Few countries in the world can compare with the Ukraine, when it comes to having a rich Jewish cultural heritage. The country is the birthplace of the Hasidic movement and its Jewish community has produced some of the greatest names in Jewish (as well as global) history—from distinguished religious scholars and philosophers, to giants of political discourse, as well as eminent writers, artists, and intellectuals.
Impressive, considering that Ukrainian Jewry managed to bequest all these remarkable cultural gems to the world, despite often facing a tough reality. This continues to hold true in the 21st century—which as it unfurls, brings with it new challenges—for what is estimated to be the fifth-largest Jewish community in Europe.
In 2020, the challenges faced by the community, manifested themselves in the form of the COVID19 pandemic. As in previous times, Ukrainian Jews refuse to be intimidated and are meeting the challenge head-on, with determination. To this end, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (FSU) in partnership with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, in record time, organized a special relief effort called “For Life’s Sake”—a program designed to help the more vulnerable and isolated community members to weather this difficult period.
Recently, the program’s head-coordinator—Mrs. Irina Chernobryvets—was kind enough to take time out of her extremely busy schedule to sit down for a telephone conversation and shed some additional light on the program’s scope of activities.
“I would say that to a large extent, the challenges that we have to contend with during the COVID19 pandemic, are the direct consequence of pre-existing problems. The fact is that the state of Ukraine’s healthcare system was exceedingly far from ideal—long before the pandemic. This means that not only is the system not sufficiently equipped to deal with the fallout of the pandemic to begin with, but the additional strain created by the pandemic, now makes obtaining treatment for all other medical conditions even more difficult than before,” commented Mrs. Chernobryvets.
According to further explanations by Mrs. Chernobryvets; while the situation is obviously difficult for everyone, certain groups are affected in disproportionate ways—such as the elderly and those with pre-existing health problems. Also included in this category are people of lesser socio-economic means, such as single parents and the unemployed. These people might simply lack the adequate financial resources to weather the crisis.
While in theory, Ukraine has a socialized healthcare system, the bureaucracy in charge of administering it, is highly inefficient and dysfunctional. Therefore, the system often lacks adequate budgetary means, equipment, staff, and supplies needed to provide even a basic level of service.
In practice this means that in order to receive timely and adequate medical attention, people have no choice but resort to private healthcare providers and bear all the associated costs themselves. For someone living on a shoestring budget, this is simply not an option. Ukraine’s depressed economy contributes to the fact that quite a large number of people find themselves in precisely this type of situation. The situation is exacerbated even further by the negative impact that the pandemic is having on the global economy.
In order to tackle the situation in the most efficient way possible, the Jewish communities and FJC’s activists decided to adopt a multi-pronged strategy for the deployment of the “For Life’s Sake” initiative. One of the center-points of this strategy is a telephone hotline that serves as the main channel of communication between the program’s coordinators and members of the community. The hotline allows community members from all over Ukraine to contact the program’s facilitators in an efficient manner and keep them constantly informed about the needs of various community members as they arise. This is in addition to direct contact that can be made with each of the large community centers.
The spectrum of needs can be very wide—anything from basic material needs such as adequate food supplies—to urgent medical care. Once it has been determined that certain individual(s), in a particular locale require assistance, the delivery of anything from medicaments and protective equipment (e.g. face masks, gloves, disinfectant, etc.) to hot meals (or food packages where this may not be practical)—can be rapidly organized. The program also offers financial aid to cover the costs of medical supplies and treatment, for those that need it.
In addition to more physical needs, Mrs. Chernobryvets reminds that in such difficult circumstances, it is important not to forget about people’s spiritual and psychological needs as well; “Imagine an elderly Jewish person living on their own. Their spouse has deceased a long time ago and the kids have likely moved elsewhere in search of better opportunities. Life in such a state can get pretty sad and lonely as it is… and then all of a sudden comes this pandemic and forces them into even deeper loneliness and isolation. So, we have special volunteers that are assigned to permanently maintain contact with these types of individuals, which allows them to accomplish a two-fold objective: first of all, to be aware of all the needs that individual might have, so that assistance can be promptly dispatched as soon as a need arises; the second, is to simply provide that person with someone they can talk to help them feel less lonely. This second point, can often carry a much higher value for people in such circumstances than even food and medicine… because if the soul of a person feels like its dying, then no amount of food or medicine can help with that. For these people, the knowledge that someone out-there cares about them, is interested in talking to them—nourishes the soul in a tremendous way.
Mrs. Chernobryvets elaborated further that in terms of dealing with questions of psychological well-being; “[..] volunteers that are tasked with maintaining contact with individuals undergo specialized psychological training in order to help them understand these people and communicate with them better. If while conversing with these people, our volunteers ascertain that more serious psychological/psychiatric help is needed, we have professionals in those fields standing by, ready to jump into action whenever needed.”
So, there you have it—as in times past, Ukrainian Jewry once again rises to the occasion to ensure that none of our brethren that are scattered all over that big country, get left out in the cold—in terms of both body AND soul.