It’s been nine days since Russian forces invaded Ukraine—pouring across the country’s northern, eastern, and southern borders. Though Putin’s malevolent intentions had long been clear, perhaps we had become somewhat inured to the absence of such aggressions through expansionist conduct in Europe following decades of relative calm. But war has come—and we are riveted to news broadcasts and their images of wanton destruction, a growing refugee crisis, and the suffering of millions.
Ukraine’s Jewish community—some Russian speaking and others Ukrainian—is scattered across larger cities and smaller towns. Though estimates vary about its size, reliable sources suggest a total population of roughly 200,000. The community is served and supported by a network of Jewish community centers, many of which also house Hillels, pre-schools and cultural programs while serving as hubs for social and human service outreach to Holocaust survivors and other elderly individuals in need. This remarkable network grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union, which for half a century suppressed any material Jewish life.
Jewish history in Ukraine goes back more than a thousand years—a place that was home to the birthplace of Hasidism and of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe. Under Russian domination, it comprised a large portion of the Pale of Settlement, concentrating Jews so they could be controlled, manipulated, and harassed and precluding them from settling elsewhere in the empire.
It is a history stained in Jewish blood with repeated massacres intended to end Jewish life altogether. The scope of the Shoah (the Holocaust), in which 1.5 million Jews were slaughtered at the hands of the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators, shrouds prior instances of systematic slaughter, including those perpetrated by the Red Army after World War I and by the Cossacks in the 17th century, among countless other atrocities across the years.
When the Iron Curtain fell, the Jewish world turned its attention to the remnants of the Jewish community in newly independent Ukraine. Through the extraordinary work of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), World ORT, Chabad, and others during the last 30 years, Jewish life has been renewed, and links have been restored with Israel and the wider Jewish world. These links make it possible for us to support this besieged community today—so we have moved quickly, assured that our remarkable partners on the ground will do everything possible to aid and safeguard Ukraine’s Jews.
As JCC Association of North America and JCC Global teams took counsel this week with JDC, JAFI, and others, I was struck by the pride I feel in being part of a worldwide Jewish community that has created critical infrastructure—organizational capacity and capability—that can serve and strengthen Jewish communities in times of calm and readily respond in times of strife and war.
This construct is all part of the remarkable Jewish Federation system in which JCC Association and the JCCs of North America are proud and vital members. A quick reminder of how it works seems in order: Jewish Federation campaigns raise funds to support Jewish life locally and around the world. JCCs, Jewish Family Services, day schools, Hillels, and senior residences are among the local beneficiaries. Funding also goes to Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which, in turn, allocates it to the system’s major overseas partners, JDC and JAFI. For roughly a century, JDC has devoted itself to rescue, relief, and rehabilitation, while JAFI’s priorities have been Jewish education and aliyah.
From the simmering cauldron that was Europe for Jews in the years between the two world wars through the depths of the Holocaust, and from the DP camps that dotted the continent following Hitler’s defeat through the dawning of the modern State of Israel, and from the ingathering of the exiles to the fall of the Soviet Union, we’ve been there precisely because the North American Jewish community created an organizational apparatus so that we would be. And now, in the face of a new war—a war that finds 200,000 Jews in the cross-hairs—we have the means, once again, to lend a hand.
For nine days, friends and colleagues have been asking how to do just that. Here’s the answer: What is needed most is money. Rally your communities to support your Jewish Federation’s efforts in response to the war, or by giving directly through JFNA or JDC.
Another element of this remarkable network is our participation in JCC Global, through which JCC Association maintains direct ties with our peers around the world, including the 30 JCCs in Ukraine, each of which is responding to the best of its ability—in cities already under Russian assault and in those preparing for that eventuality. We will continue to provide updates and insights, drawn from these connections, throughout the duration of this crisis. I am pleased to share a list of contact emails for our partner JCCs in Ukraine and encourage you to send messages of solidarity and support to pierce the darkness and isolation of siege and war.
Our network of partners also includes organizations dedicated to supporting the growing stream of Ukrainian refugees, already numbering more than one million, now pouring over the country’s borders into Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova. Among those arms of the Jewish Federation system are HIAS and our partners in JResponse®, IsraAID, which established its base of operations in Kishinev, Moldova. It is a profound statement about Jews and the Jewish people that Israel’s leading humanitarian relief agency has come to the exact place where, in 1903, locals unleashed a grisly assault on the Jewish community that ignited the attention of the wider Jewish world. Not long thereafter, the very organizations I described above were created, in no small part as a direct response to the assault. Today, IsraAID joins the effort to serve and support Ukrainian refugees—irrespective of background. Support IsraAID’s Ukraine Relief efforts.
Jews have always been uniquely vulnerable in times of war. Antisemitism—latent and not so latent—doesn’t require much of an opening to bare its teeth, which is why we should be extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters now in harm’s way. But we can take solace in the presence of our major partners in the Jewish organizational world—and in the assurance of safe harbor for Jews in the sovereign State of Israel.
Today’s Torah portion, Pekudei | פְקוּדֵי, includes a detailed account, in Exodus 38:21, of how the donations to the building of the Mishkan were used: “These are the amounts of the materials used for the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Testimony, which were recorded at Moses’ command by the Levites under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron, the Priest.”
There was an expectation, even then, that donations would be handled with the greatest of care—reflecting the sacred obligation to ensure they were used for precisely the purposes for which they were given, and that the stewardship of those resources was a responsibility not only to the donors, but also undertaken in the sight of God. Such is the expectation of those to whom we entrust our critical support today—as is their commitment to us and to our partners around the world. We are blessed to be part of the Jewish Federation system. May it, and may we all, go from strength to strength.
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America