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Despite living in their own war zone, Ukrainian Jews are supporting Israel

In a country beset with war, its men subject to military deployment, with many sleep-deprived citizens coping with sirens at any hour, as jobs disappear and incomes drop, Paulina Rabin Mikhailovna and Olga Sherbak made donations for others nearly 2,000 miles away living under the same conditions.

Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya

Mikhailovna, 76, a retired pediatric cardiologist, and Sherbak, at 69 still working as a Hebrew teacher, live in Chernivtsi, southwest Ukraine.

Their contributions were intended for the Jews of Israel.

Like many Ukrainian Jews today of limited financial means, dependent on pensions or small salaries, they contributed to the Jerusalem-based Schechter Institutes’ Israel emergency campaign. It assists the physical and spiritual needs of Israelis adversely affected by the deadly Hamas attack from Gaza on Oct. 7, 2023.

Both are widowed, both hear sirens on a daily basis and both have relatives and close friends in Israel.

The two senior citizens are among “hundreds” of members of Ukraine’s shrunken Jewish community who have taken part in the emergency campaign, says Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, a native of Russia and a citizen of Israel who travels to Ukraine to aid its Jewish community.

“Israel is very important for these people,” she says over a Zoom interview. “Ukrainian Jews wanted to do something for Israel. They wish they could do more.”

“We want Israel to win” its war against Hamas,” Mikhailovna says.

“It is my historical homeland.”

“Our hearts stopped on the 7th,” Sherbak said. She and other Jews in Ukraine asked themselves, “how can we help?”

“After Hamas thanked Russia for its help in the fight against Israel,” she said, “everything became crystal clear.”

“Times have changed” for the Jews of Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, says a spokesman for the Schechter Institutes, the Conservative movement’s educational arm in Israel. Ukrainian Jews were then on the receiving end of aid from overseas.

“Now, the Ukrainian Jewish community is providing support to Israeli Jews. Who knew this would change so quickly?”

Some 40,000 Jews lived in Ukraine in early 2022, but no exact figures on the current size of the community (or on the number of Ukrainian Jews who have lost their lives in the war) are available. After the start of the war, many Ukrainian Jews left for Israel or Western countries. In the uncertainty of a land still under siege, no one knows how many have returned.

Events in Ukraine are largely overshadowed by the four-month-old war in Gaza, especially among the media and many Jews overseas, Rabbi Gritsevskaya says.

“People have already forgotten” the situation among the Jews of Ukraine. “The situation is getting worse and worse every day.”

There is still “massive bombing in major cities. We are in an emergency situation.

Young men are scared to walk on the street, lest they be conscripted into the Ukrainian army.

Despite the daily pressure, a growing number of Ukrainian Jews are taking part (some online) in Jewish activities offered by Chabad, Conservative congregations and the network of Hesed community welfare centers sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Rabbi Gritsevskaya says.

“We are trying to lead a Jewish life.”

As the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches, as a military stalemate is likely to continue this winter, as the number of soldiers killed in battle increases, the needs of Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians grow. Ukrainian Jews reaching out to others under the shadow of war is a sign of the resilience of a community whose own financial and physical struggles have scarcely ended.

The bottom line: two wars, one people.

Many Ukrainian Jews have initiated and participated in prayer vigils under the auspices of Chabad on behalf of the Jews of Israel since Oct. 7, says Judi Garrett, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based Jewish Relief Network Ukraine.

She said Ukrainian Jews have expressed “great feelings for wanting to help people in Israel.”

The Ukrainian Jewish community has announced “no particular plans” to mark the upcoming painful anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine, which has killed about 6,900 Ukrainians, some 300,000 Russians and displaced another ten million.

The funds from Ukraine, brought to Israel by Rabbi Gritsevskaya (converted first into dollars for safety’s sake), go to such programs as a “spiritual care hotline” serving people affected by the Hamas terrorism, rabbinical students dispatched to the devastated communities and financial assistance for the southern Israeli city of Ofakim.

“It was time to help,” says Lev Kleiman, leader of Chernivtsi’s Conservative Jewish community. “They said they were sorry they could not give more,” Kleiman says over a recent Zoom interview, his words in Russian translated by Rabbi Gritsevskaya.

For the Jews of Ukraine, the Gaza War is personal. “Many have relatives in Israel, some living there for several years and others only since the war in Ukraine began. Among them are soldiers in the Israeli army.

Chernivtsi (formerly Czernowitz), long ago the site of a major Jewish community, was known as “the Jerusalem upon the Prut [River].” The city’s estimated Jewish population was 2,000 before the war in Ukraine began, Feb. 24, 2022.

Rabbi Gritsevskaya says the message of the Ukrainian Jews’ generosity is the principle, not the principal. The principle: “Kol Yisroel averim zeh et zeh, every Jew is responsible for one other.”

Gritsevskaya, who visits four Conservative communities in Ukraine, and Kleiman, now studying for the rabbinate in Chernivtsi, did not need to go to the homes of Ukrainian Jews to solicit funds for the emergency campaign. “They came to us,” Rabbi Gritsevskaya says, putting their Ukrainian coins and bills into pushke collection boxes earmarked for the pro-Israel drive.

Olga Sherbak said. “People should always help each other in the fight against evil,” she said, “no matter what the evil is called.”


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IJN Contributing Writer

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