The History of Tikva
Odessa is located in southern Ukraine, 275 miles south of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. The city is a major seaport located on the northwest shore of the Black Sea and the fourth largest city in Ukraine.
The city became home to a large Jewish community during the 19th century, and by 1897 Jews were estimated to comprise some 37% of the population. Though a center of Jewish artistic and intellectual expression, Jews were repeatedly subjected to severe persecution and pogroms. Many Jews from Odessa fled abroad, particularly to mandate Palestine. The city became an important base of support for Zionism.
WW II and the Odessa Massacre
Following the Siege of Odessa, and the Axis occupation, approximately 25,000 Odessits (mostly Jews) were murdered in the outskirts of the city and over 35,000 deported. Most of the atrocities were committed during the first six months of the occupation which officially began on October 17, 1941, when 80% of the 210,000 Jews in the region were killed. After the Nazi forces began to lose ground on the Eastern Front, the Romanian administration changed its policy, refusing to deport the remaining Jewish population to extermination camps in German occupied Poland, and allowing Jews to work as hired labourers. As a result, despite the tragic events of 1941, the survival of the Jews in this area was higher than in other areas of occupied eastern Europe.
In 1991, after the collapse of Communism, the city became part of a newly independent Ukraine. Today, Odessa is a city of more than 1 million people. The city’s industries include shipbuilding, oil refining, chemicals, metalworking and food processing. Additionally, Odessa is a Ukrainian naval base and home to a fishing fleet. It is also known for its huge outdoor market, the Seventh-Kilometer Market, the largest market of its kind in Europe.
Odessa’s Jews and Tikva
Today, there are approximately 45,000 Jews living in Odessa, many of whom are struggling to survive amid the severe economic downturn. Given the extremely low wages (the average being $50 per month) and lack of extensive social safety nets like those of Western Europe, many parents cannot cope and abandon their children out of sheer desperation. Some of these children suffer abuse and spend devastating childhoods in dilapidated state orphanages. Unwanted children are warehoused and nominally educated. At age 18, they are released to the streets without the requisite skills, nurturing, or wherewithal to build a future. These are the abandoned and abused children of Odessa, where alcohol and drugs are the sustenance of life, abuse is nearly always destiny, and crime often the only means of survival. Hopes and dreams are shattered before they ever have the chance to develop.
The beginnings of Tikva
In 1993, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht arrived in Odessa to revive Jewish life in this former communist region. Seeking out the Jews who had remained, he established a small Jewish school and utilized educational and social programming to reach and mend this dwindling Jewish community. While working towards that goal, Rabbi Baksht discovered the plight of hundreds of local Jewish children, those without homes, those who had suffered abuse and neglect, those living on the streets, and those confined to bleak and sometimes even cruel institutional settings. In response, he secured an apartment, removed six Jewish children from a state orphanage, and created the first “children’s home”, the nucleus of what was to become Tikva.
“It was a situation we had not anticipated, but we knew we had to act,” says Rabbi Baksht. “Tikva was born because of the reality of Jewish homeless
children in Odessa; We had no other choice.”