Rising to meet a myriad of challenges as Ukrainian Jewry disperses
They outlasted Stalin’s terror and famine in the 1930s and the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews in the 1940s. And they remained even after the waves of mass immigration of the 1990s. But today, tens of thousands of Ukraine’s weary Jews are leaving their homes, forced to flee towards neighboring Poland, Moldova, and Romania, where they are seeking refuge in Europe or boarding chartered flights to Israel. Others have fled their hometowns and are taking refuge in cities in western Ukraine. And some have chosen to remain in the cities under attack.
The humanitarian effort to help the Jews of Ukraine wherever they may began months ago, the Chabad-Lubavitch-affiliated Federation of the Jewish Communities of the FSU (FJC)—which serves all Jewish communities in the entire former Soviet Union—has been at the epicenter of an ever-growing humanitarian effort that crosses ethnic divisions, socio-economic strata and international borders.
FJC in cooperation with other organizations is dedicated to the Jews in Ukraine to make sure they receive material assistance and support of any kind.
The Ukraine Relief Fund goes directly to the life-saving efforts of the FJC and Chabad emissaries in Ukraine, who have also marshaled the support of local and international donors. Funds donated through this fund translate nearly instantly into much-needed cash on the ground.
“Literally every dollar that is donated right now is money sorely needed for work taking place as we speak,” says a source close to Chabad of Odessa’s relief work. “We are talking about food, clean water and medicine, we are talking about helping people leave. It’s saving lives.”
Largely situated within the historic Pale of Jewish Settlement, the area in which the Czars forced the Jews of the Russian Empire to reside, Ukraine is home to an estimated 350,000 Jews spread throughout the country. Chabad has a permanent presence in 35 Ukrainian cities and towns, communities that are served by 200 Chabad emissary families. More often than not, they are the entire Jewish infrastructure of their home community, and Chabad rabbis and their wives run the local synagogue, as well as the Jewish school, youth groups, soup kitchens, and other social services organizations.
For weeks now, Chabad emissaries have been purchasing rice, kasha, and other non-perishables, which are being distributed to those in need. Even in cities which emissaries have been forced to leave in the past few days, the aid distribution continues between bombings.
“We have been buying many tons of rice, flour, sugar, eggs, shvartze kasha (“buckwheat”) and bread, and distributing them to local families.” Rabbi Wolff from Kherson says his only concern is for his community. “Please G‑d, we’re doing everything we can to make sure they stay safe and unharmed.”
In Odessa, his brother Rabbi Avraham Wolff of Chabad-Lubavitch of Odessa also worked tirelessly to arrange safe passage for the children’s house of the Mishpacha Orphanage, one of three run by Chabad in Ukraine, all of which have been evacuated.
In the border city of Lvov (Lviv), as sirens blared, and residents feared to leave home, volunteers went from house to house, dropping off care packages with basic foodstuffs.
At the same time, as refugees stream through the city, the volunteers provide them with hot kosher meals and help them find places to sleep.
In Zaporozhye, where the area has seen heavy fighting and passage from the city is now impossible, Chabad has been distributing food to hundreds. “We asked them to come in small groups, to prevent anyone from getting hurt,” said a source on the ground.
In addition to food and shelter, people need spiritual and emotional support. Whenever possible, synagogues have remained open—in many instances becoming bomb shelters—and psychological treatment is being provided via secure web conferencing for those in need.
“People turn to me and ask if they can leave,” said Wolff of Odessa. “If they have the means, I tell them to go, why should they remain in danger. But for those who cannot leave, for whatever reason, we are staying put, providing them with spiritual and material aid.”
On Wednesday morning, with tears in his eyes, Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, rabbi of the Jewish Community of Zhitomir stood aboard a bus packed with mostly women and children. “This is the tenth bus we are sending,” he said above the din, his voice cracking with emotion. “They are leaving this community, leaving their homes. Why must we see small children crying, and mothers weeping? We’ve had enough!”
“We thought this only happened in the stories we were told as children,” said Wilhelm. “Now we are living it, watching people decide what to take with them and what to leave behind.
The effort is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars and is only expected to balloon in the coming weeks and months. Concerned people around the world have been streaming to the Ukraine Relief Fund page to help their brothers and sisters in the besieged nation.
Based on an article by Menachem Posner and Mendel Super | Chabad.org