In war-torn Ukraine, the Jewish heart still beats - opinion

As the war continues to play out and Ukraine pays the price, this community needs to be educated about everything that Judaism has to offer during this vulnerable time.

 THE WRITER takes part in an activity with campers at The Jewish Agency’s summer camp in Ukraine. (photo credit: THE JEWISH AGENCY FOR ISRAEL)
THE WRITER takes part in an activity with campers at The Jewish Agency’s summer camp in Ukraine.

My first night in Lviv was marked by a rocket attack causing us to spend two hours in a bomb shelter in the dead of night. The very next day, we emerged from our hotel to sunny skies, as residents freely walked, ran and biked through the streets.

Although Ukrainians are still very much reeling from the violence that erupted last year when Russian troops invaded the country, they live in a reality of emergency and normalcy at the same time. A reality where much of their lives are out of their control. And still, they are in need of tools to prepare them for the unexpected on a psychological, physical, and spiritual level. Children need to be able to return to school and community members should be able to gather in peace, knowing they have a safe place to run to. 

I had the honor of visiting this fluctuating community while I participated in a joint delegation with Jewish Federations of North America. The trip powerfully demonstrated that the Jewish heart in Ukraine continues to beat.  

How the Jewish Agency has helped provide aid to Ukraine

Eighteen months ago, the outbreak of violence in the country was a watershed moment at The Jewish Agency for Israel. Overnight, we had to pivot from an organization that provided strength and education to the local Jewish community, to one that provided robust rescue and evacuation efforts.

The Jewish Agency has been establishing relationships in the region for over 30 years and within 24 hours we were up and running. We immediately launched operations on the ground in several countries bordering Ukraine. 

The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

We opened 18 refugee/aliyah centers in four countries to receive the wave of Jewish refugees and provided them with a warm bed, meals, medical care, and activities for children.

Around one-quarter of the 200,000 aliyah-eligible members of the Jewish community who lived in Ukraine before the war have left the country. However, since able-bodied men ages 18-60 were forced to remain in the country, many families have chosen to stay together. 

Moreover, thousands of Ukrainians have been internally displaced – taken out of their homes and schools. Now, they must begin anew. As such, they have unique needs that must be met; and they are in dire need of connecting with a new community to give them back a sense of belonging.

To be clear, we never left Ukraine. Through our shlichim (Israeli emissaries), we provided online education, aliyah preparation, resilience training, ulpanim (Hebrew language immersion academies), Sunday schools, and camp programming.  

However, our in-person activities in Ukraine, which had helped give life, meaning, value, and joy to the country’s Jews, had to pause in the name of helping the people survive.

That is, until now.

During my latest trip, I visited the very first Jewish Agency summer camp held inside Ukraine since the violence broke out. Responding to a growing demand among young people in Ukraine for a platform that offers a safe space for a feeling of Jewish togetherness, self-expression, and building connections to Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, The Jewish Agency has set up a camp for children ages 7-12 in the safe area of Transcarpathia in western Ukraine.  

Additional summer camps for Ukrainian teens and young adults were held in Latvia and Lithuania, where, along with their peers from the region, they learned about Jewish culture, the Hebrew language, and Israel through interactive and dynamic activities and discussions.  

I met with the dedicated local and Israeli counselors – all of whom received immersive training to serve as role models and mentors.

Some of these kids travel on very long commutes across the country simply to ensure they can attend the camp. I saw these children, who were used to spending their days in shelters, now speaking with campers freely as well as asking questions, sharing their opinions, and playing games – as children should be able to do.

These children have seen unspeakable horrors. Between the war and the COVID-19 pandemic, many had not had any formal education for more than four years. Now, we are slowly but surely helping them feel more comfortable in a welcoming learning environment.

At camp, every day uncovered something new about the beauty of being Jewish. From smelling the aromatic spices used during a havdalah ceremony, to an open mic night where campers performed songs, danced, and even regaled the audience with a standup comedy routine, these children finally felt joy again. And best of all, their Judaism was the conduit for that joy.

A Jewish camp in Eastern Europe has now become a physically safe space for the next generation of Jews. For the past 30 years, we always knew camps were a Jewish Agency success story, but after seeing what is happening on the ground, camps have taken on a whole new purpose and we must provide more opportunities for more children to attend them. 

Simultaneously, The Jewish Agency understands that the trauma they sustained cannot and should not be swept under the rug. This is why our JReady initiative works with experts to provide resilience workshops for community leadership. Participants learn how to address the mental health of students and their parents, and are provided with useful cognitive tools to help manage this tense situation and equip them with mechanisms to address stress and to empower teachers.  

While we strive to maintain and strengthen Jewish life all over the world, we understand the need to be safe is often overshadowed by the need to connect with one’s heritage. However, Jewish identity programming is crucial for maintaining a sense of stability, normalcy, belonging, and hope – even in times of crisis. 

By fully participating in these events, the Jewish community in Ukraine has made it clear that there continues to be a thirst for Jewish life in the country.  

Yet, despite the yearning for community, some 40% of young Jewish leadership has fled Ukraine and started over in Israel or other eastern European countries. As a result, The Jewish Agency is needed now in the region more than ever to help fill that void with robust programming and training for the next generation of leaders who are willing to step up and lead the some 150,000 Jews remaining in the country. 

During my visit, I also went to Budapest where I met with leaders of our informal after school program for refugees. In these programs, which are also available elsewhere in eastern Europe, I saw how kids who witnessed untold trauma were still able to discover a sense of self and commiserate with others who shared their language, culture and experiences in a nurturing environment.

As the war continues to play out and Ukraine pays the price, this community needs to be educated about everything that Judaism has to offer during this vulnerable time, and we must leverage our connections with Russian speakers in the region who are passionate and want to restore hope to the community.

Throughout this trip, I was able to spend meaningful time with our partners at the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and others who help tackle this complex and intricate challenge. I now have a deeper understanding of the inherent challenges in the region and the daily effort needed to help people continue living a life of dignity. I also gained a deep appreciation for those working to address this complex time for Ukrainian Jews.

This crisis already changed how we all work together in the region and I welcome those changes as this issue is too important to go it alone and Ukrainian Jews are in need of a collaborative effort more than ever. 

The writer is CEO and director general at The Jewish Agency for Israel.