'We have no time – we have to save people'

The Jewish community of Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis. An overview by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

 Rabbi Meir Holtzberg toured Jewish communities across Ukraine to ensure that they were able to celebrate Purim, March 17, 2022.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Meir Holtzberg toured Jewish communities across Ukraine to ensure that they were able to celebrate Purim, March 17, 2022.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The war in Ukraine has been going on for more than a month. During this time, according to the UN, more than four million people left the country. Half of them are children. The Jewish community of Ukraine was severely affected as well. Before the outbreak of the war, the Jewish community of Ukraine numbered more than 200,000 people. The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, which unites Jewish communities in more than 20 countries, has ongoing communication with the Jewish community of Ukraine. We talked to leaders in Ukrainian cities amid a humanitarian crisis to find out how the war has changed their personal lives and the lives of the entire community.

Iosif Akselrud, Director of Hillel CASE, Executive Director of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress

All branches of Hillel CASE – in Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan – are functioning normally, except for the Ukrainian ones. In almost all the cities where Hillel operates, it is usually a key Jewish organization, while Hillel in Chisinau (Kishinev) has created miracles of heroism. The Jewish community has taken a huge number of people from Ukraine to Moldova. From there, they make Aliyah to Israel. Hillel students work almost 24/7 and don’t even hold their own events anymore – there is no time for that. I am sincerely grateful to our headquarters in Washington, who provided support to the office in Chisinau so that they were able to provide assistance to refugees.

Most of the students of Ukrainian Hillel remained in the country, but about a third left. In a couple of weeks, we are planning to relaunch our regional office operations from Israel. In total, the Ukrainian Hillel gathered about five thousand students. Most of our activists, around 90%, are now volunteering.

The largest and most beautiful Hillel chapter in Ukraine – in Kharkiv – was completely destroyed due to the rocket attack. For us, it was a big shock. The Hillel center was in the very heart of the city. For those who spent time there, it was a real tragedy. Almost all of the Kharkiv students and volunteers left – some went abroad, while some relocated to other cities in Ukraine. Only two employees remained in the city. We are keeping in touch and helping them as best we can.

Some fellows, for instance, were evacuated to Lviv, which remains relatively peaceful. Hillel provides humanitarian aid and helps refugees in almost the same way as in Chisinau. Students joined in assisting with the evacuation of civilians at bus and train stations. They coordinate their actions with the local territorial defense, accommodate refugees in the community center and at the Hillel facility itself, distribute food kits, help find medicine, and provide initial medical and psychological assistance. They help the refugees spend their free time as well, helping them escape the horrors of war. They hold various educational events and arrange Shabbat services. More than 200,000 internally displaced persons are now in Lviv, and more than a million people made their way to the Polish border through the city.

A large volunteer center has been set up at Hillel Odessa as well. They are helping those in need and are providing elderly people with food. In Dnipro, the Hillel volunteers prepared everything necessary to remain in emergency conditions for a long time. Activities continue, no matter what; the recent Kabbalat Shabbat service took place both offline and online.

Many students went to the front. Some joined the territorial defense detachment, some were drafted into the army, and others worked in hospitals. I’m very worried about them. One of our students is an ambulance driver. Sometimes he becomes so exhausted that he sleeps in his car. Students and staff of Kyiv Hillel joined the volunteer organization “Zgraya,” headed by our graduate Zhenya Talinovskaya. Our other star, Ilona Ilchenko, works as a nurse in a hospital that was at the epicenter of hostilities near the capital. Refugees from Chernigov were accommodated on the premises of Hillel Kyiv at the request of the Joint Distribution Committee.

Mostly, students are busy with lots of volunteer work now. Therefore, the regular educational and entertainment Hillel programs have been significantly reduced. At the same time, despite all the horrors of war, we try to distract ourselves and hold some online meetings. For example, we recently hosted an international online Shabbat, in which more than 100 people participated. Students and leaders of the international Hillel took part, and we celebrated Shabbat and recited kiddush together. I am sincerely grateful to those who are with us during this difficult time.

