What Jewish studies scholars in Ukraine can teach the world about resilience

We know how hard it is for people to hold two truths at the same time. In the eight months since Oct. 7, the crisis in Israel and Gaza continues to weigh on our hearts and minds. And yet, it isn’t the only crisis we are grappling with: The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been pushed out of the news cycle, but bombs are still falling on Kyiv and Kharkiv. The scope of that destruction has only strengthened our commitments to preserve Jewish culture in Ukraine, a core facet of global Jewish history.

For a group of Jewish studies scholars in Ukraine, the work of cultural preservation in partnership with Jewish studies departments across North America and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture (MFJC), remains vital for preserving the Jewish past and shaping our collective Jewish future. 

More than two years since the start of the war, what can we learn from how Jewish scholars in Ukraine strive to deepen their research in a time of war and ongoing disruption? What wisdom do they offer for how to emerge from a crisis with resilience, clarity and purpose?

Lesson 1: Lived experience changes our perceptions of the past.

When the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Jewish studies in the country was flourishing. Ukrainian scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, were beginning to confront the painful past of pogroms and the Holocaust and explore the Jewish experience as part of Ukrainian history. As the war shattered their lives and interrupted their studies, it also put their research and work into sharper focus. 

One such scholar, Tetiana Borodina from Kyiv, chronicles the history of the Holocaust in Kremenchuk and its local population. Tetiana was forced to evacuate Kyiv three times. Her brother was conscripted to fight in the war. Despite hardship, Borodina attempts to continue her work.

For Inna Chernikova, who studies the Jewish experience in Kharkiv in 1941-1943, her own experience of the war — which, as she put it, was “the hardest hour of my life, a month of testing on physical, psychological and moral levels” — gave her insight into the suffering people endured during occupied Kharkiv in 1941-1943. Her university’s motto is “Education will save Ukraine!”

Lesson 2: Scholars are vital storytellers in moments of rupture and crisis.

Following the invasion, millions of Ukrainians became refugees both within their own country and in foreign lands. As the world scrambled to respond, scholars — including those in Jewish studies — organized support for their colleagues whose quiet lives of research and teaching were shattered. 

“The war changed me radically,” scholar Yevhenii Teluka shared:

“I am a historian by education, but I have only recently been able to apply my historical education. When my favorite city, which is located 40 kilometers from the border with Russia, began to be erased from the earth, I started a project about Kharkiv citizens and their favorite places in the city. I wanted to preserve the city and its memory through the stories of its residents. The war changed the conditions of our work. Many of our storytellers, who we knew before the war, died in the current conflict. Those who remain today in Kharkiv are forced to record in basement rooms, adhering to the rule of two walls [a survival strategy], observing curfew hours. All this has certainly affected the method of oral history and documentation during the war.”

Lesson 3: Financial support and solidarity from Jews worldwide is essential for building a better future in Ukraine.

In February 2022, two independent initiatives emerged to provide emergency support for Jewish studies scholars in Ukraine. As the war entered its second year, the two programs merged, now offering support to 38 scholars from across Ukraine. The new program, administered by the MFJC and supported by 16 organizations including private foundations, Jewish studies departments, the AAJR and the AJS, offers not only a stipend but also access to research resources and workshops organized by Fordham’s Center for Jewish Studies, in collaboration with the Library of Congress and the NYPL.

“Since the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, I am deeply touched by the immense solidarity of all the world community, academic community and personal support,” Tetyana Batanova from Kyiv writes. “There is more work that we, here in Ukraine, need to do. We want our fields of study to grow, especially since some of our friends and colleagues in Jewish studies cannot continue their research work when they are now on the battlefront defending our lives and freedom.”

As the economic situation in Ukraine deteriorated, so did the incomes of scholars affected by the war. The fellowship helps them survive. But its benefits also extend to us, making their work known here. Last year, Fordham organized an exhibit of stained glass designs by one of the last year’s awardees, Eugeny Kotlyar: a professor of art history, chair of the Department of Monumental Painting of the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts, and an artist. The exhibit “The Light of the Revival: Stained Glass Designs for Restituted Synagogues in Ukraine” was on view at Fordham’s Walsh Family Library and exhibited at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. 

Looking ahead at another year of war, the fellowship program for Ukrainian scholars in Jewish studies has committed itself to finding ways to continue to support these scholars, and even to expand support to archivists and others whose efforts are essential to scholarship. The organizations involved recognize the importance of the work of these scholars whose lives have been shattered by the war and who nonetheless continue to persevere. 

Elissa Bemporad is a professor of East European Jewish history and the Holocaust at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Rabbi Jeni S. Friedman is CEO of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Magda Teter is a professor of history and the Shvidler Chair in Judaic studies at Fordham University, and president of the American Academy for Jewish Research. 

Anna Shternshis is the director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and Al and Malka Green Professor in Yiddish Studies at the University of Toronto.

Steve Weitzman is the director of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.