A star volunteer of Berlin’s Jewish community
In March 2022, Bella Zchwiraschwili encountered one of her most challenging tasks, when she and her rabbi received a phone call from a rabbi in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. They were evacuating 120 children from two orphanages in Odessa because of the war, as well as the children’s caretakers. The group was arriving in Berlin in two days.
For decades, Bella Zchwiraschwili has been working for the Jewish community of Berlin and volunteering for Jewish causes. A professional events manager, she worked for the Central Council of Jews in Germany, organizing conferences and seminars. She has organized Hanukkah celebrations at Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate; Yom HaShoah memorial events; and put together kosher and Israeli food markets. She is a key contact person for German government ministries when it comes to Jewish affairs, and also coordinates events and programs for the Israeli embassy.
Zchwiraschwili immediately came to the aid of the refugees. “That was the hardest time for me mentally,” she told the NOA project. They had 48 hours to find housing for them, which they did quickly through their networks, in a hotel owned by a Jewish family. They prepared water, food, and clothing for the children. A group of 100 volunteers, mostly women, was also assembled to help the children settle in. “Without them, these ‘mamas,’ we couldn’t manage,” Zchwiraschwili affectionately says.
The challenges, of course, didn’t end there. Most of the children didn’t have passports, yet they had to cross numerous borders to reach Germany. Zchwiraschwili and her rabbi were on the phone the whole time with the authorities to coordinate and get the children across every border. Access to healthcare for the kids was another issue.
Since that phone call, a whole community has been built around integrating the kids into their new surroundings. Zchwiraschwili, who was born in Israel to immigrants from Georgia and Ukraine and came to Germany at four years old, understood firsthand the importance of integration. They established a kindergarten and a school where the kids are residing. They’ve held celebrations for the chaggim, and were approached by a well-known football club to create a sports program for the kids at the club’s stadium. Months later, work at the improvised orphanage is on-going. “My younger brother works there every day. He is a hero,” Zchwiraschwili says. “Ultimately, it’s a family. We must thank them that we can help them.”
In 2022, Zchwiraschwili received an official honor from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier for her civic engagement and commitment to making Jewish life more visible. Her newest endeavor now is as director of the Pears Jewish Campus in Berlin, a Jewish community facility focused on educational, cultural, and sport programs, set to open later in 2023. “The goal of the campus is that it is an open house. Let people in, Jewish and non-Jewish, and give a feeling that there is no difference between us, that we are one,” she says.
A NOA profile on Jews who are creating a more inclusive Europe.