The shrill sound of a phone ringing woke Elizaveta Sherstuk out of her sleep at 5 A.M. on February 24. It was a friend calling to let her know the Russians had just invaded Ukraine.
She remembers her friend’s exact words. “‘Liza, they’re bombing us,’ she told me. ‘The war has begun.’”
Among the first Russian targets that day was the northeastern city of Sumy, where Sherstuk and her family live. Within hours, Russian forces had surrounded the city, which is situated about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the border, and violent clashes were reported on its outskirts.
Ignoring the air-raid sirens and the nearby sounds of gunfire, Sherstuk left her apartment and headed, as she did every morning, to her office at the Jewish community center. The first thing she did was make a round of phone calls to find out who needed help.
Less than two weeks later, Sherstuk – who runs the Hesed social welfare center in Sumy – would oversee the rescue and evacuation of 150 members of the Jewish community. A few days later, having relocated with them to western Ukraine, she would organize from afar, over the course of several days, a few smaller-scale operations, enabling another 100 members of Sumy Oblast’s Jewish community to flee the heavily bombarded area.
In recognition of this life-saving endeavor, Sherstuk has been chosen to serve as one of a dozen torch-bearers (symbolizing the 12 ancient Israelite tribes) at Israel’s annual Independence Day ceremony on Wednesday evening. It is one of the highest honors bestowed by the state.
When asked where she found the strength to take charge under such trying circumstances, Sherstuk said in a recent interview in Jerusalem: “I think one of the reasons I was able to function was that I was in a state of shock. That allows you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to if you were thinking rationally.”
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Swept into the cause
Founded in 1993 by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (aka the Joint), Hesed is a network of welfare centers that provide social services to Jews throughout the former Soviet bloc. The center in Sumy, which was established in 1996, serves the city’s 1,000-strong Jewish population and is located on the premises of a recently renovated historic synagogue.
Although she was born during the communist era, when religious observance was prohibited, Sherstuk, 51, says she grew up keenly aware of her heritage. “My entire family is Jewish, and I always knew that I was a Jew,” she says.
Her parents, who would eventually immigrate to Israel, were active in efforts to revive Jewish life in Sumy, and from a relatively early age she found herself swept into the cause as well.
“I’d been singing since I was a little girl, and my mom invited me to perform for a special Rosh Hashanah event at the community,” she recounts. “After that, I was offered a job as a music teacher at the Jewish Sunday school. And from that job, I would go on to form a vocal ensemble that is still very active today. In fact, I consider it my baby.”
Her vocal ensemble, known as Aviv (the Hebrew word for spring), focuses on traditional and Jewish music. Until the coronavirus pandemic hit, they regularly toured Ukraine and other European countries, participating in international musical festivals.
In 2001, Sherstuk was appointed head of the Hesed day care center for the elderly and, five years later, assumed responsibility for its special assistance program to elderly people who are homebound. In 2015, she took yet another step up the organization ladder when she was named director of the entire Hesed center in Sumy. In that capacity, she administers a team of 21 full-time employees and more than 110 social workers who provide services on an ad hoc basis.
She and her husband, who is an actor and theater director, have two children: a 29-year-old daughter who lives in Israel, and a 23-year-old son who lives near them in Sumy. Her son, she boasts, was the first boy to celebrate a bar mitzvah in the Sumy Jewish community after its recent revival.
Wanting to hear another voice
Preparing for a worst-case scenario, Sherstuk had already begun stockpiling food and other necessities for the Jewish community weeks before the Russian invasion. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t surprised and even shocked when it happened, though. “Despite all our preparations, we still weren’t ready for something like this,” she says.
She and her husband did not have access to a proper shelter during the first few days of the war. “We live on the fourth floor of a nine-story building, and at first, whenever the air-raid sirens sounded, we’d go down to our basement. But that was very dangerous because all the hot water pipes of the building were located there, and if the basement had gotten hit, those pipes would’ve burst and we would’ve boiled to death.”
The couple eventually moved in with friends, who had a proper shelter. From there, Sherstuk spent the next week fielding phone calls from Jewish community members.
“Everybody in the community has my number, and everybody knows they can call me whenever they need,” she says. “At first, I got calls from people who just wanted me to explain to them what was going on and wanted me to tell them what would happen next. Some wanted to know how they could escape, others wanted to connect to a social worker. I had children call from the ensemble who just wanted to sing, and some people called because they just wanted to talk and hear another voice.”
As reports spread that the Russians might open a humanitarian corridor allowing civilians to leave Sumy, Sherstuk began preparing a list of the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community who would be given priority on the buses she was ordering. Then she needed to call each of them to see if they were prepared to leave and, if so, provide them with instructions on what to bring with them and make arrangements for getting them to the buses.
But when a humanitarian corridor was opened on March 8, the buses she had ordered didn’t show up. “The drivers were too scared,” she explains. “They thought they would be attacked by Russian forces.”
The following day, at 8 A.M., following several desperate calls, the buses finally arrived and Sherstuk put 150 people on board. She and her husband accompanied them on their long drive to western Ukraine.
The couple has been away from home since then. “We knew there would be no going back once we left,” she says. “The humanitarian corridors are only for one-way trips.” Since then, Sherstuk and her husband have been wandering from one location to another in western Ukraine, keeping daily tabs on members of the Sumy Jewish community and helping those who wish to leave.
Since the war broke out, almost half of Sumy’s Jewish residents have fled the city. But aside from those who have gone to Israel, Sherstuk believes most will eventually return home. Of those who have left Sumy, about half have made their way out on buses organized through Hesed.
Russian forces left the Sumy area in early April, and Sherstuk says quite a few Jews have returned since then. “It is my plan to go back as well, as soon as I finish my trip to Israel,” she says.
The torch-bearers at the Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem are chosen by the Culture Ministry, which several years ago decided to include a representative of Diaspora Jewry at the annual event. That representative is chosen based on a recommendation from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.
In choosing Sherstuk, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai says he consulted with the Joint. “The war in Ukraine has been on all of our minds in recent months, and we felt it was only right this year to bring a representative of the Jewish community in Ukraine,” he says. “We wanted someone who embodied the values of mutual assistance among Jews and Jewish continuity, and Elizaveta fit the bill.”
This is Sherstuk’s 18th trip to Israel, but she expects her visits to be more frequent now: 10 months ago, her daughter gave birth to a baby girl – Sherstuk’s first grandchild. “Now I have an incentive to polish up my Hebrew as well,” she says.