On Rosh Hashanah, Pride in Jewish Responses to a World in Crisis

Imagine being in a new, unfamiliar apartment, in an equally unfamiliar city, with strangers all around. You have been driven there by war — and prospects for your future seem uncertain.

Your financial outlook is grim, if not desperate; you are separated from your wife, husband or children; perhaps your elderly parents have stayed behind, terrified to leave. Trauma, exhaustion, and high anxiety — once far away concepts — are now a harsh reality.

This is how thousands of Jews in Ukraine will spend Rosh Hashanah.

There is little doubt now that the Jewish world is at a critical juncture. Israel’s war with Hamas this summer, rising anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, terror abounding across many contents, and for the Jews of Ukraine, a crisis whose dimensions will only be worsened by the coming winter.

And yet amidst these crises, something remarkable has emerged, and not for the first time.

We have come together, once again, in the face of adversity and put into action the ancient Talmudic notion that we are all responsible for one another.

I have traveled much in the last few months and I have seen what can be achieved when we Jews, as a people, stand together bringing hope to many.

You can see it in the last few weeks in Ukraine, and tomorrow, as dozens of events to celebrate the Jewish New Year are being held in places like Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, Lvov, Poltava, Sumy, Shostka, Mirgorod, Konotop, and Vinnitsa.

And who is attending? Not just local Jews, but the thousands of internally displaced Jews who are now calling these places home.

They’ve been attending News Year’s concerts, quizzes, debates, and community holiday feasts. They are recipients of holiday packages, with traditional apples and honey, the promise of a sweet, safe New Year ahead.

Over the past several months, we at JDC have also provided a comprehensive aid program to more than 2,000 Jews who have fled violence in some areas of eastern Ukraine. This has included accommodation and rental subsidies, food and clothing, Jewish community connections like Rosh Hashanah activities and post-trauma counseling services.

Through a network of 32 Ukrainian Hesed social welfare centers, we’ve resumed services for clients who went from one place to another and are serving the growing number who continue to leave war-torn areas. And in the east, JDC continues its efforts to deliver food, medicine, and water to those who have stayed behind, often elderly and homebound.

We have been able to accomplish this — and so much more — because of the critically fundamental support of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and IFCJ; JFNA and the Jewish Federations of the USA; the Claims Conference; World Jewish Relief in London, and others who have joined together with us and other key agencies on the ground such as Chabad, the Jewish Agency, and other local community organizations to deliver on a promise we make day-in and day-out to be there for the Jewish people when others may turn their heads.

At a time when nothing else can be taken for certain, an ancient ideal has been thrust into action, and voices have been raised to say that we are one, in good times and bad, even if the road ahead may be filled with monumental challenges.

When I was in eastern Ukraine recently, I met 65-year old Victor Petrovich of Slavyansk.

During the worst of the violence, Victor, a non-Jewish man, insisted on volunteering to help the desperate Jews of his city by delivering food and medicine on his bicycle to more than 100 elderly Jews who were trapped in their homes under fire.

This volunteer “mission” required him to make phone calls to the Hesed to find out their addresses, often from rooftops, the only place in which cell phone reception was possible – a high risk decision because he could well have been mistaken for a combatant and shot.

One way he dealt with the stress of these daring excursions was to recite prayers in Hebrew that he had memorized, prayers he had learned in broken pieces from local Jews.

His bravery — and that of so many others, whether they be local Jewish volunteers and professionals with the steadfast moral and financial support of their brethren around the world – is a reminder of our strength when we act in unison in dedication to one another’s well-being.

And it brings to mind a prayer — one some of us know by heart, others in broken pieces like Victor — which has at its core the best intentions for the New Year and a stirring sense of gratitude that blesses all that follows: the Shehecheyanu.

I hope you will join me in reciting it this year, surrounded by family and friends, in the warmth of the knowledge that we as a people have been brought to this moment hand in hand, heart to heart, with those who needed us. And will continue to do so in the future.

From my home to yours, Shanah Tovah.

About the Author
Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
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