Yael Eckstein, JPOST’s Humanitarian Award recipient, is a hero of the Jewish people - Opinion

An example of one person making a big difference.

Rabbi Shlomi Peles (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)
Rabbi Shlomi Peles
(photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)

Days before the first gunshot between Russia and Ukraine at the beginning of last year, I clearly remember working around the clock, trying to make sure that Jewish communities in Ukraine would be prepared for what looked as though it would be a dramatic and violent era. Many people who consider themselves “experts” of the former Soviet Union (FSU) countries claimed that Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine.

But there was one Jewish leader, who never considered herself an “expert” in Ukraine or Russian diplomatic relations, called me and asked me to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

This leader was Yael Eckstein, president and CEO of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). She told me, “Shlomi, I returned from Ukraine, and the situation isn’t good.” Eckstein, who raises hundreds of millions of dollars for the Jewish people, said that she urged the Jewish communities of Ukraine to stock up on dry and canned foods, winter supplies and many other items. “Don’t worry,” she said in that phone call, “we will support any expense that the Jewish communities in Ukraine may have - no matter what type and the intensity of the war.” Eckstein, who has known FSU Jewry for many years, is just one woman with a dedicated staff and funders, but she is an example of one person making a big difference.

Therefore, when I read in The Jerusalem Post that this distinguished newspaper would honor her with the Humanitarian Award, my heart was filled with joy and pride. As the executive director of the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JNRU), I have been blessed to call Yael Eckstein my colleague and partner in securing Jewish life in the FSU, specifically in Ukraine. 

Many don’t know, but IFCJ has been supporting Jews in Ukraine extensively for about two decades and even more since 2014, when the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine began. Thousands of Jewish refugees suddenly had nowhere to live, no food to eat and no personal belongings. With the assistance of IFCJ, we at JNRU succeeded in establishing Jewish refugee camps, obtaining Kosher food for thousands of Jews as well as medication, welfare and a stipend.

When the war began, one of the amazing things was that all the organizations united for the sake of Ukrainian Jewry. But as time passed, Ukraine faded from the front page, and the crisis of Ukrainian Jewry moved from center stage.

But meanwhile, the war continues; the missiles continue to be launched at civilian targets, and at times there is no electricity or water. Yael has been our main strategic partner and supporter for close to a decade in Ukraine and beyond, and she is still as invested as we are in saving lives, in addition to strengthening the Jewish communities in this war-stricken country.

Unlike many organization heads that work in Ukraine, Yael was on the ground in Ukraine at the beginning of the war, visited warehouses and encouraged us, as well as local communities, to buy emergency products. She always repeated that we had their full support in buying huge amounts of products. 

When the war started, if it weren’t for her resourcefulness in filling warehouses, the community might not have survived.

There are many Jewish organizations that work in Ukraine, each in its own field of expertise. Yael established a round table that united all the players on the ground. The round table convened under her leadership, and it is really thanks to her that it operated exquisitely.

There is nothing more important than an organization that has no bureaucracy during times of war, since many decisions need an immediate response or decisions. If there are too many approvals required for a specific operation, a potential patient may die until the approval is given. Yael was there and would give immediate approvals and responses to any type of situation that arose.

Yael, on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews, I can tell you that they know you have their back. They know that if anything bad were to happen, you would be the first one to offer assistance. 

Rabbi Shmuel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe Maharash of Chabad Lubavitch, who was born on the second day of the Jewish month of Iyar (this Sunday, April 23rd), had a saying that relates to Yael perfectly. He would say that “if there is a barrier, you don’t crawl under an obstacle, but rather leap over it.” This Chassidic mentality, which was taught by the fourth Rebbe in the 19th century, is the same mentality that Yael Eckstein used when operating in Ukraine. This mentality is what made our work possible.

Thank you, Yael, for your leadership, your consistency, your friendship and your modesty. 

Rabbi Shlomi Peles is the Executive director of the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU)