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May 20, 2014 6:51 pm

We Must Stand With the Jews in Ukraine

avatar by Yechiel Eckstein

A vandal firebombing the Noklayev Synagogue, in Ukraine, on April 19, 2014, as recorded by closed-circuit security cameras. Photo: Screenshot / Yisroel Gotlieb.

A vandal firebombing the Noklayev Synagogue, in Ukraine, on April 19, 2014, as recorded by closed-circuit security cameras. Photo: Screenshot / Yisroel Gotlieb.

Lag B’Omer is supposed to be a day of joy, celebration, and spiritual renewal. But there is little to celebrate for the Jews of Ukraine, who live now in a country where conflict, lack of order, and the threat of war have become daily realities.

Representatives of the partner organizations that the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) works with regularly in Ukraine tell a sobering story. One rabbi recently wrote me a message telling of the continual feeling of uncertainty that pervades life in Ukraine today, and the toll it takes on the Jewish community: “Our situation remains tense, but mostly unstable. Every day you hear something else. One day it seems as if the situation has calmed down, the next day it seems as if there will be war…. This instability destroys the mental wellbeing of the community and, as a result, the economy as a whole.” Another wrote, bluntly, “The situation in Donetsk is extremely bad; it is real anarchy. There are loads of prisoners, thieves, and armed people in the streets. People are scared.”

I saw this firsthand during my trip to Ukraine earlier this year, and am seeing it again now, on my second trip here to assess needs and to express solidarity with the Ukrainian Jewish community. The sense of fear is palpable; Jews know the long history of anti-Semitism that has plagued this region, and know that the current disorder could lead, and has led in some cases, to a sharp spike in anti-Semitism. Their fear is warranted.

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Months ago, as soon as it became clear that the situation in Ukraine was deteriorating, we knew The Fellowship‘s response had to be quick and decisive. We stay out of the politics, but have managed, thanks to the generosity of our donors, not just to continue, but greatly increase our humanitarian aid to those in need in this troubled region. Our efforts are devoted to providing food and medicine to the most vulnerable, particularly the elderly and children, and to filling Jewish institutions’ requests for help with security needs, which have multiplied exponentially. Delivering aid in the current atmosphere can be, to say the least, challenging – volunteers put their lives at risk to bring assistance to those who need it – and we have had to make some adjustments. For instance, we support soups kitchen in Ukraine year round, but since it is now dangerous for people to go out, we recently put more effort into delivering food boxes.

Our programs throughout the former Soviet Union are only possible because of our Christian supporters, who give year round to fund programs that feed, clothe, and offer shelter to the neediest people. In emergencies, those same Christian supporters have never failed to step forward and give additional funds that allow us to cover the additional, unforeseen needs that arise in times of crisis. I am so grateful that they are quick to show their deep love for the Jewish people both in prayer and also materially, by providing financial assistance to help Jews in times of turmoil. It is this faithful partnership that allows us to respond immediately in times of crisis — to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, and to offer protection to those victimized by hateful anti-Semitism.

We can learn much from our Christian friends. We in the worldwide Jewish community need to do more for the Jews of Ukraine – to respond immediately in crises such as this, offering  the material, spiritual, and emotional support that will let them know that they are not alone, that someone cares. I am reminded of the biblical verse where God says to the exiled Israelites, “I am with you during your times of pain and trouble.” This is what the Ukrainian Jewish community needs from us. Certainly, we have the resources to raise a quick response to offer emergency aid; but do we have the will? That is the critical question, and the answer to it will say much about who we are as a people.

Rabbi Eckstein is the Founder and President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

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