(JNS) A high-level Jewish Federations of North America delegation experienced the complexity of Ukrainian life this week.
Eric Fingerhut, JFNA’s president and CEO, and 11 others landed in Ukraine on Monday, kicking off a solidarity mission with visits planned to war-torn communities. Federations leaders assessed on-the-ground needs and examined the impact of the group’s philanthropy, which has generated significant financial assistance to Ukrainians under siege.
The delegation spent Monday night in Lviv, a relatively safe city in the western region of the country. “By all outward appearances, it’s life as normal. It’s a big city, beautiful city and the streets were full of people,” Fingerhut told JNS, after visiting with internally-displaced people, who fled the danger of eastern Ukraine.
“It was a beautiful summer day. People were out in the park. They were working,” Fingerhut said. “Yet, so much of what has been going on here relates to the war.”
The delegation ended up spending that night in a bomb shelter.
‘The closeness of it’
Delegation members, who had been told to keep their passports and clothes near their beds in case of emergency, were awoken by the security team around 4 a.m. Air raid sirens blared in what is thought to be the largest Russian attack in Lviv since the start of Moscow’s invasion last year.
“There were people killed, and we understand it was maybe a half hour from where we were,” Fingerhut said. “We weren’t in any immediate danger ourselves, but the closeness of it, and the fact that the next morning, we got up and went to our visits and saw the places where we’ve been helping support people to live and to escape… Everyone’s exhausted.”
This was the first mission of its kind to Ukraine led by a major Jewish organization since war broke out 18 months ago.
“At one point in Ukraine, we were about 40 miles from four country borders—Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania,” Fingerhut said. “It was probably the most populous Jewish area in the world once. Probably half of American Jews are descended from the millions who lived here.”
‘They were so overjoyed’
Leaders across JFNA communities, including California, Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio, along with chairs of JFNA’s women’s philanthropy national group and its national young leadership cabinet, joined Fingerhut.
J. David Heller, JFNA national campaign chair and Ukraine Response Task Force chair, told JNS that the delegation expected to see great work from its partners, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Center, Jewish Agency for Israel and Chabad. “We did and that was incredible,” he said.
“What I didn’t expect was what it meant to the internally-displaced people that we visited with,” he added. “They were so overjoyed that people from the United States would take their time to enter into a war-torn country, to visit with them, to give them comfort and love. That totally blew me away.”
The itinerary included stops at sites for displaced people serviced by Federations partners. Delegates visited JDC’s Hesed Arieh in Lviv, which, according to JFNA, provides human services, material and medical assistance and Jewish programming for the city’s elderly and poor and the wider Jewish community.
“The amount of activity passing into that one building from all sides is unbelievable,” Heller told JNS.
“On the first floor, we met with a group of seniors. On the second floor, they were introducing new programming. Young children were on the third floor with their activities and on the fourth floor there were intergenerational chess games going on for young kids and seniors,” he said.
The basement houses the building’s trauma center, including facilities for individual and group therapy.
The delegation also met with internally-displaced Jews housed in a JDC hotel in Truskavets, and headed to a Jewish Agency overnight summer camp for Jewish children ages 7 to 12 in Polyana.
In Western Ukraine, the group observed an aliyah preparations seminar, where those considering moving to Israel spent a few days better understanding the process. The visit to the center held particular weight for Heller.
“My grandfather on my mother’s side left the country in 1922, just over 100 years ago. If he hadn’t, I might have been one of the people in that room today,” he said.
‘As normal as possible’
The delegation concluded the mission in Hungary with briefings from the Jewish Agency, JDC and the JCC Budapest Balint Haz about their relief efforts. A visit was also scheduled to the JDC-Lauder Youth Camp in Szarvas, a Jewish identity and leadership building summer program for youth from dozens of countries.
Fingerhut told JNS that the Ukrainian mindset is that the war will not end anytime soon. The goal is to encourage the consistency and vibrancy of Jewish life throughout the country during incredibly challenging times which includes providing housing, health care, education and security.
“We visited bomb shelters that we’ve helped build through our partners at the Jewish Agency, security cameras and other alarms that have been put on synagogue buildings that we’ve helped fund,” Fingerhut told JNS.
“We’ve visited the housing where people are staying, and programs for their kids through our partners at the Joint, and the work of Chabad and Hillel in Lviv,” he said. “They want to keep the ability to participate in Jewish life, as normal as possible, even as the war goes on.”
On Tuesday morning, the delegation visited a Chabad synagogue in Lviv that had been built and opened during the war. The building includes JFNA-funded security cameras, alarms and shelters.
“We are in a warzone with rockets landing, and we got up the next morning and went to meet with internally-displaced people and found that for them, life goes on,” Heller said. “This is a resilient society that didn’t stay in their houses. They came out and they understood the importance of that socialization, of the services that they need, and they showed up.”
Following a visit to a Hillel center in Lviv, Fingerhut said several hundred people participated there, including many new, young people who transferred from universities around the country.
“The Hillel is very active, along with synagogue life. Even in the hotels and apartment buildings that the Joint, with our support, has been putting up families in to keep Jewish things going or teaching kids—they’re keeping music, arts and culture going so that the community feels intact,” Fingerhut said.
He emphasized that Jewish life is helping connect people and keep them in their routines to the extent possible during a traumatic period.
To date, Federations have raised more than $90 million for humanitarian aid and relief for Ukrainians, and have sent more than 150 Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking Jewish volunteers to placements on the Ukraine border and in neighboring countries, along with providing support and advocacy efforts in resettling refugees in North America.