro-Russian/anti-government groups invaded her hometown of Donetsk. Shumyatsky said Donetsk was a developed industrial city with a robust economy when the conflict started. Everyone felt certain the fighting would end soon.
Shumyatsky was at a local hospital for an eye exam when a shell hit another part of the hospital. Although she wasn’t hurt, she knew there were no safe places in the city. She fled shortly after, taking just a small bag of clothes with her, still feeling that the fighting would end soon, and she would return home.
“But the crisis became the new reality,” she said. “The shelling and the shootings have never stopped. Over 10,000 people have been killed and 1.6 million fled their homes. I am one of those statistics.”
Unfortunately, her mother was stuck in the conflict zone. She lost her job, and because the banks couldn’t operate, there was no way for her to get money. Because of the food baskets delivered to Shumyatsky’s grandmother decades earlier, the family was still in the JDC database. The JDC reached out to her mother and provided her with food baskets. The JDC delivered enough that she was able to share with her neighbors who were suffering as well.
In a place where philanthropy is still a somewhat foreign concept, the neighbors had a hard time understanding why strangers from another country would care enough to help them. “I think this is just what Jews do,” Shumyatsky’s mother explained to them.
Now, more than four years after fleeing Donetsk, the conflict there continues. However, Shumyatsky has rebuilt her life in the city of Kharkov. She teaches English online and occasionally works as an English/Russian interpreter, mainly for JDC. She is also a volunteer speaker for JDC, traveling around the world to share her story. Most recently, she shared her story in Kansas City as part of a JDC speaking tour in the United States.
Rebuilding her life, Shumyatsky was able to restart her program for the elderly, which now feeds 100 seniors in her area. While Kulyock isn't a JDC program, she says the inspiration came from her work with that organization, which gave her a full understanding of what the Jewish tradition of helping the stranger means
"Before the conflict, those were just words; beautiful words that meant nothing. But I think my life is a very good example that it’s true,” Shumyatsky said.
Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Chronicle