DNEPROPETROVSK, UKRAINE — Over 24 hours ago, as I took a seat on the plane that would eventually take me to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, I started crying. I’m not an overly emotional person so the fact that I was crying really alarmed me. I was a little scared about my journey, yes, but I couldn’t figure out what else was making me cry.
I wiped away tears, embarrassed, as someone sat down next to me on the plane. I realized that my tears were more than the pre-travel jitters that usually accompany me when I go out of town. These tears were almost foreshadowing what was to come as I arrived in Dnepropetrovsk and heard first-hand from Ukrainian Jews.
Ukraine is nothing like I thought it would be. It is a mix of old and, as someone said, “broken,” with some new and modern. There are remnants of the Former Soviet Union sticking around, though the Ukrainians are trying desperately to get rid of these reminders of that oppressive era. We saw old, broken-down buildings that have been decaying since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago. And, while Ukraine in itself surprised me, that shock was nothing compared to what I would hear from Ukrainian Jews as we started the first day of our trip.
IN TROUBLE AGAIN
Seventeen individuals from across the world and I listened as trip leader Fred Zimmerman, a national Jewish Federations of North America volunteer leader from Nashville, welcomed us to Dnepropetrovsk. He said that our group would soon see that we are facing an “old new problem” — Jews in Ukraine are in trouble, needing help as desperately as they did during the Holocaust-era 75 years ago. This time, however, they are not being singled out as Jews per se, but many are starting to face life or death struggles because of the violence in Ukraine and the turbulent conditions. It was a chilling thought and a riveting way to start our journey here.
Our afternoon continued and there were two overarching themes: gratitude and need. As one member of our group put it so eloquently, “There is no one other than us to take care of these Jews.” It’s true — these Jews are living in dire circumstances, their government is unstable, and they live in constant fear of uncertainty. If we do not help them, who will? And, as I wrote in the Birmingham Jewish Federation Update before I left Birmingham, the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Jewish Federations of North America believe that we have a special responsibility to help our fellow Jews; we do so through our partners, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee.
The need is so great here that it is almost unbelievable. We traveled to a nearby Federation-funded Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp where displaced persons from the severe areas of conflict are living temporarily and getting ready to move to Israel (Dnepropetrovsk is about 100 miles from the conflict zone). The people living in the IDP camp have nothing and see no future for themselves in Ukraine. We heard from one young man who barely got his wife and newly-born daughter out of the conflict zone in time — his wife actually gave birth in the basement of a hospital during one of the worst bombings.
Today, they are safe — for now — in the IDP camp, anxiously awaiting their move to Israel. This young family is learning Hebrew and readying themselves for their new homeland. Their gratitude was tremendous — they were so thankful to be in a safe place where they wouldn’t have to fear for their young daughter’s life.
Again, Ukraine feels hopeless to them, but when Israel was mentioned, their eyes lit up. When asked about safety in Israel, the young man replied, “Israel will give us stability, security and peace.”
“What about the instability that Israel faces and all the security problems it has?” someone asked this new father. “In Israel, there is an army that protects you,” he answered. “In Israel, brothers don’t fight brothers. In Israel, the government looks after its citizens. That is the difference.”
The gratitude doesn’t stop with the safety of the IDP camps. So many who we heard from, like this young man, expressed how thankful they were for the assistance they had received in a range of areas, and there was also an enormous amount of gratitude and respect for Israel.
Israel, they believe, is where their future is. This is an amazing affirmation of why we, in the US, must continue to fight for Israel’s legitimacy and educate those around us about the importance of having a strong and sovereign Jewish homeland to which Jews can flee. Without Israel, there would be no hope, no future for these Ukrainian Jews, as they see it.
The Jews of Ukraine are facing a unique situation. Twenty-five years after the Soviet Union collapsed, some Jews are faced with making the same decision Jews here had to make a quarter of a century ago: Do they stay in Ukraine and try to preserve their quality of life and Judaism, or do they leave for Israel? And, despite a ceasefire, the violence in the conflict zone continues and is getting worse, especially of late.
The people we spoke with were all willing to start their lives over again in Israel because of the turmoil in Ukraine and their belief and faith in the Jewish state. They want a democracy, an army to protect them, a government to look after them — and we, through the Federation movement, are helping make Israel a reality for so many of them. In the city we are staying in, 453 Jews already have moved to Israel this year, a 143% increase from last year. Without our help and the help of the Jewish Agency, I am not sure that any of this would be possible.
As we were wrapping up our meeting with the IDP camp residents, someone else from our group asked if they were scared about going to Israel. The Ukrainian responded that yes, he was scared like any other person. But, what chilled me the most was when he said, “I don’t know how we’ll make it in Israel, but I do not want my children growing up in Ukraine.”
The determination of this group of Ukrainian Jews is fierce — they have been on the front lines of the fighting and are facing many road blocks from the Ukrainian government as they try to leave. In some cases, they had to be smuggled out of the conflict zone and into an area of safety. According to the Jewish Agency’s estimates, there are still around 4,000-6,000 Jews in the conflict zone. The Agency is working hard to get them out, but it is not easy.
There is a lot of work to be done in Ukraine, but I am amazed at the resilience, hope and gratitude that these Ukrainian Jews have. After going through so much, they are positive they will have a better future in Israel and are tremendously grateful that the Jewish homeland exists. I, too, have the same hopes for these people.
What a privilege it is to help another Jew, I started thinking as I wrote this piece. I am ending the night in tears, much like I began my travel experience, but not because I am scared. I am overcome with gratitude that we have been called to help.