A year into Ukraine war, Jewish nonprofits ready for the long haul of reconstruction
Jewish groups raise tens of millions of dollars and relied on existing infrastructure to help Ukrainians -- Jewish and not -- who remained in the country or who fled the fighting
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
When Ariel Zwang, the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), visited the Jewish communities still in Ukraine and the thousands living as refugees in Bulgaria, Moldova and Poland last month, she knew what to expect. Her agency has worked throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union for over 100 years. In the last year, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it helped evacuate more than 13,000 Jews from the war-torn country, distributed over 800 tons of humanitarian assistance and provided overall care to more than 40,000 refugees, as well as medical aid and psychosocial support to an additional 20,000 refugees and people in Ukraine. Many likely wouldn’t have survived the bitter winter without the JDC’s support, with attacks on electric grids leaving many communities without power, running water or heating. Still, the trip shook her. She met Ukrainians who lost homes, others who couldn’t evacuate as bombs rained down because they were disabled.
“It’s not that I was unprepared for it,” she told eJewishPhilanthropy. “But when you come face-to-face with people who’ve lost everything, who don’t know when they’ll ever return to their familiar settings ever again, or have had the ultimate worst thing happen, it’s terribly devastating.”
Zwang’s agency was one of many Jewish organizations that mobilized in the days and weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Over one year later, Jewish agencies know they are in it for the long haul.
“We’re planning to be there for at least five years,” Yotam Polizer, the CEO of IsraAid, told eJP. “Even if the war finishes tomorrow, which unfortunately seems unlikely, we’ll be there for a long time to support the recovery.”
That recovery will include fixing the infrastructure of the country, both physical infrastructure and government services.
Ukranians schools have been halted twice, first during the pandemic, then during the beginning of the war. According to the country’s Ministry of Education, 10% of schools have been damaged or destroyed. While some students returned to school last September, many only came back remotely, and frequent electricity blackouts have stunted their opportunities to learn. The mental health of Ukrainians of all ages have also been affected.
To facilitate its work, IsraAid has hired and trained 60 psychologists to provide mental health services in Ukrainian hospitals, provided Israeli seawater desalination systems to the city of Mykolaiv after its water system was bombed, and brought over $30 million of medical supplies and other aid to Ukraine.
“The country is so big, the needs are so huge, and the consequences so terrible, that we will be needed here for years,” Alena Druzhynina, a representative for IsraAid living in Kyiv, told eJP.
Working in unstable circumstances, where communities can lose power for days and sirens can ring any moment because of rocket or drone attacks, has caused IsraAid workers to have “to be creative, to think outside the box, adjust to the circumstances,” Druzhynina said. They continue to do their work, “No matter what.” Her organization created programming “where children can continue to be the children, even during the war, and to receive some emotional learning classes, like art classes, some educational classes.” One of the workers she manages came back disappointed that one of his events was interrupted by a siren; the children had to cluster in a bomb shelter. “So we came up with the idea to create a child-friendly space in a backpack. We put in the backpack different materials, like board games, different supplies, which can be used by the facilitator. So whenever there is a siren, the facilitator can just take the kids, take the backpack, go to the shelter, and continue their activities.”
IsraAid workers don’t just provide services to Jews, but to the most vulnerable, no matter their background. In fact, Polizer said that most of his clients are not Jewish, because most of the Jews are already being cared for by different organizations. “If you were a Jewish refugee in Ukraine 80 years ago, you were really at the bottom of the bottom of the bottom,” Polizer said. “You were likely to be slaughtered by the Nazis or by their collaborators. Today, if you’re a Jewish refugee in Ukraine, you get a lot of support from a lot of great organizations who are doing wonderful work.”
There’s been no Jew left behind, said Eric Fingerhut, the president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America, which has raised $85 million for Ukraine support. The umbrella group partners with the JDC and IsraAid, as well as more than 85 other NGOs including Chabad, JCC Warsaw, JCC Krakow, United Hatzalah, the Israel Trauma Coalition and the Jewish Agency. “For the first time in history, there was a war in Europe, and every Jew that needs to be saved was saved. Every Jew that needs humanitarian relief received the humanitarian relief that they needed. It’s really an extraordinary story of a people organized and responsive and determined to make sure that every Jew received the help they need.”
