DNEPROPETROVSK, UKRAINE — On Thursday, I heard the word anti-Semitism for the first time during my visit to Ukraine and my heart sank. The Jewish people of Ukraine are having to deal with so much already and I was under the impression that Jews were not being singled out during this crisis. But I was wrong.
There’s a reason I missed it though, according to a Jewish Agency employee. It is subtle, he told me as we made our way back to our group of 18 from a home visit in Dnepropetrovsk. We had just met with a couple who is planning on immigrating to Israel in November. They are uprooting their lives to move to Israel, a country they have never been to before, but know will be safer and more secure than Ukraine.
The couple understands this transition won’t be easy. They aren’t naïve about the difficulties of moving to an entirely different country, especially one they have never visited before. But, the risk is worth it. They want a government that will protect them, an army to defend them and to feel as though they are part of a community — none of which Ukraine can provide.
As we were talking with the couple, one of our group members asked why they were moving to Israel. “Is it because you want to be surrounded by Jews, or are you experiencing anti-Semitism or is it something else entirely?” he asked. The couple answered that moving to Israel always has been their dream, but they decided to do it because the conflict in Ukraine has made things very difficult for them.
The husband is a doctor and makes just $100 a month. Out of the several home visits we made, they were, by far, in a nicer apartment. But, “nice” is a relative term. The walls were still in bad shape and the neighborhood looked unsafe, like most of the areas we have seen in Ukraine. Though the man is a doctor, his small salary is about half of what the family needs to survive. They have had to dip into their savings just to make ends meet and hope to have enough money to buy a small place in Safed, Israel, where they are planning to move.
The Federation-funded Jewish Agency is helping this couple prepare for what they may face when they move to Israel — finding jobs, adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language. Additionally, once the couple moves to Israel, The Jewish Agency will serve as a resource for them if they have questions, need help or have trouble adjusting to Israeli life.
COLD, HARD TRUTH
It was a great conversation full of hope for the future, a contrast to all that we have seen this week. But, on the way back, in the rear of our cramped van, I learned the cold, hard truth about Ukraine that makes me believe this acutely-difficult situation is not temporary and it is going to get worse for the Jews here as well as others.
I asked a Jewish Agency staffer about anti-Semitism and he said it is definitely present in Ukraine. He told me that as we were traveling Wednesday, he saw a sign on the road that said “Jews are our slaves.” I asked him why we, as a trip group, had not talked more about anti-Semitism in Ukraine. He said, “We’re just trying to keep people alive right now.”
His answer silenced me for a few minutes until, almost as if we were in a movie or novel, we passed a swastika drawn on a bus stop. “There’s your proof,” this native Ukrainian said to me.
Years ago, when he left Ukraine and moved to Israel, anti-Semitism played a part in his decision to leave his native country. Now, he’s back in Ukraine working for the Jewish Agency under a two-year contract as part of the Agency’s response to the deteriorating conditions in the country and the plight of the more than 300,000 Jews who live here. And already he wants to leave the land of his birth for a second time because of the harsh conditions. I can’t say I blame him.
He described the government’s corruptness, the lack of caring for its citizens, the distrust of the Ukrainian people toward the government and often toward one another. I can’t imagine living life like that. As I looked around me as we continued our drive, it looked as if we were in a third-world, developing country. My heart broke for the scores of people I met this week as well as the others here who, unfortunately, do not have the support or the opportunity to make better lives for themselves.
FRUSTRATION & DETERMINATION
A couple we met Wednesday reflected the frustrating and depressing way that many Ukrainians now view their country. In their case, and in the case of a growing number of other Jews, they are leaving for Israel. We asked them if they knew Hebrew. “No,” they told us, “But we are determined to learn. We never want to speak Russian again.” (In East Ukraine, where we were, people speak Russian. In West Ukraine, they speak Ukrainian.)
To move to Israel, they have to give up their Ukrainian citizenship. Keep in mind, this couple has never been to Israel, but they are so desperate for hope and a better future that they are renouncing their lifelong national identity. So much uncertainty and so much bravery; I desperately want Federations to do even more to help our Jewish brothers and sisters trapped in this almost-surreal and deteriorating environment.
This couple though is actually “lucky.” They aren’t rich, but they do have funds to help them move to Israel. Most of the Jews we met do not have enough money to even feed themselves, let alone pay the application fees to the Ukrainian government to get out of the country. This is why the Federation-funded Joint Distribution Committee, which provides so much support to the Jews in Ukraine, and the Jewish Agency, which helps with aliyah (immigrating to Israel), are both critical to the survival and well-being of Ukraine’s Jewish community right now.
As I write this, we are getting ready to leave Ukraine to begin the journey home and I feel so unsettled. It is clear to me that this Eastern European country, so full of turmoil, war and corruption, and with a long history of anti-Semitism, is not going to have peace and prosperity anytime soon. And neither will these Jews.