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May 5, 2014 9:41 pm

Christian Giving Provides Lifeline for ‘Abandoned’ Ukrainian Jewish Community (INTERVIEW)

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IFCJ's Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein with Jewish students in Ukraine. Photo: IFCJ/Eva Geller.

Since the outbreak of violence and political chaos in Ukraine, Christian charity has been lavished on the country’s beleaguered and isolated Jewish community, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, told The Algemeiner on Sunday.

In the past 30 days alone, his mammoth charity has stepped up to provide over $5 million in grants to aid the elderly and the poor hit by skyrocketing inflation. It has also filled the gap left by local philanthropists who are struggling amidst the tug-of-war between Russian and Ukrainian nationalists that is tearing the country apart.

As the unrest escalated, Eckstein visited the area and said he found a community that felt abandoned; by Israel and by the international Jewish community. A number of the people he spoke to made statements like, “Now we know how the Jews in Europe felt during the Shoah or before the Shoah,” he said. “Because no one else had come there. No one else put down money.”

The Fellowship, which raises north of $130 million from Christians annually, has been active in the former Soviet Union bloc for some time. Eckstein said his history of involvement proved crucial when it came to understanding the situation on the ground and responding quickly to the needs of the community.

“Medicine is up 70 percent. Food is up 20-30 percent. People who are living on Claims Conference money or on government social security, elderly – their needs are the same and… they don’t have the money to stretch to meet that,” he said. “They’re totally dependent on the outside world – the Jewish world for money, and it didn’t come through, and Israel for security.”

“You have a situation where they can’t afford… the lunch program for the children… where they can’t afford security,” he added.

Over the last few days, dozens have been killed in street clashes in the southern seaside city of Odessa. On Friday evening, tens of pro-Russian protesters were burned to death in the city’s trade union building.

“Parents are afraid to send their kids to school. So you have like 40 percent of the kids not coming to school because there is no security and there are no police there in Ukraine,” the rabbi explained.

While the violence hasn’t yet been specifically directed toward Jews, the general climate of anarchy has prompted the community to take extreme security precautions and prepare for evacuation, much of which has been funded by the Fellowship.

Eckstein says the main concern is that “in the past 24 hours all these riots and killings are happening two blocks away from the shul.”

Two local organizations that run schools and orphanages, Tikvah and Chabad, have a combined 3,000 children enrolled in their programs. “And they’re all downtown where the fighting is,” the rabbi said. “We are doing everything to ensure the children’s safety if this fighting continues.”

The Fellowship’s funds have been directed largely toward food supplies and security but also toward encouraging and facilitating the immigration of Jews to Israel through the Jewish Agency.

The group’s involvement in security arrangements for various Jewish communities has spanned the globe and benefited institutions in Istanbul, Morocco, Greece, Mumbai, Thailand, India and Venezuela. However, the demands of Ukraine’s Jewish institutions are among the most substantial.

Tikva in Odessa, for example, has 2,000 children under its care with multiple buildings. “They need cameras and they need walls and they need armed guards,” Eckstein said. “So just yesterday, for example, I approved an additional $70,000 to the community of Donetsk for the next six months to provide security and armed guards.”

The focus on Ukraine’s Jews is a result of the rabbi’s discretion, having been given the latitude by donors to direct the funds based on where the greatest need is within certain basic parameters. To begin with, the charity directs $25 million annually to FSU Jewry.

“When you ask why do Christians care particularly about Ukraine, the real answer is they don’t,” he explained. “The real answer is they care about the whole former Soviet Union, about helping them with food, clothing, medicine, heating fuel, children, elderly and security. That’s what I’ve taught them over the years.”

“I’m not keeping our donors in touch with what’s going on on a daily basis or an hourly basis. There comes a time when it needs Jewish leadership.”

“They have their needs,” the rabbi said of Ukraine’s Jews. “If they seem reasonable, then I just bring the money.”

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