JDC chief: Ukraine’s needs are ‘as great as they ever were’

CEO Ariel Zwang says she sees similarities between the challenges facing Israel and the Ukrainian Jewish community, particularly mental health and resilience-building

As the bitter wars in Ukraine and Gaza grind on with no end in sight, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) says it is committed to the next phase of helping at-risk populations in both Ukraine and Israel rebuild vibrant Jewish lives. 

Fresh off solidarity visits to Ukraine and Israel, the group’s CEO, Ariel Zwang, recently sat down with eJewishPhilanthropy to discuss the challenges facing both countries. In Ukraine, two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country, the crises have remained even as world and Jewish interest have waned. In Israel, the struggles are still emerging and developing in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks and ongoing fighting in Gaza and along Israel’s northern border. But Zwang said the two countries also share many of the same issues, particularly around mental health.

“The needs in Ukraine are as great as they ever were, and I don’t think it’s in our consciousness in the same way [as] when the war began” more than two years ago, Zwang said, noting that “tens of thousands of Jewish Ukrainians [left] when the war started… leaving because of what might happen.” 

Now, she said, Jewish Ukrainians have been leaving “because of what did happen” and what is still happening as the war rages on. Zwang noted a building bombing that occurred during her visit to the region, killing 25 people. “This is still the news that they are living with every day in Ukraine. It’s homes destroyed, loved ones displaced, family members called up not able to leave the county, families separated,” she said. 

Tens of thousands of members of the Jewish community in Ukraine are receiving aid from JDC, particularly the elderly and disabled, who have been the least able to flee the country, according to the organization. After Russia invaded in February 2022, JDC opened eight trauma centers throughout the country. Zwang visited with a group at the location in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, who she said are living in dire conditions. More than 41,000 Ukrainian Jews have received uninterrupted humanitarian support from JDC since the war began. Services include assisting evacuees whose homes have been destroyed by missile attacks as they settle into their new homes. “We’re helping them pay rent, helping them to get there, [providing] home care, partially covering medical costs,” Zwang said. 

Other JDC programs in Ukraine focus on the renewal of Jewish life for the 40,000-190,000 members of the country’s Jewish community (estimates vary based on who is included). “People have a misconception that all of the Jews left, and that’s not true at all,” Zwang said. “But many who did leave were active in leading a Jewish life, counselors at camps and youth groups, and so [there’s a need] for people who can lead Jewish activities and also make sense of what’s happened from a Jewish perspective. So we’ve created courses for Jewish educators and counselors.” 

Employment and education are two focuses that JDC has most recently added to its Ukraine work, Zwang said, noting that “between the COVID pandemic and displacement, some kids in Ukraine may not have gone to school in person for three years.”

“So we are providing programs that allow kids to receive formal and informal education at the human service organizations,” she said. “And we’re doing employment training, especially for remote tech work.” 

“It’s still an emergency, but as time has grown very long, other things are needed as well that we are providing,” she said. 

Some 2,000 miles away, JDC is also helping the hardest-hit Israelis to heal, recover and rebuild after the Oct. 7 attacks and the ongoing war against Hamas. In the aftermath of Hamas’ attack, rates of PTSD, anxiety and depression climbed. A study published in January in the journal eClinicalMedicine found that the massacre led to PTSD doubling, generalized anxiety disorder increasing by 18% and depression by 13.5%. Responding to the increase of mental health issues, JDC launched the Emergency Resilience and Mental Health National Initiative, a $24.5 million program that offers tailored mental health care, supported by the Israeli government, the Jewish Federation Los Angeles, the Horwitz and Zusman Family Foundations and other donors.

The group’s newest efforts in Israel focus on repairing the mental health of traumatized Israelis through technologies such as virtual reality and digital platforms, quiet rooms and resilience center therapy sessions.

JDC recently deployed the flagship Nafshi website, which provides users with access to validated mental health options tailored to their individual needs, including self-care techniques and tools, community and social support options, peer-to-peer emotional support for the workplace, youth groups, medical clinics and more intensive forms of therapy. The efforts have reached more than 44,000 traumatized Israelis to date, according to JDC. 

On Zwang’s most recent visit to Israel in March, her third since Oct. 7, she said she “saw well-developed responses from JDC that really were responsive to the needs.” For example, “there was a government response to evacuate cities within seven kilometers (4.5 miles) [of the Gaza border],” she said. “For other cities outside of that area, they might have experienced just as much trauma, loss and devastation but haven’t had the same kind of systematic response from the government.” She pointed to the southern Israel city of Ofakim, which has tens of thousands of residents, is not economically wealthy and “doesn’t have the same kind of resiliency as [tight-knit communities on] kibbutzim.” 

“JDC has begun working intensively with Ofakim, which was very much affected by the Hamas attacks,” she said. “Helping them build resiliency and bounce back stronger. One example of that is a community resiliency center we created [since Oct. 7].” Zwang recalled that one woman she encountered at the center had lived in Ofakim for years and never met any of her neighbors before coming to the resiliency center. 

Zwang said there are several parallels between what Jews in Ukraine and Israel are experiencing. Some of JDC’s initiatives, such as Hibuki therapy dolls, have been used to heal both Ukranian and Israeli traumatized children. 

“Daily casualties, daily loved ones losing their lives, dislocation and all of that is traumatic,” Zwang said, pointing to the overlap between wars. “So the mental health initiative in Israel and the treatment centers in Ukraine would be the most salient area of this common need.”