Liron Edery, Head of the Association for the Development of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, Rabbi of Krivoy Rog

I have been working 24/7 for weeks now, including on Shabbat if necessary. We managed to somehow spend the last Saturday without phones, which was a good sign. In addition to the community in Krivoy Rog, I’m also responsible for the recently opened refugees and logistics centers in Uman. We provide food, clothes and medicine for everyone who lives within 250 km of Uman.

At first, I have to say I didn’t just hope this madness wouldn’t happen – I was positive about it. Moreover, if I were brought back in time, I would say it one more time – this is indeed just some crazy idea. I still don’t quite comprehend what is going on. I just don’t have a rational explanation for it.

Before it all started, I ended up in Kyiv. Since I am the head of the Association for the Development of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, I teach in Kyiv two days a week and have to meet with people, politicians, etc. That very Thursday, February 24, I woke up early, at five in the morning, and received dozens of disturbing messages and calls that Ukraine was being attacked. Of course, I immediately got into the car and drove to Krivoy Rog in ten hours instead of the usual four and a half hours.

Like everyone else, I was at a loss and did not understand what was happening. The first reaction was anger. But we organized evacuation routes very quickly. Thousands of people were evacuated without even asking if they were Jewish. Then we bought food and medicines, realizing that there could be a shortage. It was enough for a few weeks. Then, frankly, we calmed a bit. We saw that Ukraine reacted like one huge entity, like a living organism. The cities did not give up, and this greatly encouraged everyone, including the Jews. We are very proud of Zelensky. We believe that Ukraine is a unique country with a Jewish president, and we are ready to stay in Ukraine and fight for its existence. Jews have lived here for 800 years.

I worked almost non-stop for two weeks until Purim. On Purim, I worked almost until the start of the meal. I told my colleagues in the synagogue, “Get ready for a hundred people.” They told me: “What are you talking about? We evacuated thousands.” Eventually, two hundred people came. I remember entering the hall, and there were not enough chairs.  I personally rushed to find them, apologizing to people because we had not prepared for their arrival. This means two things. First, the Jewish people tend to unite as always, especially at such moments.

Secondly, many Ukrainian Jews have not gone anywhere. Mostly women and children left. We have 300 children at school, 100 of them are abroad, and 200 are just outside the city. The old people evacuated as well. Those who are defenseless left. Many men sent their wives and children away while they remained in the city and helped in any way they could.

In Uman, we organized a center to receive refugees because Uman is a transit point for further departure abroad. It’s like a narrow bottleneck. At times, the traffic jam there stretched for 10-15 kilometers, and people stood there for more than a day. I recently received a call from a woman who left Krivoy Rog with her children on Saturday at 6 am and reached Uman only on Sunday afternoon. It’s just 250 kilometers away. We decided to establish a transit point for people who just need to eat, sleep and relax. One Saturday, I was in Uman. Four families were stuck in the city. One of the families escaped from Mariupol, which has been under massive attack. When the “green corridor” was opened, they decided to leave, which apparently was no less risky. They traveled 200 kilometers in 12 hours.

They were searched at Russian checkpoints ten times. Before crossing the Zaporizhia border, they survived brutal rocket fire, and the Ukrainian troops, at their own risk, not checking who was in front of them, opened the gates at the checkpoint and let them in without a search – two grandmothers, a mother, a husband and a small child. We made a Shabbat meal for them. They cried all night, just looking at the food.

That night, the hospital's chief nurse near Chernihiv was also with us. Last Friday, a road bridge was blown up. She and her son ran across the pedestrian bridge, but her husband stayed in Chernihiv to repair the car. After she crossed the bridge, it was also blown up. Chernihiv was blocked. This woman came to us in Uman and did not stop crying because of the elderly parents who remained and because of the husbands who did not leave. She must now take the child abroad and return to the hospital. These are just two stories.

The entire educational process in Ukraine has been suspended. Children study at our school via Zoom – but this has been just for the past week. The principal of the school claims that attendance is one hundred percent: children miss everyday life.

If and when this craziness stops, we will try to get back to normalcy as soon as possible. But you must understand: Ukraine will not be the same. It will be a completely different country. It will be a European country. We are confident that Jewish life will flourish here even more.

