Moldova, Ukraine, and our Jewish commitment

Moldova, Ukraine, and our Jewish commitment

MetroWest Federation’s CEO describes massive effort to help war refugees

The sketches that accompany this story 
are by Dov Ben-Shimon. Here, we see a JDC professional explaining the electricity blackout program in Odessa on a weekly time chart. (Dov Ben-Shimon)
The sketches that accompany this story are by Dov Ben-Shimon. Here, we see a JDC professional explaining the electricity blackout program in Odessa on a weekly time chart. (Dov Ben-Shimon)

Last week I sat with Ukrainian refugees who were resettled in Chisinau — also known as Kishinev. And I witnessed the worst and best of humanity.

Millions of refugees, fleeing from Russian bombing of residential areas, hospitals, and schools, fled west to countries like Moldova.

Last year, a week after the Russian invasion, I went to the Polish/Ukrainian border with David Saginaw, our federation president. There, we saw the thousands, tens of thousands, of refugees streaming through to safety. All women and children and nearly no men. In absolute silence.

That was 11 months ago. Last week was somewhat different.

I had come after a long weekend. On Friday I met with Jewish students who are facing an atmosphere of intimidation and antisemitism at the Rutgers-Newark campus. They face a campus administration that will not assist, or provide even the basic safe environment that Jewish students need and deserve. I believe that as a Jewish community it’s our responsibility to advocate for that safety, to push the campus administration, and to meet with the students to hear their needs and figure out ways to help them.

And on Sunday morning, a Molotov cocktail was thrown — but thankfully not ignited — at the entrance to Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. I know you share my relief that the alleged attacker was arrested and is being questioned by law enforcement, for whose efforts we are deeply grateful. Like with Ner Tamid, like with the 85 other synagogues in our Greater MetroWest community, our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest provides security training and lobbies for Homeland Security funds for security improvements and for the community’s early warning alert system.

This sign stands at the entrance to Chisinau.

As I got on the plane to Moldova, both our senators had already called me and Rabbi Marc Katz of Ner Tamid, and there were more calls, including from Representative Mikie Sherrill (D-Dist. 11) and others, offering help and support. But not for a moment did I think of not getting on the plane. Because it is the same struggle, the same concept of good and evil. The same responsibility we have as a Jewish community to care for those in need. To build strong and resilient Jewish communities. And to save the world. One person at a time.

I met Galina Chaikina, a 90-year-old Ukrainian Jewish refugee now living in Chisinau. She had fled the brutal Russian occupation of Kherson with her daughter and two grandchildren, and an assortment of family pets. When the Russians invaded last year, they started entering apartment building courtyards, shooting out the windows, and ordering people into basements. Those people were never to be seen again. So Galina and her daughter knew it was time to flee. They drove through 27 checkpoints to get to Odessa, calling a hotline run by Federation partners to get a shelter. As they unpacked, rockets and bombs fell nearby, and several of their friends from Kherson were killed, so they fled west to Moldova the next day.

This wasn’t Galina’s first evacuation. She fled the Nazis in 1941 as they invaded her home in Krasnodar in Russia. She was 9 years old then, with a shovel bigger than her own small body, when the Nazis forced her to dig anti-tank ditches in 1942. Galina and her family escaped to Crimea. As they dodged artillery shells and bullets, they saw bodies lying around the streets and heard later that a Nazi SS unit, rounding up Jews, had arrived at their house just seconds after they left.

And now here we are, 80 years later. And a 90-year-old woman looks around at the help she gets from the American Jewish federation system, and finally she is safe.

When you arrive as a refugee at the border crossing from Ukraine, you’re exhausted. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing. But it was there that I witnessed again the very best of humanity in response. Moldova’s 2.5 million people took in more than 750,000 refugees. Its 12,000 Jewish community members took in 17,000 Jewish refugees. Thousands of professionals and volunteers at the border provided food and medical care, bringing refugees to shelter and transportation. Caring for children, the frail elderly. Among them, amazing professionals from our own Jewish Federation partner agencies, especially the Joint and the Jewish Agency. They took in Jewish and non-Jewish refugees, giving food, medical care, shelter, transportation, security, and so much more.

For the 40,000 frail, elderly Holocaust survivors who couldn’t make it out of Ukraine, Jewish families and those with special needs in Odessa, in Kyiv, in Dnipro, in Kharkiv — we have case workers who bring them food and medicine and, if needed, stay in the elderly clients’ homes so they are not left alone.

