Rabbi Mason from Muswell Hill Synagogue has just returned from Ukraine visiting World Jewish Relief's projects and speaking with participants. He shares his thoughts below.
I wrote this following an emotional trip to Zaporozhye in eastern Ukraine, an hour’s drive from Dnepropetrovsk. On the first day we visited two homes, supported by the World Jewish Relief’s Home Repairs scheme, which does what it says on the tin. The great thing about this help is that it fills a real need for the many Jews who live in Zaporozhye and in other parts of Ukraine. World Jewish Relief and the Joint consider carefully how money that is raised can be used in ways that maintain the dignity of the recipients of this money. And that is something that is so important to me as a Rabbi and religious Jew.
The first evening was spent partly at the Synagogue in Zaporozhye. The Synagogue building itself cost over $4 million which contrasted starkly to the difficult conditions many find themselves in, in present day Ukraine. The economy is suffering, and the economic woes are deepening due to the conflict in the east of Ukraine. We were told that due to the closing of the Ukraine/Russia border, fuel prices have risen by 6 times. This means that a large amount of people’s disposable income will be spent on utility bills.
The Rabbi of the Synagogue, Rabbi Eherentreu, himself helps many people in the town who are in need. He is careful to help those who are halachically Jewish, although he is sensitive he says to those who are not. The Joint and World Jewish Relief apply the definition of the State of Israel’s Law of Return, allowing them to help a wider audience. This does often mean in Ukraine that there is a difference and even slight tension between the Rabbi, often Lubavitch, and the local Joint Chesed projects. It was positive to see that the Rabbi worked with the local projects in a number of ways. We were all pleased however to daven maariv in the Shul and have a nice dinner there.
On the second day, after Shacharit, we spent a number of hours in the local Jewish Community Centre (JCC), funded partly through World Jewish Relief. Its director, Ennesia, was incredible and guided us round many vibrant groups, such as a Yiddish speaking group, a kindergarten, a group for those with disability and a dance group. We really had a great time there, being treated to a show by a couple both who require a wheelchair to get around. Their show began with use of a Ukrainian flag and ended with an Israeli flag. You could feel that many local Jewish people had felt more Ukrainian since the conflict in the Donbas region. What is tragic is that people who flee the eastern region, from Donetzk and Luhansk, are suspected by other Ukrainians as being supporters of the Russian backed rebels. This makes it harder for them to get jobs in the places to which they move.
We did in fact get to talk to a number of ‘IDPs’, or Internally Displaced People. There are about 1.5 million IDPs in Ukraine now, and within this number are a few thousand Jews. We heard some difficult stories, especially from a lady called Ekaterina. She was driven out of the war area by a friend while carrying her two month old baby. She told us how a drunken rebel soldier stopped the car and pointed his gun into the back of the car where she was sitting, right at her child. He asked for some papers and then beckoned the car on. Ekaterina broke down telling this story, as did our interpreter, Anna. Others told stories of parts of their buildings being hit by bombs and realising that it was time to leave. Some of them would love to go back to their homes – others do not believe that will be possible and are looking to build new lives.
I was of course, comparing these stories to what I saw on the Greek/Macedonian border a few weeks ago. There, refugees from Syria and Afghanistan were leaving to find refuge in completely different cultural settings. In Ukraine, there is the pain of leaving home, although most of those fleeing are remaining in towns not far from home and within the home culture.
We were very impressed by the Livelihoods Development Programme that took place at the JCC which looks to help train people in ways that will make it easier for them to find work. This programme was being tailored for the new influx of IDPs and was quite successful in helping many find work.
We spent more time with IDPs on the third day of our trip. The local Chabad School, run by Rabbi Eherentreu, was housing a number of families who were fleeing from the east of Ukraine and the conflict zone in one wing of the school. We were able to sit with a number of these individuals and families to ask them about life back in Donbas and ask what things were like in Zaporozhye. It was wonderful that the local school could house them, but this clearly would need to be a temporary abode for them. One couple were in their 80s and had to leave everything. The husband did not believe that he would go back to Donetsk, where he came from.
Overall, this intense trip was a real privilege. To be able to converse with people who live there, to see the everyday difficulties that they live through but also to see a vibrant Jewish community there was just incredible. I was also able to connect to fundraising that is happening in my community, Muswell Hill. We are raising money for a Warm Home project in the town of Rovno, western Ukraine. We attended a Warm Home in Zaporozhye, where a number of elderly men and women are brought together in one individual or couple’s home about twice a month and have some social time together.
We all came home having had our eyes opened to the extent of Jewish life in Ukraine, and the vast needs which need to be met, and are being met by organisations such as World Jewish Relief. It brought home the concept that as a people, we are all guarantors for each other.