Now we are focused on one thing: saving people. Almost the entire population of Krivoy Rog –600,000 people – is not working. Therefore, it is even more difficult to provide the same attention to the sick, the elderly, and others in need. It is better to take them away and hand them over to people who can take care of them and switch to those who need our help here.

We have lost our routine with the outbreak of war. The return to a routine will mean the return of confidence. This will give us strength.

Moshe Reuven Asman, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine

When it all started, I thought it was a bad dream. It just didn’t feel real. Understanding came when I saw anti-tank ‘hedgehogs’ in Kyiv, when I heard the first explosions of the rocket attacks, when planes and helicopters covered the sky – then my world truly turned upside down.

People were divided into those who needed help and those who could provide it. We evacuated many people and continued to take them out of the city. I don’t have exact figures on how many already left. Tens of thousands were evacuated, including from hot spots such as Chernigov, Mariupol and Kharkiv. At some point, the number who needed help became larger than those who could provide assistance.

We help refugees find refuge, but of those who have remained in their homes, there are many old people who need medical care, food and water. Among them are many elderly people who used to have nurses at home who are now left alone. People in war zones are hiding in basements. Many of them have nothing, no means to get out, and they need help.

At the beginning of the war, my phone was bursting with calls, and as a result, we set up a call center of my number: on the issue of evacuation – press 1, other help – 2, volunteers help –3. 

At first, every volunteer in Kyiv did what they wanted. Then I realized that it was necessary to create a system – and now everyone is responsible for a specific type of activity: one prepares food, the other collects medicines, the third is responsible for logistics, the fourth delivers everything by car, the fifth evacuates people. In addition, we have teamed up with volunteer organizations. In order not to interfere with each other, we act together. We reached an agreement on the supply of medical equipment from Israel. We made an agreement with Ichilov Medical Center to deploy a field hospital in Poland, in addition to Kokhav Meir, which operates today in the Lviv region. We also deal with individual cases: someone was arrested, someone was detained, and someone disappeared. A lot of questions have to be solved at the same time.

Since the very beginning of the war, many people called from Israel and other parts of the world and asked for help to save people from Mariupol and Irpin. There are people who do not know where their relatives are and whether they are still alive. Several families constantly call me, and sometimes we simply have nothing to tell them.  

Most people try to return to their everyday routine. At first, people were scared because there was uncertainty. Now we’re even a little used to it. People began to return to Kyiv from Western Ukraine. There they feel like refugees, and they have nowhere to live – but here, they think, although it is hard and dangerous, but at least they are at home.

Not that the situation is much better, but this is how human psychology works. Now people are even going out. Recently there was a violin concert arranged by one member of the community. She is a volunteer. She has a Jewish family. Mom, dad, and three children run the kitchen at the synagogue. Now she helps with cleaning and cooking, but in peacetime, she studied at the conservatory and played the violin. She decided to arrange a concert, and we showed it live on Facebook.

People come, join and try to help. Everyone offers something, and we try to set tasks for everyone. We get a lot of feedback from people. Many Jews call from all over the world. They want to help, and they send humanitarian aid. In particular, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress helped at the very beginning. But there is simply no time to track every donation and thank everyone personally. We need to save people.

Shlomo Wilhelm, Chief Rabbi of Zhytomyr

I have been living in Zhytomyr for 28 years. During this time, we managed to build a strong Jewish community here. There is a cultural center, an orphanage and a synagogue. In the last months before the war, at least 400-500 Jews gathered here during the week. There are synagogue services, prayers, Torah lessons, celebrations, events for the elderly, youth activities, canteen and school. We survived the pandemic and lived quietly and peacefully. We were one hundred percent certain that no war was possible.  