A Jewish refugee family who had fled from Odessa waits for whatever will come next. (Dov Ben-Shimon)

My colleague Inna, from Odessa, poured out what looked like orange juice from a container as she spoke. But it wasn’t orange juice. It was regular tap water from the supply in Mikolayiv, a strategic city two hours east of Odessa, which was almost completely destroyed by Russian bombing and shelling and attacks. Can you imagine turning on your tap at home and seeing thick, orange, cloudy viscous water come out? The Russian missile and rocket attacks mean Ukrainians are without power many hours each day. And if there’s no power, then there’s no water pumping, no sewage treatment, no credit or bank transactions, no heating, no lighting. Inna has a large timetable of planned blackouts — many, each day, to help the fair distribution of electricity. But once the sirens start and the rockets fall, everything is shut down. People go hungry, cold, thirsty. They hide. They are left traumatized.

Tens of thousands of Jews have made aliyah in Federation-supported flights from these countries in the past year. There will be many more in the months ahead, and our Jewish Federation will support these efforts from Europe. Once they get there, we’ll support their successful integration, their klitah, into Israeli society.

And tens of thousands of Jewish refugees are being helped, right now, with food and shelter and trauma counseling, thanks to your support.

Most of our Jewish Federation’s efforts are aimed at the Jewish community. I do believe that this is our responsibility, and that although Jews are generous and kind and philanthropic, and give to non-Jewish charities as we should, few others will give to support elderly Holocaust survivors or Jewish families at risk except for us. Few others will help the tens of thousands of Ukrainian or Belarussian or Russian Jews make aliyah to safety, or provide security at Jewish buildings on the border, or buses to the airport. Only us.

At one of dozens of Federation-supported relief centers we’ve helped set up at the borders, I saw what it means when we help non-Jews too. We’re not turning anyone away, and when someone in need arrives, you help that person, because we have a higher obligation to care for those in need, to build community, and to save the world. At a dinner earlier last year with the chief rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, I asked him about this and he said, “I don’t know if every one of the refugees we help is Jewish. But I do know that every one of the refugees we help is a child of God, created betzelem Elohim, in the Divine image.”

Walking through Kishinev, driving past the sites of the historic pogrom, of the expulsions, the massacres, the Nazi attacks — all of this was hard. It was heavy with the burden of our history. Of our parents and grandparents, of those who were lost and murdered. We cannot disregard the weight of Jewish history. We are all links in this chain of remembrance. And so many of us are fortunate to be here, today, because of a simple twist of fate. A parent, or a grandparent, who turned left instead of right. Who came here, instead of there.

Svetlana puts her arms around her 90-year-old mother Galina’s shoulder; they’ve escaped Ukraine with their dog. (Dov Ben-Shimon)

There are signs at borders across southern and western Ukraine. They’re in Russian, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Polish, and more. And these signs have the free phone number of Federation-supported call centers across Europe and in Israel. If you’re Jewish and you call this number, we can direct you to shelter, and food, and aliyah, and rescue. Turn left. Come here. It is the 21st-century version of your refugee parents and grandparents moving to safety. Only this time it is much more deliberate. Much better organized.

For the first time in Jewish history, every single Jew who is a refugee, who is escaping from danger, every single one, has been saved. Rescued.

If you’re a donor to the Ukraine Relief fund last year, and the United Jewish Appeal of our Jewish Federation this year, know that you have done this. Those organizations on the ground – some 50 of them, supported by the tens of millions of dollars raised by Jewish Federations — are working diligently to save lives, and care for those in need.

What we need right now is flexible infrastructure funding. To turn quickly to send a Federation-supported staff person to a conflict area. To make sure we can get people through the border crossings. And to bring medicines, to pay for buses and flights and more. Because even in the face of absolute evil, of despicable leadership, of self-serving cruelty — there is absolute goodness, sacrifice, decency, and kindness.

I saw it on the Ukrainian borders last year and at the Moldovan borders this week, among the helpers and volunteers, at the train stations and transit points and refugee centers. I saw the Federation-partner staff sent to bombing areas and war zones bring food and medicine to Shoah survivors, and get Jewish families out of danger.

I’m truly grateful for them, and for all those who have been so generous to support their incredible work.

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