As we enter the summer months, with a focus on family, friends, and general respite from taxing schedules and demands, let’s also reaffirm our commitment to the Jews of Ukraine.
By Alan H. Gill
Despite a fragile ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and separatist forces, news of violence is once again making headlines with major fighting near Donetsk. And yet the humanitarian toll of this crisis – impacting tens of thousands of Jews – is no longer in the news and is naturally slipping way from our communal agenda.
Challenges to personal safety, widespread devastation, instability in the separatist-controlled regions, economic collapse, and a total lack of public services exacerbate the already harsh lives of some of the poorest Jews in the world. And it is our responsibility to continue to care for them.
Here are seven facts you need to know and should share with those committed not just to the welfare of the Jews of Ukraine – who have suffered a long history, including Nazi and Soviet persecution – but to Jews in need, wherever they may be.
1. It’s the Economy: Inflation in Ukraine is expected to hit about 40% in 2015. That’s similar to the inflation that existed in the region after the fall of the Soviet Union. Local currency has also collapsed. These factors and widespread destruction of property, rising prices on scarce food and medicine, and crushing unemployment have triggered new needs among the poor and working families now scrounging to get by. Since the crisis began, for instance, we have taken on more than 5,200 new clients, all of whom never needed our help in the past.
2. Energy and Utilities: Access to affordable energy in Ukraine has always been a challenge. This last winter was particularly harsh, with less disposable income, rising costs of energy, and government controlled limits on thermostat temperatures. Many could not afford heating, warm clothing, and bedding and we subsequently increased the winter support it provides from 9,000 to 24,000 people. And summer will be no better – already in April and May, electricity prices increased as much as 50% in some places and water prices 60-100%. By next winter, costs are predicted to rise an additional 72%.
3. The Displaced: The number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Ukraine is more than one million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That’s more people than the number of people living in San Francisco proper. And they face many challenges, including the need for food, housing, medical care, and employment. They also suffer severe trauma and face discrimination from potential employers or landlords in in unfamiliar places where many have no family connections or resources. We are caring for more than 2,800 displaced Jews, the majority who fled to cities across Ukraine, connecting them to local Jewish life and to a sense of normalcy.
4. Those “Who Remain”: In the separatist-held regions, especially the cities of Lugansk and Donetsk, hundreds of thousands are living in challenging circumstances, including the recent upsurge in heavy fighting. Food prices there are much higher than in other parts of the country – the potato, a staple of Ukrainian cuisine, is more than 100% higher than before the crisis. Homes and other property have been damaged or destroyed and there is no clear path toward rebuilding. Pensions are paid infrequently, goods are scarce, and there are reports of pervasive disorder and crime. The most vulnerable – the elderly, children, people with special needs and new poor families – face fear, hunger, and no hope for the future. For the more than 6,000 Jews we serve in the separatist-controlled areas, food packages (reissued for the first time in years in some places because existing food cards did not work), homecare, and Jewish community events are the only relief in sight.
5. Volunteers at the Forefront: After more than two decades of rebuilding Jewish life in Ukraine, a small but growing volunteer movement has emerged and is proving incredibly adept in the face of the crisis. From young Jews delivering food packages and other supplies to the needy in the separatist controlled areas, to displaced Jewish psychologists treating trauma among fellow displaced people, investments in building caring Jewish communities are blooming. One such volunteer, 23-year-old Masha Shumatskaya, took the leadership tools she acquired at one of our programs in Donetsk, and is applying those skills to volunteer projects among poor, elderly Jews in her adopted city of Kharkov through the local Hesed social welfare center.
6. Jewish Life Goes On: Despite the aforementioned hardships, Jews on both sides of the crisis lines, continue to engage in Jewish life and celebrate holidays with gusto. Over the past few months, Ukrainian Jews marked Passover, Purim, and Shavuot with thousands attending events and programs offered through a variety of local Jewish organizations and institutions. For Passover, we had over 8,000 people attending our events and we delivered nearly 48,000 boxes of matzah. And in Hesed social welfare centers around the country, Victory Day, recalling the defeat of the Nazis, was marked by joyous events with elderly Jews recalling their service while proudly wearing medals and uniforms. In the coming the months, Jewish summer camping experiences for children and families, cultural festivals like Days of Jewish Culture in Odessa, and community events will ease the lives, however temporarily, of Jews around Ukraine.
7. Coalition of Caring: The response to the needs of Ukraine’s Jews has coalesced around a stalwart group of aid groups, concerned Jews and Christians alike, and local Ukrainian Jewish organizations. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Federations, 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, putting into action the sacred Jewish ideal of arevut, mutual responsibility.
As we enter the summer months, with a focus on family, friends, and general respite from taxing schedules and demands, let’s also reaffirm our commitment to the Jews of Ukraine. The road ahead for them remains long, with no true end to this crisis in sight. Continued efforts to aid them, empower them, and lift their heavy spirits must be a priority. Our future as a global Jewish community – facing many challenges on many fronts and needing one another more than ever – depends on it.
Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).