‘They forgot Ukraine for a minute’: Two years into Russian invasion, Jewish groups fight to maintain support for Ukrainian communities

American and international Jewish organizations say they initially struggled to garner support for their activities in Ukraine as attention turned to Israel, but donors have returned

Classrooms remain empty. Children have become orphans. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed. The world has turned its attention to Israel’s war against Hamas. 

This is life in Ukraine today, a country still shattered by a grinding war that broke out two years ago this week when Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022. The Jewish groups that have provided psychological support, material aid and relocation assistance for civilians in war-torn cities say they are still hustling two years later, even as Israel’s war with Hamas and recovery from the trauma of the Oct. 7 massacre have become a central priority for Jewish federations and donors. 

“The Jewish communal infrastructure of support and rescue has been tested these past few years more seriously than any time since WWII,” said Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations of North America. “Our ability to maintain historic levels of response to multiple crises over a long period of time has proven the necessity and strength of the Jewish Federation system,” he continued.

JFNA has raised and distributed $96.1 million for Ukraine, and among other services, has helped 180,000 Ukrainians find refuge in the U.S. and assisted 91,925 people make aliyah to Israel because of the Russia’s invasion, according to the organization.

Among the initiatives JFNA is helping to support on the ground in Ukraine include the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) effort to provide ongoing care to more than 41,000 Jews in Ukraine – the elderly, poor, displaced and newly impoverished – including basic and emergency essentials such as food, medicine, water, homecare for the homebound and sick as well as evacuation services. They are also currently helping 3,479 internally displaced people of all ages. 

JDC’s crisis response work – including delivering life-saving heating and winter supplies to 29,000 Jewish community members in Ukraine – is carried out by its network of Hesed social service centers, Jewish community centers and thousands of staff and volunteers. 

Since the start of the war, JDC has aided more than 52,900 Jews in Ukraine with at least one-time relief aid. Additionally, hundreds of Jewish families from Ukraine will participate in respite visits to escape the cold this winter and ongoing conflict at Szarvas, the JDC-Lauder International Jewish summer camp in Hungary. According to JDC, the group has delivered 800 tons of humanitarian aid including food, medicine, soap and other crucial supplies to Jews sheltering in Ukraine and those who have fled to Moldova.   

Amos Lev Ran, JDC’s director of external relations who is based in Romania, told eJewishPhilanthropy that the group’s continued humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine are based on three decades of experience working in Ukraine, building Jewish life after the fall of the Soviet Union and caring for needy Jews. “We’re also launching new programs to meet the needs and have expanded to new target groups, beyond children and elderly, including the middle aged, people who never needed our assistance before the crisis and now have lost their jobs and turned to us,” he said. 

Pivotal boots-on-the-ground care has also been led by a prominent Jewish humanitarian aid group affiliated with Chabad, which has been organizing humanitarian aid in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union under the name Federation of Jewish Communities. When the war started, it spun off into a separate entity called Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU) to focus solely on Ukraine, using the same infrastructure that had already been in place for decades. 

Judi Garrett, COO of JRNU, recalled that when the war broke out in 2022, “[Chabad] had to do two things: they needed to separate out their effort in Ukraine… they couldn’t be running around Ukraine anymore with the former Soviet Union logo. They also needed to create a way to fund money specifically for Ukraine. The oligarchs that had been providing funding for years in Russia and Ukraine were no longer available. So they went through the U.S. to raise money and make sure it was being spent just in Ukraine,” Garrett continued. 

“Early on, it was easy to raise money,” she told eJP, adding that Oct. 7 was “a major turning point.” 

“Folks in Ukraine were very empathetic and it was the first time really where Jews in Ukraine were rallying around Israel,” Garrett continued. “Immediately, the major Jewish funding sources pivoted to Israel almost entirely, all the federations dealt with that horrific situation.”

“That definitely hurt in terms of major grants,” Garrett said. In terms of individual donors, she said it “dropped off immediately but has come back quite a bit. People are recognizing that they need to help Israel but can’t forget about Ukraine. They forgot about Ukraine for a minute but we have very loyal donors.” 

“Still,” Garrett said, “that does not replace the major loss of [funding from] foundations, which we are hoping will come back at some point.” 

She emphasized that despite the challenges Oct. 7 has brought to funding Ukraine, JRNU’s work “has not changed at all,” estimating that the group is touching 90% of the Jews in Ukraine in one way or another, while assisting non-Jews as well. 

“Not everybody is getting medicine or a hot meal but about 50,000 people are getting something — heaters, warm clothes… mental health care,” Garrett said. “Local Jewish communities help a lot and some have lost a lot of members but others have gained as people move around the country… We don’t exclusively help Jews, we help as much as we can without asking people to prove their Judaism.” 

A silver lining of the crisis, Garrett said, is that “a lot more people have wanted to connect with being Jewish. People have reached out and connected with the Jewish community to a much greater extent than before because they are searching for whatever they can get to get through this.” 

Garrett said that two years into the war, “the world wants us to move to long-term rebuilding like job and language training.”

“But that’s a tension,” she said. “It’s really hard when people are struggling with their day-to-day lives, when people would starve, to tell them to focus on finding a job. We’re doing both.”