Supporting Jewish studies scholars in Ukraine: What we’ve learned and where we’re going
We cannot underestimate Ukraine’s important role in the history of Jewish peoplehood and culture. For more than a thousand years, Jewish communities have existed in what is now the territory of Ukraine. The region is known as the birthplace of Hasidism and boasts a rich legacy of Yiddish culture, Klezmer music and modern Hebrew literature. But Ukraine is also the site of antisemitic violence and genocide, where many Jews were slaughtered during pogroms and the Holocaust.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, we watched in fear as millions of people fled violence in frigid temperatures — often without food or water and without knowing where they would sleep at night. Among those who faced mounting threats were scholars, researchers, and students of Jewish studies. Their institutions — archives, museums, and schools — were in jeopardy of physical destruction, and their ability to teach and engage in research came to a screeching halt.
Less than two months after the start of the war, a group of Jewish studies professors from four universities in North America partnered with the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (MFJC) to form an emergency grant program that provides support for Jewish studies scholars in Ukraine. Together, they raised funds from a consortium of universities that were matched by the MFJC.
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Around that same time, the American Academy of Jewish Research partnered with Fordham University’s Center for Jewish Studies and the New York Public Library to provide fellowship support to Jewish studies scholars who have been displaced, deprived of employment, or otherwise at risk due to the war. The fellowship offers scholars a stipend of $5,000, remote access to library resources, and networking with faculty members from both institutions.
We cannot underestimate Ukraine’s important role in the history of Jewish peoplehood and culture. For more than a thousand years, Jewish communities have existed in what is now the territory of Ukraine. The region is known as the birthplace of Hasidism and boasts a rich legacy of Yiddish culture, klezmer music and modern Hebrew literature. But Ukraine is also the site of antisemitic violence and genocide, where many Jews were slaughtered during pogroms and the Holocaust.
Still, the resilience of Ukraine’s Jewish community has cemented its status as a defining part of the Jewish future. Between 50,000 and 150,000 Jews live in Ukraine today, and the Ukrainian Jewish Studies Association plays a vital role in researching the history of Jewish music, the Holocaust and post-Holocaust Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, we are committed to ensuring that Jewish scholars and teachers in Ukraine have the support they need to survive and thrive.
To date, our programs have provided mini-grants to 44 scholars of Jewish Studies in Ukraine, including those who have lost their homes or livelihoods as a result of the war. Recipients of these grants are engaged in a wide range of projects that are critical to understanding Ukraine’s Jewish past as they seek to build a vibrant future. For example, one scholar is studying survival strategies of Jewish women under the conditions of occupation and evacuation. Another is researching the legacies of Jewish artists in Lviv between 1890 and 1941, and a third is seeking to understand Jewish-Muslim-Karaite relations in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation.
Several Jewish scholars in Ukraine who are affiliated with these fellowship programs have been on the frontlines of the crisis, at great risk to their personal safety. In November 2022, 41-year-old Professor Vadim Stetsiuk was tragically killed. When offered opportunities to flee the violence and teach at universities in the United States, many scholars bravely chose to stay in order to support their communities. One scholar has been assisting local defense forces and helping strangers in the streets, including those who are homeless. A second fellow is examining the American Jewish community’s response to Soviet publications in Ukraine between 1957 and 1988, which may yield meaningful insights for how the American Jewish community can engage with Ukraine today.
Nearly a year after launching our programs, several key learnings stand out:
Collaborations are essential.
These mini-grants and fellowships were brought to life by organizations reaching beyond their usual capacities to do something meaningful in a time of crisis. It is easy to feel confined by the limits of our own institutions. But when we stretch ourselves to think more expansively in partnership with others, we can make an enduring difference in the field of Jewish scholarship as a whole.
Nourishing cultural and academic infrastructure is vital in a time of war.
Many crisis-response efforts in Ukraine have rightfully focused on providing people with direct aid for their health and safety. But food and shelter are not the only necessities made scarce by war. As we reflect on the gravity of loss and uncertainty, we know that scholars and academics are among our most cherished caretakers of cultural and historical memory. Finding ways to help scholars chronicle their own stories in the present moment, while supporting their respective areas of research, will broaden the canon of Jewish history for generations to come.
Cross-continental solidarity and empathy run deep.
By engaging with Jewish Studies scholars, teachers and students in Ukraine, we became far more attuned to the fragility of living in a broken world. At any given moment, we could experience a catastrophe in which our homes, livelihoods and places of work would never be the same. Being in relationship with scholars in Ukraine who have endured that trauma has only deepened our desire to engage with and learn from our peers around the world.
As the war continues, Ukrainian scholars in Jewish Studies will need sustained financial support for their scholarship, storytelling and communal commitments. Together, we look forward to strengthening our existing programs and developing more opportunities to enrich the field of Jewish scholarship — with resilience, openness, clarity, and care.
Elissa Bemporad is professor of East European Jewish history and the Holocaust at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Jeni S. Friedman is CEO of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Magda Teter is professor of history and the Shvidler chair in Judaic studies at Fordham University.
Anna Shternshis is director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
Steve Weitzman serves as the director of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.