It has been about a month since Ukraine, the country that I and around 350,000 other Jews call home, was catapulted into the spotlight. But while world headlines have focussed on the ‘new Cold War’ potential, not many have stopped to consider, even for a moment, the specific risks, danger and ‘pre-war’ tension that my community is feeling.
I run Tikva, a successful and vital organization that provides children’s homes, education and community projects here in Odessa.
The Jewish community in Ukraine is one of the poorest in the world. Years of shifting economic, political and social boundaries have taken their toll. Even at our most stable, Ukraine still has problems with how to support people and as a society we often rely on the generosity of others to give vulnerable children, the elderly and people with disabilities the opportunities they deserve. That said, we’re also a vibrant community – we have strong religious and community leaders and are fully active in Ukrainian society. When I look down the street of my local synagogue, I usually see a flurry of activity as people come and go to worship, socialize and do business.
That’s all changed now, and there’s one thing that the Jewish community here always dreads: change. It’s during times of change that the Jewish community, which lives very peacefully, becomes especially vulnerable to anti-Semitism, anger, blame and attack. When an area becomes lawless, those who usually hide in the shadows feel confident to emerge and we become a target.
The street with my synagogue is now surrounded by riot police, since the arrest of a pro-Russian leader. The Jewish Agency has been inundated with inquiries about making aliya and there is constant speculation about our uncertain future. People are stock-piling food and hiding in their homes, expecting the worse – we’re all scared, and we’re right to be.
Our job is to keep the most vulnerable members of our community – orphaned and abandoned children – feel as safe as possible. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) has heard our cry and given a generous donation to help us protect schools, homes, synagogues and other Jewish facilities by increasing security staff, adding panic buttons and building food reserves. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, President of the IFCJ, came to Tikva last week to be with the community during this time of need. During a speech at the Girls Home, he was moved to tears as he spoke about these children who, after so much trauma already, were now in this new crisis. This emergency provision meant that with extra security staff we could still celebrate Purim. The chairman of our US Board, Mr Ed Frankel, has also shown his deep personal commitment to Tikva by appealing to Jewish organizations in the US to help share the overwhelming burden at this difficult time of crisis. We’re incredibly thankful, but we need more support.
I know as much as the next person that sometimes it is difficult to know where to lend support. In situations like these people ask if their help will be felt: will it get to the right people? Will it make a difference? Will I see the evidence? In this case I can honestly answer: yes. We need critical commodities like food, water and fuel for heating. But most of all, we need to know that the wider Jewish community can hear us, that you understand what we’re going through, that we have your support – for now and for whatever happens next.
We know that we are a strong and resilient community. But we can’t remain strong alone. As history has taught us too many times, no one knows what tomorrow may bring.