Last week I travelled to Uzhgorod, Ukraine to participate in an annual seminar of educators who work for Midreshet Yerushalayim Ukraine, which has been funded and supported by the Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem since 1990.
Uzhgorod has once been home to a thriving Jewish community that numbered almost 10,000 people on the eve of World War II. The monumental main synagogue is now home to the local orchestra, and the painstakingly renovated building that hosted the rabbinical court has been transformed to a bank branch. Some half hour drive from the Ukrainian-Hungarian border, Uzhgorod is surrounded by towns whose names evoke once vibrant communities destroyed by the Holocaust: Mukachev (Munkach), Drohobych, Truskavets. While only a handful of Jews live here today, on June 22, 40 Hebrew teachers and artists, Ramah Ukraine counselors and school principals who work for Midreshet Yerushalayim schools and communities came to Uzhgorod from Berdichev and Odessa, Chernowitz and Kiev, Belaya Tserkov and Kharkov to learn from each other and from guest lecturers, celebrate Shabbat together and to recharge ahead of the camping season and the upcoming school year.
The Holocaust decimated families of each and every one of seminar participants, without exception. 47 years of Soviet rule that followed were no less detrimental to Jewish spiritual and communal life. One would think that mass emigration in the early nineties would spell the end of Jewish presence in Ukraine. This was not the case. Today, 25 years since communal life has been restored, Jewish communities in Ukraine provide vital services that Ukrainian Jews would not be able to get elsewhere. They often fulfil the function of welfare agencies, providing intergenerational activities and programs for the elderly, running support groups for parents of young children, all along with providing educational programming to community members of all ages.
Traditionally reliant on overseas donations, some Ukrainian communities are beginning to raise local funds. Yet they face formidable challenges. Ukraine is a poor country, and since Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, it has been at war. Almost 1.5 million people have fled Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the last three years. According to UNHCR, Ukraine now has one of the world’s highest numbers of internally displaced persons.
Jewish communities have been struggling with absorbing refugees from the country’s east. Last summer, 17 out of 130 children at Camp Ramah Ukraine came from internally displaced families. This August, as Camp Ramah Ukraine will celebrate its 25th season, there will be up to 20 participants who fled the warzone with their parents.
Developing and running educational programs, building communities, and dealing with humanitarian crises falls on the shoulders of local educators and community leaders I have had the honor to meet. Their dedication to their work knows no bounds, and their commitment to Judaism, to Israel and to constant professional development are formidable. They are a true inspiration.
The international Jewish community that has been supporting Ukrainian Jewry for the past 25 years can be proud of what has been achieved, yet our work there is not done. We must continue accompanying educators and community leaders on their journey of building strong, vibrant, and diverse communities that provide much needed services to Ukraine’s Jews. We must continue offering a wealth of educational options to Jewish children, teenagers and adults. We must continue teaching Hebrew and tradition, in the context of day schools, Sunday schools, and camping programs. The curiosity, the need, and the craving for a Jewish connection are all there. Our work in Ukraine must go on. Anything else would fall short of betrayal.