Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Dov Bleich speaks with interim President Oleksander Turchinov on Tuesday..
(photo credit: CONFERENCE OF EUROPEAN RABBIS)
Ongoing economic problems, exacerbated by recent political instability, have severely impacted the financial health of Jewish institutions throughout Ukraine.
“The middle class has almost disappeared, and that’s where we got most of the money from locally,” Chief Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich, president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“We lost most of our local donors.”
The problems started, he explained, with the collapse of the global economy, and worsened with the election of recently deposed President Viktor Yanukovich. His rule, Bleich said, hit Jewish businesses hard.
“I met with a number of businessmen who are leaders of the Jewish community, and they can’t provide those funds anymore,” confirmed Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
The IFCJ has provided millions of dollars in aid to the Ukrainian Jewish community, both directly and through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Jewish Agency.
Although much of the media’s focus has been on the security needs of the community, Eckstein maintained that the economic impact of the recent turmoil in Ukraine goes far beyond the cost of providing security for communal institutions, significant as that has been.
“We have a program with Chabad where we provide 2,500 food packages a month to people; now those food packages are needed by literally 20,000 families,” he explained.
Inflation, rising food and medical costs and a stagnant economy has caused problems not only for the elderly and the poor, he continued, but for “the mid-level people – the people who supported the Jewish communities internally over the past few years. The problem is, the world Jewish community is just not responding sufficiently.”
Refael Kruskal, CEO of the Odessa-based Tikva, which runs a network of schools and orphanages, told the Post that he felt frustrated by the response of Jewish organizations.
“There is a feeling that we are talking to a brick wall,” he said.
For his part, Bleich disagreed, telling the Post that not all Jewish organizations were as “agile” as the IFCJ and that Eckstein, as a “doer,” was one of the first to dispense money raised abroad to local organizations.
Bleich praised the fundraising efforts of the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Federation system, but criticized organizations that he said speak more and do less.
“In the US, every single federation” has raised money, and “many of the Ukrainian Jewish communities and organizations are raising money in the US,” Bleich said. “People are reacting.”
The Jewish Federations of North America umbrella body was slated to decide on how to allocate its Ukraine emergency fund on Thursday evening, a spokesman told the Post.
“There is a need, even budding humanitarian need, but I don’t want to blow things out of proportion,” Bleich said. He added that should the Ukrainian economy improve, he believed it would be possible to resume raising much of the funding necessary to maintain communal institutions locally.
“Already now I have been getting calls from people around the world looking to invest in Ukraine,” he said.
According to Misha Galperin, the Jewish Agency’s chief fund-raiser, the overall financial health of the Ukrainian Jewish community has suffered as helping former Soviet Jews has become less “sexy” in the public eye.
“We are at about half of what the need is out there because of lack of funds,” he said, referring to the Jewish Agency’s ongoing activities in the country. But he added that the American Jewish response to the crisis had been “appropriate to the circumstances.”