The Jewish communities of Ukraine feel abandoned by world Jewry, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, told The Times of Israel Thursday from Odessa.
Eckstein, whose organization has donated some $135 million to Former Soviet Union countries over the past decade, flew to Ukraine this week to see the Jews there first-hand.
In his visits to Kiev, Donetsk and Odessa, he spoke with the communities’ rabbis who said no funds are coming through for their growing economic needs.
“They feel very alone and abandoned by the world Jewish community,” said Eckstein.
“They feel a sense of some panic,” said Eckstein. Though he said there is no rampant anti-Semitism, there are uncomfortable situations, citing as example the recent demonstrations in Odessa during which revolutionaries stopped at the synagogue.
And in his visit this week in Kiev, Eckstein saw what he described as “motley types of armed groups: low level people walking around with a knife or a gun, with no police out.”
Ordained by Yeshiva University in New York, Eckstein founded the IFCJ in 1983 after co-directing the department of inter-religious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. The coexistence organization began raising funds 13 years ago for Jewish and Israeli communities in need and has brought in over $800 million.
Eckstein says 99% of his organization’s 1.1 million donors are Christians who on average give $74 each. His offices in Jerusalem, Chicago, Toronto, and Seoul receive 4,500 pieces of mail a day of “broad-based gifts from every zip code in the US and Canada,” he said.
In the FSU states, the IFCJ deals with poverty and security. It supports existing frameworks of all Jewish denominations to help the needy through various efforts such as funding schools’ food, clothing and security.
In the past month, however, during violent Kiev protests and their fallout, the economic strain on average middle class citizens has become overwhelming.
“You have a situation in which some medicines have gone up 70 percent, food costs have gone up 20%, but the value of the cash has gone down,” said Eckstein.
American-born Ukraine chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich told The Times of Israel Thursday that Ukrainian Jews “feel a danger in the air. The situation is tense. Because it is so volatile. Because there is a fear of the unknown.
“The IFCJ has once again been among the first to respond to the emergency and the needs of the communities. They don’t dictate our needs to us, and they actually help. I consider them most valuable partners in the work of our communities,” Bleich said.
In the past few months, the IFCJ has increased its giving to Ukraine. It recently gave $2 million to the Joint Distribution Committee for its Ukrainian Hesed programs, $1 million to the Jewish Agency for Ukrainian immigration to Israel and $500,000 to the Jewish Agency for increased security. (Eckstein serves on the executive committee of the Joint and the Jewish Agency.)
This year it gave Chabad $6 million for its FSU missions and it recently told Chabad to reallocate the funds to focus on Ukraine.
The IFCJ, which raises $130 million dollars a year, started an emergency campaign for Ukraine two weeks ago.
The fact that Christians, mostly Protestant evangelicals, are the major donors for an organization that is larger than most Jewish bodies does not always sit easy with Jews.
“Although I started the organization 31 years ago, I still have not been able to break the stereotype that the only reason these Christians are supporting Jews and Israel is for Jews to come to Israel and accept Jesus. There are many who try to diminish what’s going on here, but the fact is we’re able to raise funds for elderly Jewish women who live alone in third floor tenements in Kiev,” he said.
“The reason is because they believe in the tanach (Bible) and the literal word of the Jewish Bible. They believe that if they want to be blessed by God, they have to bless God’s people, the Jews,” said Eckstein.
His organization also funds Arab, Druze and Bedouin communities in Israel.
From what he has seen during this week in Ukraine, his organization’s million dollar donations are not enough to change the dire situation there for the Jews.
“The world Jewish community is not responding to this crisis which is affecting a significant segment of Jews. It is not rising to the occasion,” said Eckstein.