newsJewish Diaspora

Hope, lost and found, for Ukraine’s Jews

A plea for assistance in eastern Ukraine. Credit: JDC.
A plea for assistance in eastern Ukraine. Credit: JDC.

“Start worrying. Details to follow.”

It’s not just the irreverent punch line of a joke about the content of a Jewish telegram. It is also the only way I can describe the situation in Ukraine, a country suffering from violent conflict, wide-ranging economic collapse, and a humanitarian crisis of untold proportions.

I experienced a taste of this crisis during my most recent trip to the beleaguered Eastern European nation together with a group of passionate Jewish leaders on behalf of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Like the others on the trip, I was transported thousands of miles from my safe life in the U.S. to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, located 100 miles west of the separatist-controlled regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

It was there that we got to understand better the realities that have beset Ukraine over the last year and a half. We saw firsthand how the Euromaidan clashes, Crimean annexation, financial chaos, and protracted violence in eastern Ukraine has impacted a population of people who had faced major socio-economic challenges even before this crisis began.

What was most striking was the presence of many of the 1.3 million Ukrainians who have become displaced within the country’s borders. Commonly referred to as Internally Displaced People or IDPs, they are attempting desperately to forge new lives is strange cities far from their former lives. There has been scant news on their specific suffering, especially with a world refugee crisis reaching an unprecedented 60 million people this year. But their desperate need for housing, medical care, food, and community connections is acute.

When I traveled last summer with a small group of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) board members to the region, we hoped that the IDPs we met would be able to resettle and find a more secure life, perhaps even in Israel. At the time, we could not imagine their displaced status would continue, or that fighting and insecurity would escalate. And we did not think for a moment that when we returned this year, we would find even more displaced people.

But as we visited the displaced at Dnepropetrovsk’s Beit Baruch senior center and in temporary housing facilities in the city, we found pervasive sadness, vacant stares, and doubts for the future. Hearing about the journey made by an educated young couple who fled Lugansk last August with their two little boys was surreal. To ensure their children’s safe passage amid the chaos, they had to forgo additional luggage so that each parent could hold onto one of their son’s hands along the way. They currently reside in small, but meticulously kept apartment and survive on meager salaries from unreliable jobs.

To say they are in the middle of a perfect humanitarian storm would be an understatement. Rampant inflation, devalued currency, and an inadequate or nonexistent social safety net have wreaked havoc on both those who fled the separatist-controlled regions and those who remain throughout Ukraine.

In light of these circumstances, many Jews are making use of the critically important aliyah services provided by the Jewish Agency’s Mayak Center. But for the vast majority, leaving is not an option. And the reasons are many: from not wanting to leave their lives and families behind, to protecting property, to the debilitation brought on by the sheer trauma and disbelief of the circumstances.

Thankfully for those in Dnepropetrovsk, Chabad’s Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, the local chief rabbi, has set the tone for community cooperation at this challenging time and works closely with all the major Jewish groups engaged in efforts to help the Jews of his city and throughout Ukraine. The air of positivity he has fostered has elevated not just Jews in need, but also the local professionals providing services to the needy and visitors, like us, demonstrating solidarity with those Jews impacted by the humanitarian crisis.

When the Soviet Union fell more than 20 years ago, a vast system of JDC Hesed social welfare centers and Jewish Community Centers were established. These great institutions worked hard to infuse a sense of communal independence, philanthropic spirit, and local Jewish creativity. Today, that struggle has paid off: Hesed and JCC professionals and the volunteers are demonstrating bravery, dedication, and contribute positively to their respective communities.

Jewish professionals, also suffering amid the continued crisis, work ceaselessly around the clock to ensure that each and every Jew, be they displaced or remaining in the conflict zone, are cared for. They treat every person with compassion and dignity, even when they themselves are stretched, weary, and worried for their own family members and friends.

And then there are those volunteers resoundingly active inside and out of the separatist-controlled zones. Often, they are risking their own safety to help the helpless. Consider Victor from Slavyansk, who delivered food packages on his bike to the elderly who could not leave home. In his late 70s, and not Jewish, he did what he could in the most trying circumstances.

Victor is not alone in his awe-inspiring dedication. In fact, volunteerism that has become a mainstay of Jewish communities throughout Ukraine, the silver lining to this dire situation, and evidence of a home-grown sense of “arevut”—mutual responsibility among Jews.

That development can be found in the JDC’s Metsudah Leadership Program, which builds cohorts of volunteer Jewish leaders addressing social challenges. Metsudah’s more than 250 alumni, deployed throughout Ukraine, are setting a tone of dedication that uplifts their downtrodden communities.

Another bright spot is the welcoming environment provided by the Jews of Zaporozhe, who have been instrumental in caring for displaced Jews and ensuring that they have a Jewish community to turn to at their time of need. During a visit to this southeastern Ukrainian city, I met a severely ill child who was living with her grandmother and mother. This tiny, beleaguered family of women are lacking a permanent home, miss their lives back in the east, and now rely on support from strangers. But they have nowhere to turn.

We—the Jewish community—are their only source of support. In fact, since the crisis began, the response to the humanitarian plight has coalesced around a stalwart group of aid groups, concerned Jews advocates and activists, and local Ukrainian Jewish organizations. The Jewish Federations, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany, World Jewish Relief, Chabad, Jewish foundations, and individual supporters have been at the forefront of these efforts.

It is indeed difficult to find hope amid these scenes of terrible struggle, and one fears that brighter tomorrows are ever more allusive. But sometimes fate takes a hand and reminds you of the indomitable nature of the Jewish spirit in the face of adversity.

Those who have traveled with me know that a tired piano and a Yiddish melody can set me off singing and dancing with unbridled enthusiasm. During our visit to Ukraine, I was treated to such a song by eight retired female engineers who gather together weekly to socialize with other Jewish seniors at a program made possible by Jewish philanthropists from North America. The song—written for me and those I was traveling with—ended by noting that their opportunity to socialize together was “medicine for their souls.”

In that poignant moment, despite my worries for the future of Ukraine’s Jews, I was reminded that we can accomplish anything if we put our minds to it.

And for Ukraine’s Jews today, a little bit of chutzpah in the face of the odds, a warm hug, and a place to call home can go a long way.

Etta Gross Zimmerman, who resides in Florida with her husband and daughter, is a senior member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) board, a Wexner Heritage Program alumnus, and vice chair of the board of the South Palm Beach Jewish Federation. 

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