By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
As Ukraine continues to unravel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) will try to help that country’s Jews celebrate as normal of a Passover holiday as possible in chaotic times.
Separatists have seized territory across eastern Ukraine, including the city of Donetsk. Suffering defeats, the Ukrainian government has restricted its contested borders and closed banks. Food is becoming scarce. As a tenuous cease-fire holds, aid organizations are working to provide relief to civilians caught in the crossfire. Among them, JDC is currently assisting more than 4,600 Jews who are either displaced by the conflict or stranded in separatist-controlled regions.
Despite the upheaval, JDC-run Hesed social welfare centers and JDC-supported Jewish community centers on both sides of the cease-fire line will hold a variety of Passover events—including seders, matzah baking, and cooking workshops—for thousands of Jews on both sides of the Ukrainian cease-fire line. JDC volunteers and staffers will deliver nearly 48,000 free packages of matzah to Ukrainian Jews in need.
On March 23 in New York City, JDC hosted a briefing with Masha Shumatskaya, a Jewish activist who fled Donetsk last summer. The briefing also featured Oksana Galkevich, JDC’s Ukraine director of external affairs, who spoke via videoconference from her post in Jerusalem. Their comprehensive testimony provided a stark overview of the history of the Ukraine conflict—which dates back to November 2013—and JDC’s efforts to alleviate the current humanitarian crisis.
“What’s happened in Ukraine over the past 15 months was very unexpected,” Galkevich said. “What began as a protest became a war, and then an economic collapse.”
Born in Kharkov, Galkevich has spent the past 15 years helping to revitalize Jewish life in Ukraine and providing assistance to those in need. “Now there is an atmosphere of insecurity in Ukraine,” she said. “An absolutely safe place does not exist.”
Beyond the destructive shelling of towns and cities, the biggest factor aggravating the crisis is the poor state of the Ukrainian economy. “Food prices have risen 100-200 percent,” said Galkevich. Ukraine’s government has not raised pensions since the fighting began, and elderly people stuck in separatist-controlled regions are no longer being paid.
“People are suddenly poor,” she said, and “citizens make hard choices what bills they pay.”
Since the fighting erupted, the conflict has produced more than a million refugees in western Ukraine. JDC operatives have not faced a crisis of this magnitude since the end of World War II.
“We have over 2,500 displaced Jews that we’re helping. There may be more,” Galkevich said. “Most fled in the summer. They do not have clothes, pay, work, homes or a place in the community.”
Among the displaced is Shumatskaya, a 23-year-old activist who holds a BA and MA from Donetsk National University and is fluent in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Ukrainian. In addition to New York, her U.S. speaking tour included Seattle, Vancouver, and Philadelphia.
“It was very easy to be a Jew in Donetsk; we had a synagogue, many Jewish families, and community life,” Shumatskaya said, recalling pre-war prosperity. She attended Jewish schools from the age of 7, participated in a local Jewish youth club, and is a graduate of the JDC’s Metsuda Young Leadership Initiative.
But after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, life began to change in Donetsk.
“There was a protest. It wasn’t armed, but still very dangerous,” Shumatskaya said, recounting the events that prompted her to flee her home. “In April, a group of masked soldiers arrived. They established a checkpoint, declared themselves separatists, and declared a new republic. Then they started shelling the city and airport.”
While the borders were still porous, Shumatskaya fled Donetsk by train, leaving her parents behind. She sought refuge in Kharkov, where she has since found work as an English tutor and volunteers at the local Hesed welfare center, one of 32 such centers operated by JDC in Ukraine.
JDC is delivering aid to Jews stranded in the separatist-controlled regions, helping resettle interior refugees, and assisting Jews wishing to emigrate. Shumatskaya’s work at Hesed demonstrates a key component in what Galkevitch calls the “three fronts” of JDC’s response to the crisis. Shumatskaya said she and other volunteers are calling every registered JDC client, asking, “Where are you now? Do you receive your pension? Where are your family members? What kind of assistance do you need urgently—food, medications, accommodation? Are you considering leaving the conflict zone?”
That list of questions guides volunteers, helping them provide the right assistance on an individualized basis. JDC must then assess who is in the most danger and distribute resources accordingly.
“We’re delivering food, medicine and water by bike and foot,” Galkevitch said. “If they (separatists) start shelling, that starts at 7 a.m. sharp. Therefore, you have to reach your client before or after.”
Given the long history of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, JDC was bracing for dangerous conditions from the outset of the Ukraine conflict. Yet ant-Semitism “has not played a prominent part in the crisis,” Galkevich told JNS.org after the briefing.
“We did increase security measures at our facilities following violence and anti-Semitic incidents, to ensure the safety of our employees and clients,” she said.
“People care about each other,” she said, citing an instance in which her mother received aid from JDC and shared her relief with non-Jewish neighbors. The fact that Jews are apparently not a scapegoat amid the destructive nationalist struggle in Ukraine may be a surprising development to many observers. Jews continue to feel welcome in the region, and many remain loyal to Ukraine.
“We must remember that the Jewish community of Ukraine has undergone a remarkable renaissance since the fall of the Soviet Union and that local Jews are reluctant to leave behind that warm, thriving community and their homes and lives,” said Galkevich.
JDC’s work in Ukraine is undertaken in cooperation with the local Jewish community and groups such as Chabad-Lubavitch, and is supported by its board, individual donors, foundations, and partners, including Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations of North America, World Jewish Relief, and the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany.
Galkevich emphasized the importance of JDC’s “infrastructure of 32 welfare centers across Ukraine, built over 25 years.”
“We never stopped working for these people,” she said.
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