A More Powerful Story the Media Missed

May 2014

The news media sometimes (!) distorts reality, ignores reality, or can’t see reality because of the flash appeal of a related or tangential story.

Many of us were shocked and disgusted by reports of masked militia standing outside of synagogues in eastern Ukraine distributing leaflets demanding that Jews register with the pro-Russia separatists who had recently taken control of their city. The leaflets also demanded a $50 head tax on Jews at the time of the registration. 

This was a spurious use of the region’s anti-Semitic history harkening back to the era of Nazi Germany and its control over the Ukraine, as well as the Ukraine’s centuries-old history of anti-Semitism. In this instance, it is believed that Ukrainian nationalists staged the incident to besmirch any sympathies toward the pro-Russia separatists. This is not unlike Putin’s earlier attempt to turn public support for the Ukrainian nationalists toward pro-Russia separatists. You will recall that Putin announced that one reason for “rescuing” the Crimea was because Ukraine was unable to control the anti-Semitism that was overt and rampant in the Crimea and in Kiev. The only thing: Putin’s assertions were not grounded in fact.

There are abundant articles on the irony that the region with a dubious history of anti-Semitism is fabricating stories to make one side appear to be anti-Semitic so as to sway public opinion to the other side. Would that they all really cared?

Recently WMFZ came to my office to record comments on the situation in Ukraine and my views on the “outbreak” of anti-Semitism. The interview was perfunctory and brief. I did not really like their spin on the story, and they did not appreciate mine. To be fair, the reporter, a respected journalist who has skillfully covered other stories related to the Middle East peace process and Jewish life in the Lehigh Valley, was just mirroring the larger regional and national news outlets.

It is true that the major story is the geo-political battle between the East and the West, manifesting itself in Ukraine. And the tangential stories, like anti-Semitism, help keep the news cycle fresh. But for me a more powerful tangential story is how the Jewish world, largely through the efforts of Jewish federation campaigns, supports a social service and educational network in Ukraine.

With the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis it became clear that immediate additional attention and support was required to assist our fellow Jews as they are weathering the emotional, physical and mental effects of the emergency. Despite the difficulties of working in Ukraine during this period, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) continues to provide essential humanitarian assistance to thousands of impoverished Jewish elderly and at-risk children and their families. JDC was able to immediately utilize its existing infrastructure in place throughout the region to respond to the needs on the ground over the past few months. For years, JDC has been our service provider in Ukraine, as well is in 50-plus other countries throughout the world.

JDC operates 32 Hesed relief centers across Ukraine, through which destitute Jewish elderly and at-risk children and their families receive essential care. Hesed centers were functioning prior to the crisis—serving over 60,000 elderly and close to 9,000 children and their families with food, medicine, homecare, winter relief and other essential services. Since the onset of the crisis, which has brought with it increasing economic hardships as well as intensified anxiety and uncertainty, the Heseds have increased services and Hesed workers are operating at above full capacity to reach and provide the needed support to those Jews who require the most assistance. 

Economic hardships are growing in the region. Over the past two months gas has risen by 20 percent, certain medicine prices have risen 7 to 71 percent, chickens are 43 percent costlier, sugar and cream have risen 12 percent, sour cream is up 25 percent and cabbage prices have risen 55 percent. Layoffs are growing throughout Ukraine. In the Crimea, banks and ATMs are closed while the economy is switching to Russian rubles. Pharmacies are bare as Western medicine is being replaced by Russian supplies, many with different names and different formularies.

JDC has placed nearly 30,000 of its most vulnerable clients in a special category to receive additional benefits, including pension check cashing services, supplemental food assistance and additional services for homebound elderly. Since JDC operates in Russia and other eastern European countries, they are able to bring Russian rubles into the Crimea and other hard currency into Ukraine to immediately benefit its Jewish clientele.

Our worldwide Jewish system is able to provide immediate responses. We can do so because ongoing funding from our annual Jewish federation campaign provides these services 365 days a year, not just during emergencies. 

I am often asked about the value of our Federation’s annual campaign. I usually jump to talk about our Jewish Day School, the Jewish Community Center and our Jewish Family Service. I can for talk hours about the value of these agencies and how critical our annual campaign is to the vitality of these – and other – agencies. But the immediate response of agencies like the JDC in Ukraine makes the value of our annual campaign all the more real. To paraphrase my colleague in New York, John Ruskay, we (the JDC) were able to ratchet up our services in Ukraine the day after the emergency situation began because we were there, on the ground, providing services to needy Jews, the day before the crisis began.

That holds true in Israel, in 50-plus countries around the world, and in the Lehigh Valley. Our annual campaign funds services meeting Jewish needs 365 days a year.  And because we have an effective infrastructure, we can provide an immediate response to emergencies caused by economic catastrophes, hurricanes, floods, fires and geo-political unrest. And, we can do that because of the generous support of the Federation’s annual campaign.
To me, that’s a powerful story.



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