New Year, same war

Still under fire, Ukrainian Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah with help from nonprofits

Inna Vdoivichenko, head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Odessa office, discusses daily life as Jews in the war-torn country prepare for the High Holy Days 

In Mykolayiv, in southern Ukraine, elderly Jews can tune into the virtual tour of “Rosh Hashanah in Fine Arts.” In Odessa, participants of Active Jewish Teens, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) youth network that is part of BBYO, can partake in a Rosh Hashanah celebration in the Black Sea port city. 

As Ukrainian Jews celebrate their second Rosh Hashanah amid a still-raging war, they are not only surviving “but building Jewish lives,” as well. That was the hopeful but realistic message delivered by Inna Vdoivichenko, the head of JDC in Odessa, at a press briefing Wednesday in Manhattan. 

JDC, which has operated in Ukraine since before the fall of the Soviet Union, hosted Vdoivichenko, who discussed life in Ukraine as Jews in the war-torn country prepare for the High Holy Days. 

“There are a number of projects going on,” Vdoivichenko said. “I’ve received millions of pictures of how we are all preparing. Some [projects] are online and invite Jewish historians to speak about the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.” 

Vdoivichenko said that despite widespread evacuations, the vast majority of Jews in Ukraine, especially the elderly, stayed put. There were an estimated 200,000 Jews in Ukraine before Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Roughly 25% of Ukrainian Jews fled when the war broke out, with some returning in recent months.

Vdoivichenko said that while JDC runs weekly evacuation buses, which are offered to everyone except healthy men aged 18-60 who are required to stay in the country by law, many people choose not to make the harrowing journey across borders, preferring to keep their family together. 

“We are saving their lives, and they are saving mine as well,” she said. “They’re a source of energy for us.” 

On Rosh Hashanah, JDC is encouraging Jewish communities worldwide to reflect on the grinding war in Ukraine. The group released a special holiday supplement earlier this month highlighting issues of global Jewish needs, ranging from Ukraine to various other crises impacting Jewish communities around the world.

The supplement urges the Jewish public to include discussion of these issues in their holiday observance. It includes reflection on the traditional Shehecheyanu prayer and offers questions aimed to prompt discussions about responsibility to fellow Jews living in poverty, needs of Holocaust survivors, people reeling from natural disasters and emerging hardships in Ukraine. 

On the ground in Ukraine, JDC is providing thousands of elderly and impoverished Jews with food packages ahead of the holiday. Vdoivichenko noted that before the war, JDC aided mostly the disabled and elderly. Now, many middle-aged Ukrainians are out of work and need assistance.

In addition to JDC, Chabad’s Jewish Relief Network Ukraine is also distributing food and other basic necessities to the country’s Jewish community. An estimated 50,000 people will receive such relief packages from JRNU, according to Chabad.

“We have trucks crisscrossing the country—Kharkov, Dnipro, Odessa, going all over—to ensure that wherever people are, they will have good holiday meals and access to food that adheres to the highest standards of kosher,” Rabbi Shlomo Peles, executive director of JRNU, told Chabad’s website.

Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, who along with his wife, Miriam, leads Chabad-Lubavitch of Kharkiv, said he was expecting more than 500 people to attend Rosh Hashanah services this weekend. “Since this war began, we’ve seen such a reawakening here of the Jewish soul,” Moskovitz told the movement’s website. “It’s more than it’s ever been, and we’ve been here for 33 years.

Many of the Rosh Hashanah food packages in Ukraine have been provided in partnership with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). 

Yael Eckstein, president and CEO of IFCJ, told eJewishPhilanthropy in a statement, “of the $10 million in total aid that we are providing globally this High Holy Day season, more than $1.2 million will benefit 45,000 families across the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, with food deliveries and other forms of assistance.”

Jewish Federations of North America and the Claims Conference are also supporting JDC’s High Holy Day initiatives in Ukraine.

JDC’s CEO, Ariel Zwang, added in a statement, “As we approach Rosh Hashanah, let us remember that the essence of the holiday lies not only in prayer and reflection but also in our duty to extend a helping hand to those in need. As we pray for sweetness and peace in the New Year, it is important that our compassion and assistance to those in need flow abundantly. From besieged Jewish communities in Ukraine, to young Jews embracing their Jewish identities in new and exciting ways, we’re proud our food packages and hundreds of festive events will ensure they can fully embrace the holiday and affirm Jewish life for generations to come.” 

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.