Eleven days and 57-plus hours on more than 22 buses. That’s how long it took staff from Tikva Children’s Home, a Jewish orphanage in Odesa, Ukraine, to evacuate 300 orphans and 600 employees, teachers, students, and community members as Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine.
After months of preparation, the group left on February 24 after a bomb missed its target, an airport, and landed a half-mile from the orphanage. Over two days, working under cover of night and through Shabbat, all the orphans and adults began the treacherous journey of fleeing their home on the snow-covered, rugged backroads of northwestern Ukraine and traveling through the Carpathian Mountains and Moldova before eventually taking refuge in Romania.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Rabbi Refael Kruskal, CEO of Tikva, in a self-recorded video shared on social media.
Barely audible over the sound of children crying, Kruskal continued, “I’m here with the kids of the infants’ home. It’s just amazing... They’ve been through so much trauma as it is. Now, they’re refugees. They have to run away from their homes, run away from bombing, run away from the madness.”
Kruskal and his staff have worked tirelessly to create a sense of normalcy for their children and community in Romania. The children, all Jewish, come from traumatic backgrounds, whether orphaned, removed from abuse, or came from families without means for care. The support of the global Jewish community, UJA, and World Central Kitchen has helped sustain their community of 900 people.
Founded in 2010 by Chef José Andrés, World Central Kitchen (WCK) provides meals to communities in the wake of humanitarian and climate disasters, first by providing an immediate response on the front lines, then by collaborating and establishing relationships with local chefs and organizations to recover and establish resilient food systems.
WCK has been supporting Tikva to provide meals for its community since early April. To date, UJA has granted $788,000 to WCK, which allows the organization to serve up kosher, culturally appropriate meals to the Tikva community.
Chef Andrés visited the community on May 25, tweeting, “Today I am in Romania where @wckitchen have served over 1 million meals. I thank partners like Tikva Children’s Home serving 1000+ refugees every day, mostly orphans & children who fled Odesa Ukraine. They built a kosher kitchen and make amazing kosher meals cooked with love!”
Currently operating out of the kitchen of a resort hotel on the banks of the Black Sea, Tikva’s Orthodox operations required extensive work to build a kosher kitchen. And to prepare for holidays like Passover, staff and volunteers needed to clean that kitchen so it met kosher-for-Passover standards, including washing dishes in the water of the Black Sea, cleaning tools with a blowtorch, and scrubbing down counters.
All so staff and volunteers could dish out chicken, salad, potatoes, and more to the tight-knit community spending their first — and, ideally, last — Passover in Romania as the community hopes to one day return to Odesa.
As the war rages on and violence destroys Ukraine, WCK continues to provide for more than the holidays. A pantry is filled with cereal for breakfast, hot dogs are served for lunch, and challah is provided for Shabbat dinners. Celebratory meals are cooked for birthdays, engagements, and a wedding on May 19. And celebrations won’t stop, especially with the joyful welcoming of several babies due in the coming weeks.
Despite the circumstances, life continues for Tikva’s community — lives sustained by love, resilience, and the nourishment of a good meal.