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JFNA mission visits war-torn Ukraine

The visit was the first major Jewish organization-led trip of its kind to take participants inside Ukraine since Russia invaded 18 months ago

Eric Fingerhut was prepared to go into a war zone. Still, waking up to air raid sirens at 4 a.m. and spending the next several hours hunkered down in a bomb shelter came as a surprise to the Jewish Federations of North America chief executive. 

Fingerhut, along with 11 other participants, spent four days last week on a JFNA-led mission to war-torn Ukraine

“We went to bed in Lviv on Monday night and our security folks warned [us] to keep passports and clothes by our bed,” Fingerhut, who just returned, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “None of us thought [rocket attacks] were likely to happen [in western Ukraine]. Sure enough, in the middle of the night, sirens went off and we were taken to bomb shelters. Three people were killed, buildings were destroyed. The next morning we talked to Ukrainians about that experience and they shared that this is their life; they are constantly in fear.” 

Fingerhut said that walking around Lviv’s streets during the day, life felt relatively normal. 

“But a couple of signs showed us that we were [in a war zone]. The casualties are very deep and reach into every community,” he told eJP. 

The toll of the war on Ukraine’s economy was also apparent, Fingerhut added. “So much of the Ukrainian Jewish community was operating on local philanthropy, which has dried up, and therefore day-to-day Jewish life is a struggle,” he said. “Many of these communities have an influx of people, partly because of the internal refugee situation, people who fled from east to west and also some people may not have been connected to the Jewish community but now feel it important to be attached to a community in wartime.” 

“Having us come in person to ask how [people in Ukraine] are doing, to hear their stories was really impactful and emotional for them and for us,” Fingerhut continued. 

The mission, according to JFNA, assessed needs on the ground, and participants witnessed firsthand the impact of the Federation’s philanthropy. While there have been a number of other trips to the border and neighboring countries, this was the first major Jewish organization-led mission of its kind to take participants inside Ukraine since Russia invaded 18 months ago. 

Fingerhut said at this stage of the war it’s “harder to know what the community’s needs are.” “Unlike the first few days of the war when you could see on your TV what the needs were, today it takes that additional effort but I’m confident people will respond.” 

The delegation included leaders from JFNA’s women’s philanthropy national group and its young leadership cabinet, in addition to leaders from the Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Joint Distribution Center (JDC) and Chabad. 

J. David Heller, JFNA’s national campaign chair and the group’s Ukraine Response Task Force chair, a trip participant, said in a statement that JFNA has played a “significant role” in Ukrainian relief efforts. 

“It is inspiring to see and hear firsthand how our efforts have made a difference in the lives of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. As the war rages on, our leaders are committed to activating their communities in this collective fundraising effort so that we can continue to meet the growing needs,” Heller continued. 

During the visit, participants were briefed by representatives of organizations supported by Federations’ philanthropy on the ongoing challenges they face, as well as on the impact of their relief efforts to date. The delegation visited sites where Ukrainian Jews, including those that are internally displaced, receive support and services, including a Jewish Agency overnight summer camp for Jewish children ages 7 to 12 in Polyana and a Hillel center in Lviv. Jewish aid organizations estimate that there were 200,000 Jews living in Ukraine before the war broke out. 

Brett Tanzman, co-chair of JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, was one of three cabinet members on the mission. Tanzman said the summer camp visit was a highlight.

“This was a pilot program, and they had no idea how many kids would actually show up when the camp was first contemplated,” Tanzman told eJP. “What we saw were over 60 kids from towns all over Ukraine. These kids were experiencing pure happiness. Programs like this that give children and their families a brief respite from the horrors of the war are so impactful, bringing a brief sense of normalcy to their lives. This critical work in Ukraine will require a sustained effort for many years to come.”

JFNA has collectively raised more than $90 million for humanitarian aid and relief for Ukrainians and has sent over 150 Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking Jewish volunteers to placements on the Ukraine border and in neighboring countries. In July 2022, JFNA launched a refugee resettlement program in North America.