On Thursday morning, February 24th, my wife was at the Boryspil airport, on her way to Antwerp to visit her family for Shabbat. I stayed with the children. My wife called at quarter to five. Her plane was scheduled to take off at 5:40, and she was waiting for departure. But the flight was canceled. They said, “The war has begun.” Everything was like a bad dream. I opened my eyes. War? What war? The confusion began. A few minutes later, I heard a siren and then a loud sound, as if something had fallen and exploded. Planes were flying. Five minutes later, I received a call from the town where our orphanage is located: the children heard the sounds. They are crying. – what do we do? Five minutes ago, I was an optimist, but then it all changed in a moment. I understood: “That’s it, the war began, a rocket fell in Zhytomyr. Our children will not live here while it happens.” The next moment I was already calling to order buses from a friend, a Chabad envoy in the city of Chernivtsi. Then everything was mixed up: one hotel, another hotel, the buses to take the children there, and so on.

The third bus was ordered to the Ivano-Frankivsk region. While I stayed in Zhytomyr, I organized food for people so that there would be something to provide– including non-Jewish people too. We bought 30-40 tons of products: sugar, flour, butter and canned food. The synagogue was packed with food. We began to arrange buses to the border every day. We had a deal with three hotels: one – in Chernivtsi, the second – in Yaremche, and the third in the Carpathians.

Then I received instructions from my superiors that I also needed to leave the city because this way, I could help more efficiently. A week after the outbreak of war, I also got on the bus, and we went to Chernivtsi and then towards the border.

Our orphanage remained in Chernivtsi, but the siren sounded there from time to time, too, so we decided that we needed to take them out of Ukraine. Thank God, a great miracle happened, thanks to the Ukrainian and Israeli authorities, who made it possible to take all the children out – without even passports. They were first transferred to the city of Cluj in Romania. There is also a Chabad shaliach there. We were there for Shabbat. It was already the second Shabbat since the start of the war. There were about 150 people there and another 50 people from the Cherkasy community. Then we went to Israel, where we received support from JNF-KKL.

The Jewish community of Zhytomyr is divided into three parts: The first is in Israel, with those who came with us. The second part is in Chernivtsi, and there are more than 100 people. More than 300 families, almost a thousand people, remained in Zhytomyr. There are also children there.

They are eager for peace. Some attend minyan all the time, work as volunteers and distribute the food. They are doing everything possible to return to normal life. One may leave one’s house in the evenings due to a curfew. But people are still trying to live a normal life, trying to return to routine. Schools have resumed learning remotely.

After a month of war, people began to open shops. They understand that they need to try to live the life they used to, just like it happens in Israel during escalations. The Jewish school and synagogue in Zhitomir are guarded 24/7. Thank God everything is good for now. Everyone is waiting for when it will be possible to return.

President of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, Dr. Michael Mirilashvili, said:

“Today is a very difficult time, and we cannot but talk about Ukraine and its tragedy. A terrible humanitarian crisis has destroyed cities and created millions of refugees, complete uncertainty and loss. Hearing the stories of the witnesses, including leaders of Jewish communities, is not easy, but we must do our best to make their voices heard.

Many Jews fled. Some, thank God, got to Israel and, with God’s help, will find a new home here. But many remained. And for many, life will never be the same. We hear calls for help from local rabbis and community leaders. Today, prayers in synagogues are much more passionate, and the doors are open to all those in need. A new reality is emerging, and we must deal with it.

We have no right to stand aside. We, the global Jewish community and public figures, must do everything in our power to stop the bloodshed and the human tragedy and bring peace closer. We have an obligation to help all those affected now, and we will have to rebuild the Jewish communities later.

The photos taken on Shabbat, where religious Jews were sitting in front of a computer with their phones, made an impression on many people. Rabbi Zilberstein from Chernihiv explained to his little daughter that G-d had given him a rare opportunity to save 65 lives. Even in the darkest time, there will always be light.

We believe and pray that soon the Jews of Ukraine will be able to return to their regular peaceful life, but until then, it is our moral duty to unite around them, support them and help them out of trouble.” 

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress continues to provide all possible assistance in evacuating civilians from hot spots. In addition, the EAJC urgently provided significant financial assistance to the Moldovan community for the reception of refugees. The EAJC opened a special fund for humanitarian aid to the Jews of Ukraine. Everyone can donate via bank transfer or through our website.