In late June, my friend, Chaim Klimovitsky, received a call from his father, who asked him to drive to the airport and meet with Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, the Chief Rabbi of the Ukraine. Rabbi Azman was returning home from a summit in Washington, D.C. about the civil war raging in his country, and he was on a mission to find a project manager to oversee the construction of housing for some of the thousands of Jewish refugees who have been displaced by the conflict in the village of Anatevka, just outside of Kiev.
Now, Chaim is a pre-med student and has a lot on his plate this summer, including studying for MCATS and applying to medical schools. However, having grown up in a Russian-Jewish family, hearing about the hardships that the Jewish people endured in Ukraine over the centuries, including Chaim’s many relatives who died at Babi Yar outside Kiev, he felt a responsibility to assist Rabbi Azman in his endeavor. Chaim became especially committed to the idea when he learned that many of the older refugees are individuals who were already displaced previously by the Holocaust and under communism. He felt he had to get involved to help them specifically.
After receiving his father’s blessing, Chaim travelled to Ukraine to oversee the project as a volunteer. When Chaim shared the news with me, I volunteered to get involved as well and have been writing materials to help raise awareness and funds to aid the project there.
The situation of Jews in Eastern Ukraine is dire. In the last year, the Jewish Community estimates that several thousand Jews have been displaced from their homes by the armed conflict in the region.
In February 2014, Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign papers that would bring Ukraine into the European Union sparked a wave of protests that ousted his government and replaced it with a pro-EU coalition. In response to the revolution, pro-Russian supporters of Yanukovych staged protests around the country, some of which have grown into full-blown armed insurgencies. The Jewish refugees are only a small percentage of the approximately one million Ukrainians who have been displaced by the conflict.
Ukraine’s economy has been in a deep recession since 2008, which compounded with the burden of the war, has rendered the government able to do very little to help refugees. Responsibility for Jewish refugees, and for many others who have shown up on the doorsteps of its various soup-kitchens and free clinics, has fallen entirely on the Jewish community. Most refugees have lost their life’s savings, jobs, homes and sometimes loved ones.
The Jewish community, which in the past sent large sums of money to poor communities in Israel, has been strapped for resources to feed, clothe and house them.
Refugees are currently being housed in an unfinished summer camp being built by the Jewish community in rural region of the country, and in several rented apartments in Kiev. Until recently, many were being housed in community members’ homes. Rabbi Azman has worked tirelessly to make sure that they are well-fed and receiving adequate medical and psychological rehabilitation. However, this is only a short-term solution.
The only way for the refugees to start new lives and regain their independence and some degree of stability is to find permanent housing and new work.
Anatevka is Rabbi Azman’s solution to this crisis.
In April, the Jewish community purchased land just thirty minutes from the Kiev’s city center with the hope of creating permanent homes for refugees there. The community will consist of housing for five hundred individuals as well as a synagogue, an orphanage, an old age home, a school and a psychological and medical rehabilitation center. Rabbi Azman did not know it at the time, but the land is actually just outside Kiev’s municipal boundaries in the village of Anatevka, a former shtetl where the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem famously set several of the Tevye the Milkman stories, the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof. In a time of increasing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, an organized and secure community is essential to the refugees’ future safety as well.
A child of Russian-Jewish immigrants and a veteran of the IDF, Chaim is fluent in Russian, English and Hebrew and is also deeply familiar with the culture of Eastern European Jewish communities. His language and interpersonal skills make him an ideal candidate to coordinate a project that involves fundraising in the United States, Russia and Israel, as well as intensive, day-to-day work in the Kiev region. Chaim’s education from Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business has also helped him manage the project’s finances and ongoing business operations. But as capable as he is, Chaim cannot bring the Anatevka Jewish Refugee Community to fruition on his own.
We both feel strongly that, at a time when Jewish communities around the world are facing serious existential threats, it is incumbent upon Jews around the world to take an active role in working to the less-fortunate.
It is in that spirit that I appeal to you to take notice of the crisis of the Ukrainian Jewish community. Securing funds is paramount, but it is just as important to show support in other ways that can help raise awareness about the community’s situation and help them see that they are not alone. That can mean donating, interacting with the community and spreading the word via social media, and sharing this article with your family and friends.
Construction has already begun on the first stage of the refugee community in Anatevka, and the first families Rabbi Azman hopes that the first families will arrive in September. The only hope for this refugee community is the full support of the international Jewish community.
Please spread the word.
Please show your support for the Anatevka Jewish Refugee Community by liking our Facebook page and engaging with our community and other supporters: www.facebook.com/anatevkajrc
For more information about the initiative and to make tax deductible donations, please visit www.anatevkajrc.com.