There are times that this column will repeat themes. It’s unavoidable. There are themes that come up regularly and are worth repeating: the value of Jewish summer camping, Israel advocacy, the importance of Jewish education and Jewish day school education, the needs of our Annual Campaign, more Israel advocacy, supporting our synagogues, more needs of our Annual Campaign, combating BDS, to name a few. Between the Lehigh Valley and my previous community, I have been writing a column for over 20 years. And I have never repeated a theme in the same year. Never.
In May 2014 I wrote about a powerful story in Ukraine. Not that Russia had invaded, or that a civil war seemed imminent, or that Jews were caught in the middle between the two sides, but that the Jewish Federation system was on the ground providing services to Jews and non-Jews in this conflict-stricken region.
Then in October 2014 I wrote again about the emergency situation facing Ukrainian Jews. Everyone had hoped the situation in Ukraine would have subsided. Surely world powers would have found an opportunity to get Russia to stand down, for ceasefires to seriously hold, or for calmer heads to prevail. But that has not happened. The war and accompanying humanitarian crisis, which is uniquely impacting Ukraine’s Jewish community, wages on but is largely absent from the nightly news and from our ongoing awareness.
Harsh winter conditions and the suspension of benefit payments in some parts of eastern Ukraine made the situation even more difficult. Food prices are increasing with inflation, which coupled with bank closures, depleted savings and overall lack of available hard currency means that access to food is quite difficult. Physical access to food is complicated as well, since markets within or near the fighting zones face ongoing security threats. With the ongoing risk of household food insecurity, it’s likely that individual coping strategies will not be sustainable for the long term. This is especially true for the elderly, the institutionalized, and other vulnerable individuals, including many Holocaust survivors.
The Jewish Federation system, in partnership with the JDC, continues to provide life-saving services, including food, medicines, home health care and winter relief to Jews living in the regions under fire, for internally displaced Jews living in other parts of Ukraine and Jews who have gone east and moved to Russia.
There are over 3,000 displaced Jews throughout Ukraine and approximately 8,000 Jews living in the conflict zone. It is our responsibility to help them, and we are. We are now regularly serving more than 70,000 impoverished Jews in Ukraine. For those who have fled or who remain in the conflict zone, the situation has become dire. Emergency services we provide include emergency relief assistance (food and medical support), one-time emergency expense support for surgeries, emergency home repairs, or one-time purchases of basic necessities, rental subsidies and assistance in leaving the conflict zone.
The estimated 350,000 Jews living in Ukraine have been profoundly affected by the political and economic instability that has impacted the country since early 2014. Ukraine’s economy is deteriorating. Official inflation has reached almost 25 percent and the local currency, the hryvia, has been devalued by more than 50 percent, and in some areas controlled by Russian forces the hryvia is useless as they demand the Russian ruble as the only legal tender.
While we know that the majority of Jews will stay in Ukraine, in 2014 close to 6,000 Ukrainian Jews made aliyah to Israel, a 196 percent increase as compared to 2013. Interest in Jewish Agency programs that prepare individuals and families for aliyah has increased in significant numbers: 28,000 people attended aliyah information events since the crisis began and 180 new ulpan classes serving more than 1,600 students have opened.
Despite the crisis, JAFI offices in Donetsk and Mariupol remain open and continue to provide services. These Jewish communal staff members working both for JDC and for JAFI are the heroes of this story. They are providing uninterrupted services, meeting the everyday needs of our community’s most vulnerable and those in crisis. All because of our Annual Campaign support AND our support of the Ukraine Assistance Fund.
No one could have predicted that this crisis would have lasted this long or that it would still be continuing. I can’t urge you enough to recognize the ongoing nature of this crisis and donate to the Ukraine Assistance Fund. All of the funds raised in this special appeal directly benefit the Jewish Federation’s relief efforts in the region.
I hope I never have to repeat this theme in future columns. But as the crisis persists, or as new crises emerge, and Jews are in need, I will issue the clarion call to our community to respond As we have stepped up in the past, I have confidence that we will today and in the future.