Yael's Corner: Caring about the Jews in Ukraine

Buried under headlines about Kanye West and Jon Stewart was real news about fighting in eastern Ukraine, which left thousands of people dead and tens of thousands more trapped and desperate.

A Jewish woman sits in a refugee camp in Zhitomir, Ukraine, last year (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
A Jewish woman sits in a refugee camp in Zhitomir, Ukraine, last year
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Flipping through news sites this week, before Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement that is supposed to lead to another cease-fire, I was dismayed at the media attention reporters gave to Kanye West’s adolescent behavior at the Grammy Awards and Jon Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show – as if these were pressing issues we should concern ourselves with.
Buried under these headlines was real news about fighting in eastern Ukraine, which left thousands of people dead and tens of thousands more trapped and desperate.
I strongly believe the world should have paid greater attention to the senseless violence taking place in Ukraine. The Jewish community in particular should be concerned with the violence inflicted upon a land many of our grandparents called home, and where thousands of Jews are under siege.
Since the Holocaust ended, we have not seen this degree of violence and death in Ukraine. For thousands of Jews who survived the twin evils of the Holocaust and Communism, and put all of their energy into establishing a personal “life after death” in Ukraine, once again their hopes, dreams, and livelihoods were being violently taken from them in an instant. And once again, the world remained silent.
As I watched world events repeat themselves in a terrifying way and saw an international response that was eerily familiar to stories I have read about in history books, I had to ask myself fundamental questions: How serious is the world’s vow of “never again”? And what happened to the Jewish community’s passionate cries of “Let my people go”? Whatever happened to the Jewish motto of Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh (All Jews are responsible for one another)? There are more than 4,000 Jews trapped in the areas of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Just two years ago, many of these people were successful businessmen, professionals, and youngsters with big dreams. Yet in the past two years their lives have dramatically changed. Banks have closed overnight, transforming their life savings into a distant memory. Businesses have been shut down due to the nearly nonexistent economy, leaving elite professionals jobless and poor.
City borders have been sealed, meaning no trains or buses have gone in or out for months. For the first time since the Holocaust, we have a problem of Jewish refugees in Ukraine.
But in many ways, the Jewish refugees who have found their way to places like Kiev or Zhitomir, where the Fellowship has set up a refugee center, are the lucky ones. Of the 4,000 Jews stuck in areas of fighting in eastern Ukraine, every single one of them is in need of help in the form of basic needs.
Each year, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews gives more than $20 million to Jewish causes in the former Soviet Union, and we have been following the situation very closely.
Because the mainstream news outlets are negligent in reporting on the situation in Ukraine, each day we get live updates from our partners on the ground. The fighting between Russia and Ukraine has been going on for over a year, yet recently we have seen unprecedented attacks, which the Jewish community is certainly not immune from.
In the past week, a bus was blown up 300 meters away from a synagogue where dozens of Jews were praying. A Jewish kindergarten teacher was killed after being caught in the crossfire. Two rockets struck the top of a Fellowship-sponsored JDC Hesed center, miraculously not blowing up, yet causing damage. The apartment of a Jewish community’s oldest member, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, was destroyed in the fighting.
These stories don’t make the news, but they should make their way to every one of our hearts.
In response to the intensified fighting in eastern Ukraine, the Fellowship, under the leadership of my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, has pledged an additional $650,000 to meet the basic needs of every single one of the 4,000 Jews caught in the fighting.
Our mission is threefold: to provide basic needs to Jews in war-torn areas, to evacuate those who are able and willing, and eventually to bring them home to Israel. These funds should meet needs for the next three months, at which time we will reassess the situation and supply more if necessary.
The Fellowship is one of the largest sponsors of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, and our donors are predominantly Christians. It’s time for the Jewish community to wake up from its slumber and serve as a pillar of support for Ukrainian Jews in need. Indeed, it’s true that the Jews – at this point – are not being targeted in Ukraine. Yet they still desperately need our help. And in order to help, first we need to care.
Je suis a Ukrainian Jew!
The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.