Yael's Corner: The Jews left behind

The story of Jews in the Soviet Union did not end when communism fell; in many ways, their story was just beginning; it’s our responsibility to keep it alive

JEWS ATTEND the morning prayer at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier this year (photo credit: REUTERS)
JEWS ATTEND the morning prayer at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, earlier this year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The first chill of winter has finally arrived here in Israel, along with the familiar sniffles and sneezes – the annual cue that it is time to take out my family’s winter clothes. For the past week, I’ve taken a few minutes each day to go through our pile of gloves, hats and cold-weather paraphernalia that has been buried away in my storage unit for the past half a year.
Sorting clothing is one of my least favorite things to do. As I tried to make order out of the mess, I just couldn’t get settled.
My mind kept running to the long list of important items on my to-do list, and I began to grow aggravated that I was stuck doing what seemed like an unimportant task.
Then memories from my life-changing trip to Ukraine last winter came to mind. At that instant, the stress of sorting winter clothes changed into a deep sense of thanksgiving for having them.
Upon my arrival in Ukraine in January of last year, I immediately went to visit Holocaust survivors, many of whom are the sole surviving residents of what prior to the Nazis’ reign of terror were thriving Jewish towns. Standing in the silent and near-deserted shtetels, I imagined how it had been years ago, with thousands of Jews filling the streets, synagogues and schools, studying the Torah and joyfully worshiping God. All that is left today are the mass graves dug by the Nazis and the scattered survivors.
Looking around the survivors’ homes, I felt heartbroken that they are forced to live their twilight years in such atrocious conditions.
Many live without warm clothing, electricity or food. And their children and grandchildren face a similarly bleak situation – they were never given any opportunities in life, their parents never had money or physical belongings to pass on to them, and they continue to face the anti-Semitism their parents and grandparents faced.
What I saw very clearly is that, tragically, this desperate cycle of poverty is continuing generations later.
I will never forget one of these people, a young mother named Zena. She lives in a tiny single-room house with an old bed and a small cupboard that, when I was there, had only three pieces of stale bread in it. There is no plumbing, so Zena is forced to go outside to a well in the freezing cold to retrieve water. She has no heat, and her children cough constantly through the unbearably cold winter. They can’t recover from a cold, because the living conditions are so horrible.
I cried as I held Zena’s three-year-old son’s skinny and malnourished body, and he looked into my eyes as if making a silent yet desperate plea for help. His mother can’t afford to buy him food, because her only source of income is a tiny monthly government stipend. “When I’m lucky,” she told me, wiping tears from her face, “I get a few street sweeping jobs during the month to bring in another few dollars.”
Sadly, the difficult situation that Zena and her son face in Ukraine is not unique or out of the ordinary for Jews in the former Soviet Union.
All of us in the West celebrated the fall of communism and the Soviet Union in late 1980s and understood the deep necessity to help the Jews “left behind.” But what I have heard from many Jews in the FSU is that the need for help is in many ways even greater today. They no longer have a safety net, a guaranteed job, or assurance that they won’t be evicted from their homes overnight for not being able to pay the bills. The Fellowship donates more than $25 million per year to basic needs for the Jewish community in the FSU, but there is much more to be done.
As Hanukka, the holiday of miracles, draws closer, I pray that each of us remembers the Jews in the FSU, like Zena and her child, who look at surviving the winter without going hungry or getting sick from the cold as a true miracle to celebrate.
The story of Jews in the Soviet Union did not end when communism fell. In many ways, their story was just beginning. It’s our responsibility to keep it alive.
The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.