Local rabbis are expressing skepticism regarding a proposal to establish a central organ to coordinate aid to Jews displaced by the fighting in eastern Ukraine, put forth by the Conference of European Rabbis last week.
Meeting in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi last week, the standing committee of the CER issued a public call for Ukrainian rabbis to establish such a body, painting a picture of a fractured and disjointed response to the migrations accompanying the conflict.
Addressing rabbis from across the continent, CER President Pinchas Goldschmidt said that his organization “offers to the rabbis of Ukraine to establish a rabbinical committee to save the refugees and will stand behind them.”
Such a call shows that the CER is more concerned with headlines than helping refugees, Donetsk Chief Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski told The Jerusalem Post
. The rabbi, who is affiliated with the Chabad Hassidic movement, has been working to reestablish his community in Kiev, although Jews from Donetsk are scattered across the country.
“Those who are active and really work for the refugees do not speak with the media with suggestions with no purpose but simply act. Those who speak generally do not do,” he said.
Shalom Gopin, the displaced rabbi of Luhansk, was also critical of the call for greater cooperation between Ukrainian rabbis, saying that if the rabbis of the CER wish to help, then they should “call me and be in contact.”
During the CER meeting, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht, a communal leader from Odessa, complained about the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of the aid organizations active in Ukraine, stating that it had raised millions for the refugees and “done nothing,” a statement that has since met with intense opposition from communal leaders on the ground.
Rabbi Refael Kruskal, the CEO of Odessa’s Tivka organization, on whose board Baksht sits, told the Post that there is frustration over “the slow reaction of world Jewry to the crisis in Ukraine,” but that the “JDC has worked, city by city, to try and help the internally displaced persons. Tikva and the JDC are finalizing an agreement to help all the internally displaced persons in Odessa.”
Both the idea that outside help is necessary to coordinate aid and the CER’s criticism of the JDC elicited anger from the leadership of the Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk, a major city in eastern Ukraine and the capital of the region immediately to the west of Donetsk.
Local Jews have been active in hosting their brethren from the separatist regions, and the suggestion that their work has been deficient raised hackles.
“We totally disagree with the statement that the JDC is not effective in helping the refugees in Ukraine. It is simply not true,” community director Zelig Brez retorted.
Shmuel Kaminezki, the rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk, agreed, telling the Post that he felt that the critiques leveled during the CER meeting were “disgusting” and “out of touch.”
The local Jewish community, he continued, coordinated with Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Jewish Agency and the JDC to support those seeking aid.
“I’m not going to be part of this,” Kaminezki declared, deeming the CER’s call for greater coordination “something political.”
Goldschmidt, the Moscow- based president of the CER, seemed sanguine when asked about local opposition, saying that he had spoken to “a few rabbis in Ukraine and they support the idea. The ball is in their court.”
Kruskal and Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich are already on board, he said.
Those working in the field “are, of course, upset, because what you heard from Rabbi Baksht [is correct]. They have been doing the work until now and nobody has helped us,” he continued. “It would be easier for them to work with a coordinated community than every community separately.”
“The only thing that the CER is doing is [that] they are calling on all of the different bodies that are working to coordinate,” Bleich averred, praising the work done by JDC and other groups on the ground. “They are calling on everyone to get their act together and coordinate because there is no coordination now” on a national level.
While Bleich, who despite being a member was absent from the CER meeting, indicated that he believed that greater cooperation would be welcome, his tone was markedly different from that expressed in Tbilisi.
Praising the various bodies on the ground in Ukraine, he said that he supported the CER’s call for coordination but did not think that the organization could play an active role in that coordination or step on the toes of the locals.
There has also been criticism internally, with rabbis of different cities critiquing their peers for alleged failures at providing aid, highlighting high-level divisions in Ukraine.
“We understand concerns about the well-being of Ukrainian Jews at this time, especially with growing needs on the ground, and call on the CER to join with us and other local and global Jewish organizations that are fully cooperating and coordinating our aid efforts on the ground in Ukraine at this critical time. Our work together is the ultimate expression of the notion that all Jews are responsible for one another,” said JDC’s Ofer Glanz.