following up

The director of Hillel in Ukraine on how students are faring nearly a year into Russia’s invasion

Akselrud said the past year has seen the students step into local leadership roles.

Next week, Hillel in Central Asia and Southeastern Europe, known as Hillel CASE, will hold a professional development conference for members of its staff. Unlike conferences before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the gathering will not be held in that country, where most of the Hillel region’s participants are located, but in Chisinau, the capital city of neighboring Moldova. Another difference from past conferences: This one will include mental health professionals who will assist attendees in coping with wartime trauma. 

“I invited psychologists to work with the professional staff because for them, [working] every day under rocket attack is unbelievable,” Iosif “Osik” Akselrud, the regional director of Hillel CASE, told eJewishPhilanthropy in a video interview Thursday. 

But while Akselrud is caring for the well-being of his staff, he said he isn’t hearing pleas for additional support from Hillel’s target demographic: the approximately 3,000 students at five Hillel centers across Ukraine. Instead, he said, the past year has seen the students step into local leadership roles as they and their neighbors approach a year of living under Russian attack. 

“They don’t ask,” Akselrud said. “They felt their responsibilities. They felt that now, more than ever, they are responsible for elders, for kids, for community.”

He added, “During the war, the number of students who participated in Hillel’s activities didn’t decrease. I couldn’t understand this phenomenon. You know what? I realized why. During this dramatic time, they need to be in their familiar surroundings… Even if they have no events during one day [or] two days, they come to Hillel to spend time together, to drink tea or coffee, to talk and to spend time with their friends.”

When Akselrud last spoke to eJP, just two weeks after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, the situation for Ukrainians across the country, including Jewish students, appeared more dire and less certain. Millions of Ukrainians fled their homes. Much of the country, including Kyiv, was under attack, and the only functioning Ukrainian Hillel center was in the western city of Lviv. Days earlier, a Russian attack had destroyed the Hillel building in Kharkiv. And days after the interview, Serafim Sabaranskiy, a Jewish student in Kharkiv, was killed in battle

Now, Hillel is again active in five cities across Ukraine, including Kharkiv, where the organization has rented a new space. Akselrud says most of the students active in Ukraine’s Hillels are still in the country (partly because young men are prohibited from leaving). Some of those who have stayed are volunteering in territorial defense units, he said. Sabaranskiy remains the only known Hillel student casualty. 

And Hillel students outside of Ukraine are contributing as well. He said a group of Hillel students in Chisinau volunteered to help refugees, ferrying them to doctors’ appointments, delivering food and helping them through the immigration process. Within Ukraine, he said, Hillel students have delivered some 25,000 food packages to those in need. 

“During the last 10 months, Hillels in Ukraine, a little bit, changed the main direction of their activities,” said Akselrud, who is now living with his family in Israel, in the coastal city of Netanya. “Number one is volunteering… and number two is, they are now much more involved in community life. If before, they arranged different celebrations, events, holiday celebrations for Hillel students, now they do this for the whole community.”

Funding Hillel’s activity in Ukraine has remained a challenge, Akselrud said, because the organization lost out on some $325,000 in support that it was expecting from the Genesis Philanthropy Group, a Jewish charity founded by billionaires from the former Soviet Union. Three co-founders of Genesis resigned from its board last March after being placed under sanctions for their ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The organization has also lost out on other funding sources, and is contending with significant inflation in Ukraine. Hillel CASE’s annual budget before the invasion was roughly $1 million. Now it stands at around $800,000, with hundreds of thousands yet to be raised. Akselrud said Hillel International, along with the American Jewish Joint DIstribution Committee and the Schusterman Family Philanthropies, have stepped in to keep the operation afloat. 

But one of the brightest spots of the past year, for Akselrud, remains the young people Hillel serves. 

“Hillel students are getting much stronger,” he said. “Unfortunately this happened because of the war. But they’re getting much stronger.”