The counting of the Omer, the seven-week period extending from the second night of Passover until the night before the holiday of Shavuot, is a time of partial mourning – strange, considering that it occurs between two of the most joyous events in the history of the Jewish people. Why mourn then? Jewish oral tradition tells us that during the Roman domination of Israel, a plague killed thousands of students of a great Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva. This occurred because the students did not show respect for one another or their fellow man. This teaches us the importance not just of honoring God by observing His law, but also of honoring Him by showing our love and respect for each other.
Thus, during the counting of the Omer, we mourn in remembrance of a tragedy. But on one day, known as Lag Ba’omer, which began Saturday at sundown, sadness gives way to celebration as we recall the day on which this plague was lifted.
For the Jews of Ukraine, there is little to celebrate. Escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russian separatists has led to an atmosphere of tension and rising anti-Semitism. Of course, there is a long history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine that started long before the Holocaust. But the recent events and rising civil unrest have taken a lid off of old prejudices. Fear of this rising hatred has made elderly Jews unwilling to leave their homes, forgoing trips to the grocery store or synagogue. Orphanages, many of them funded by my organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, have hired armed guards to protect their children. Some schools are reporting only 40 percent attendance since parents are afraid to send their children outside. And there is always the possibility of even further turmoil, including the possible outbreak of all-out civil war. This is especially troubling for those in the Jewish community, who are situated just blocks from the protests and fighting.
Even in the midst of this fear and turmoil, I have seen hope. I saw it during my visit to Donetsk, Ukraine, in March, when we visited the warehouses and distribution centers that the fellowship supports; what touched us the most was seeing that Purim preparations were underway despite the fear and despair – that people had maintained their faith and strength in this time of crisis. In the city of Kiev, in the midst of chaos, burned-out buildings, and the smell of burning tires, we saw a fellowship-funded orphanage continuing to provide Jewish children with an oasis of calm and compassion. There is hope.
The continued, unfailing support of our Christian donors is also a great source of hope, as it always has been. These are people who help us year round to provide a host of essential services throughout the former Soviet Union, who give of themselves to help Holocaust survivors, children and many other Jews in need in the FSU. The number of those who are seeking to make aliyah to escape the chaos, confusion and fear in Ukraine has risen fourfold, and again it is our Christian partners who are making these aliyahs possible through their donations to the fellowship. We owe a debt of gratitude to them for their selfless support – support that not only provides for material needs, but also acts as an encouragement to all those in need.
This Lag Ba’omer I will celebrate the fact that there is hope even in times of chaos. I will celebrate the great strength of the Ukrainian Jews who have lived in chaos and uncertainty for months and yet still remain faithful. And I will also celebrate the gift of our Christian friends, who have worked together with the Jewish people to overcome centuries of animosity and become the Jewish community’s greatest friends in the world today. Indeed, “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalms 133:1).