JFNA had such success, Fingerhut said, because its partners have worked in Ukraine for decades. “You don’t build a fire department when the house is on fire,” Fingerhut said. “You build the fire department to be ready… The reason that the response to the Ukraine emergency was so professional, and so instantaneous, and so comprehensive was because we had in place, and we support, that infrastructure year after year. Professionals who knew the field, who had the relationships on the ground, knew how to charter the bus, how to get the hotel going, how to get the Israeli government people in the right place to issue the visas, and all these kinds of things.”
Originally, JFNA set a goal of raising $20 million for Ukrainian initiatives, but the organization realized the war wasn’t going to be quick, so it shifted its plans to help long term, seeing it as an ongoing project. Both local federations and individual Jews within their communities have stepped up in donating to JFNA over the past year, helping them reach the $85 million used to support the Ukrainian initiatives. “There were extraordinary costs above and beyond that core infrastructure of humanitarian relief,” Fingerhut said. “[Ukrainians needed] Extra buses, extra hotels, extra security, extra planes, extra food.” But people helped, the same way they helped when there was a crisis in Israel, when Beta Israel – the Jews of Ethiopia – had to leave the country of their birth, when the Soviet Union dissolved. “This fell in that great long history of Jewish federations responding in times of crises. The need was apparent. People saw the pictures of refugees flooding over the borders, and our communities responded immediately and generously.”
But as Ukrainians are dispersed around the world, many aid agencies, including some Jewish organizations, are leaving. “What happens in every crisis is there is something that I cynically call the ‘aid circus’ in the beginning, when the whole world is there,” Polizer said. “People want to help. There’s a lot of good intention. People are sending their grandmother’s socks as donations, which is very nice, but not super helpful. And usually, after a month or two, 90 percent of the aid is gone.”
Still, Polizer has hope that the crisis will bring growth. The Ukrainian people are resilient, reminding him of the Israeli community during the 1960s and ‘70s, when “we were really fighting for our survival,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunities within a crisis. It doesn’t mean that we should hope for these tragedies to happen… Ukraine had a lot of challenges before the Russian invasion, both internal and external. And in a way, there’s an opportunity here to build back better. The mental health system is one example. They didn’t have that system before the war. And now, hopefully, we’re helping build the system and training people and strengthening their capacity, so they could respond not only to this current crisis, but to any future challenge that will come.”
Through everything this past year, the Ukrainian community has cared for one another, and so have the workers stationed there. “In some ways, we felt totally lost after the conflict began,” Inna Vdovichenko, a JDC representative in Odessa, told eJP. But more workers showed up to help. People banded together. “The simple phrase, ‘How are you?’ means something totally different now. Because it does not just mean, ‘How are you feeling?’ It means, ‘Do you have food? Are you warm? Are you stressed? Do you need any help? What can I share with you?’ There are so many shades of meaning for this phrase now.”
The Ukrainian Jews who sought refuge in surrounding countries, and many who remained in Ukraine, have not only received assistance from Jewish aid organizations but been brought closer to Judaism by them as well, according to Zwang. “Both internally in Ukraine and externally in Moldova, the story is the same,” she said, “which is families leaving their home, school, jobs, loved ones…for a longer time or for a shorter time. Choosing life, but choosing a life that’s a very complex one. In Moldova, for example, I met families that now are sending their children to the Jewish school. The community has embraced them and they’re able to participate in Jewish life… I saw little kids preparing for Purim, just the way my kids did at that age, making masks, drawing hamantaschen, learning the story of Purim. I saw families doing art projects together as a way of helping them be together to ease their trauma.”
In Moldova and in Ukraine, she witnessed Jews and non-Jews helping each other. “The resilience of the human spirit is magnificent,” she said.
In Ukraine, even though many in the Jewish community have left, the community is still thriving, the people who remain are more involved than ever, observers say. “We take matzah for granted in the United States,” Zwang said. Last year, the JDC hosted Passover Seders for 1,000 Ukrainian refugees and Jewish community members. The organization printed a special Haggadah in Russian, but this year, it is printing it in Ukrainian, and JDC is delivering 50,000 boxes of matzah throughout the region. “It is our sense that more people are turning to their heritage in times when they need solace and meaning,” Zwang said, “and we’re thrilled to provide that.”
Ukranian Jews may have had their homes destroyed, but they stay optimistic, turning to their heritage and finding hope. “They want to build on what we did last year,” Vdovichenko said. “Online and in-person seders, concerts and cooking classes, matzah distribution and food aid. And they want to do it even bigger. They want to expand their personal lives and Jewish experiences and want to embrace their families, see their children learning and singing, and connect with community life in new ways.”