The news makes me feel very uneasy. There are local, national, and global issues to be concerned about. One of them is the current situation between Russia and Ukraine. Why write about this? Because there are innocent people in harm’s way, including 200,000+ Jews, our mishpocha, living in Ukraine that we help support – every day.
Reportedly, 150,000 Russian troops have massed along the border with Ukraine as we watch for a possible Russian invasion of the country. While world leaders attempt to defuse the crisis, the Jewish world is prepared for a range of scenarios that could mitigate the impact on 200,000+ members of Ukraine’s Jewish community.
Ever since Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has veered between seeking closer integration with Western Europe and being drawn back into the orbit of Russia, which sees its interests threatened by a Western-leaning Ukraine.
Since the end of 2021, the crisis with Russia has deepened significantly. As more Russian troops moved closer to the Ukrainian border, Western governments sensed that Russia is planning an invasion. According to many commentators, Russian President Vladimir Putin entertains dreams of a significant revival of Russian power, including expanding Moscow’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, principally embracing former Soviet republics.
Russia's perspective is that NATO is attempting to expand its influence eastward (including possibly bringing Ukraine into the western military alliance), and sees it as a direct threat. President Putin has threatened "appropriate retaliatory military-technical measures" if what he calls the “West's aggressive approach” continues.
UKRAINE’S JEWISH COMMUNITY
Ukraine is Europe's second largest country with a population of 44 million people. It also has a long and important Jewish story that continues until this day. Interestingly, it is the only country outside of Israel led today by both a Jewish head of state, President Vladimyr Zelensky, and Jewish head of government, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.
The history of the Jews of Ukraine includes some of the Jewish people’s greatest highs and most difficult lows. On the one hand, Ukraine was the site of enormous tragedies such as the Chelminitzky massacres, and Babi Yar and the Einsatzgruppen executions. It also has a full and rich Jewish history. This includes the formation of several famous yeshivot, the development of much Ashkenazi culture, and the birthplace of people such as founder of Hasidism the Baal Shem Tov, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Zionist visionary Ze’ev Jabotinsky, author Shalom Aleichem, and many more.
To learn more about the interesting history of Ukraine, please click here.
Today, the country is home to the fifth largest Jewish community in the world with an estimated 200,000+ Jews. Current political instability, which threatens to deteriorate into a full-scale Russian invasion, has left the entire country – including the Jewish community – not only facing a situation of dramatic economic decline, but of physical danger.
THE UKRAINIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY TODAY
The country boasts 300 Jewish organizations in 100 towns and cities. The Jewish population is concentrated in Kiev (110,000), Odessa and Dnepro (60,000 each) and Kharkov (50,000). Most Jews in modern Ukraine are native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and limited numbers of elderly speak Yiddish as their first language. I mention this because in 1926, 76% considered Yiddish to be their native language.
Since the fall of Communism, a renaissance of Jewish life has taken place in Ukraine. The main Kiev synagogue located in Podol was returned to the Jewish community in 1945, and for 50 years it was the only operational synagogue in Ukraine. Today, synagogues and other religious and cultural institutions function in every place with a sizeable Jewish population. Kiev’s Beith Yaakov Shul (also known as the Galitskaya Synagogue) is a typical example of Ukrainian Jewish revival. Built in 1909 and used for more than 50 years as a factory cafeteria, the synagogue was returned to the community by the government in 2001. Today it is a fully functional synagogue.
Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, boasts four synagogues, ranging from Reform to Chabad; a Jewish library; and the International Solomon University, a private university with a strong Jewish component. The multifunctional Menorah Center in Dnepro, which was opened in October 2012, is one of the largest Jewish community centers in the world.
In November 2007, an estimated 700 Torah scrolls previously confiscated from Jewish communities during the Soviet Union's Communist rule were returned to Jewish communities in Ukraine by the state authorities.
Across the country, religious services come from a variety of groups. Chabad has activities in 24 out of 25 of Ukraine’s oblasts (administrative divisions) and plays a leading role in Jewish relations with the government. The Reform movement’s World Union of Progressive Judaism operates in over 20 Ukrainian cities. The Masorti (Conservative) movement runs a Sunday school and youth group in Kiev as well as operations in other cities.
Numerous Jewish newspapers and journals are published in the country, including the prominent Kiev-based “Hadashot.” Ten Jewish newspapers are published in Kiev alone, four of which have circulations of 10-15,000. There is also a weekly TV program called "Yahad" on state television.
Nonetheless and despite the multiple signs of a revival, even before the current crisis, the Jewish population in Ukraine was in decline, due to emigration and the aging process. The community, together with international Jewish welfare groups, is striving to alleviate the poverty of the many destitute Jews in the country, a sizable portion of whom are elderly.
In 2022, as diplomatic, military, social and economic conditions in the country continue to deteriorate, every aspect of daily life is affected. The Jews of Ukraine are not immune, and today face a troubled economy, potential military conflict, political instability, ethnic tensions, and a rapidly deteriorating standard of living.
YOUR SUPPORT OF OUR ANNUAL CAMPAIGN HELPS OUR PARTNERS IN UKRAINE
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Jews and Jewish organizations from outside Ukraine were able once again to reestablish formal connections and presence in the country. This includes the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s longstanding partners:
Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) provides security for Jewish institutions, multiple shlichim to assist those wanting to make aliyah to Israel (45,000 Jews have moved to Israel in the past 8 years) and then helping with their resettlement once in Israel. They also coordinate over 100 Ulpan (Hebrew language) classes, multiple Jewish schools, and Jewish overnight summer camps for close to 1500 children.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)
re-entered Ukraine some 30 years ago and today supports a network of 18 Hesed social welfare centers aiding Jews in need in thousands of locations across Ukraine. They provide needed food, medicine, homecare, and other services to the approximately 37,000 poor Ukrainian Jewish elderly (including 9,900 Holocaust Survivors) and approximately 2,500 children at-risk and their families.
JDC also supports six major Jewish Community Centers, leads Jewish cultural and holiday programming, coordinates the largest Jewish teen group, and operates a young adult leadership training program.
Since World ORT returned to the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, ORT now operates five Jewish day schools (over 3,400 students) and multiple vocational training centers throughout Ukraine.
We should take great pride in our efforts to take care of our global Jewish family. This is only possible because of your support for our annual campaign.
Most importantly, we are monitoring the news from Ukraine and Russia. The Jewish Federation and our partners in Ukraine are prepared to take care of the Jewish community (food, medical care, social services) – no matter what happens. Moreover, plans are in place to do whatever is necessary for their safety and security.
Shabbat shalom and let us pray for calm in the region.