The civil war raging in Eastern Ukraine has devastated the region’s Jewish communities. Of the approximately 400,000 Jews in the country, between 15-20,000 live in the areas where pro-Russian armed insurgencies have taken place. The Chief Rabbinate of Ukraine estimates that between two and three-thousand Eastern-Ukrainian Jews have become homeless.
In February 2014, after months of unrest over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign papers that would bring Ukraine into the European Union, protesters stormed the presidential palace and toppled Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government. The installation of a pro-EU government sparked outrage among pro-Russian groups in the East of the country, Yanukovych’s former base of support, and in March, 2014 pro-Russian militias occupied government buildings all over Southern and Eastern Ukraine, beginning an armed conflict between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces that still continues over a year later.
There are an estimated one million refugees from East Ukraine who have been displaced due to the conflict and among these are several thousand Jews. Most of them come from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which have both been partially occupied by pro-Russian forces. They have lost their homes, their livelihoods and many their savings and family members. The Ukrainian government cannot help them. The economy has been devastated by the war and is in deep recession. Many injured and psychologically-affected refugees, especially the elderly and children, cannot gain access to treatment. The task of providing for these refugees has fallen completely on the Ukrainian Jewish community.
According to Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, his community formerly sent aid to other Jewish communities in the country but is now strapped for resources to feed, clothe and shelter the hundreds of refugees that have fled to Kiev. Many non-Jewish refugees have also been using the soup kitchens and shelters that the Community operates. The situation is similar in Odessa and in other Ukrainian cities outside the conflict zone. At the moment, refugees in Kiev are being housed by various families as well as in an unfinished summer camp being constructed by the Kiev Jewish Community. Many others are homeless.
In cooperation with the Jewish leadership of other Ukrainian cities, the Kiev Jewish community has begun construction on housing for refugees on the outskirts of Kiev where they can be rehabilitated and start new lives. In the last two months, the community has purchased a small plot of land just outside the City in the village of Anatevka, where the Kiev-based Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem famously set several of the stories in his 1894 anthology, Tevye’s Daughters, the basis of the play Fiddler on the Roof. When he arrived at the site, Rabbi Azman also learned that the property he purchased is directly adjacent to the kever of the great Rebbe R’ Mordechai Mottel Twersky of Chernobyl. The Chernobyler requested to be buried there while on a visit to Kiev because of the area’s beauty and its distance from the noise and churches of the City.
Work has begun on the first housing units and the community will also contain a home for the displaced elderly, an orphanage and a rehabilitation center that will treat injured refugees and those suffering from psychological trauma. Thirty minutes from central Kiev, Rabbi Azman hopes that residents will find work in the City or perhaps create a cooperative manufacturing venture in the village. Construction prices are lower than ever because of the war, and the community is using modern but very basic construction methods and materials. Rabbi Azman hopes to open the community to refugees by September 1. However, the resources of the Jewish community are dwindling and its leaders are struggling to pool the resources necessary for the project.
The situation of Ukraine’s Jewish refugees is dire. Rabbi Azman has been to the United States and has met with representatives of major Jewish charities, including the American Jewish Committee, who are supporting the project. These contributions have helped, but to find homes for the refugees flooding Ukraine’s cities far more aid is necessary. It essential that the international Jewish community come to their aid.
To donate to the Jewish Community of Ukraine’s fund for the refugees, visit www.anatevkajrc.com contact the Ukrainian chief rabbinate at firstname.lastname@example.org. All contributions are appreciated and are tax deductable.