'The poor just become poorer and poorer'

As Russian invasion threat looms, charities find it harder to support Ukraine’s Jews

With inflation and unemployment rising, organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee adapt to continue serving tens of thousands of elderly and poor clients

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A Joint Distribution Committee worker hands food and PPE to a Jewish client in Kharkiv, Ukraine (courtesy JDC) .
A Joint Distribution Committee worker hands food and PPE to a Jewish client in Kharkiv, Ukraine (courtesy JDC) .

KYIV, Ukraine — As tensions continue to rise on the Ukraine-Russia border, humanitarian organizations warned that the elderly and impoverished Ukrainian Jews they service are facing a new set of challenges as a result of the potential conflict.

“When the latest tensions started, it just added to a situation that was already not good for the general population and the poor,” said Dani Gershcovich, the Joint Distribution Committee’s Kyiv-based representative who oversees the organization’s work in central and western Ukraine.

“The new situation doesn’t contribute to anyone,” he told The Times of Israel over lunch last Wednesday at the Taki Da restaurant in Podil, the capital’s historic Jewish quarter. “It doesn’t help, it doesn’t calm things down, it doesn’t improve the economic situation here, it doesn’t create new jobs. The poor, for whom we are their lifeline, just become poorer and poorer. What will happen in a month? What will happen in two months?”

Russia’s troop build-up — and, it must be said, dire Western warnings — have already taken their toll on Ukraine’s economy. The Ukrainian hryvnia has dropped to a yearly low against the US dollar, international companies are pulling their employees out of the country and foreign investment has ground to a halt.

Aid organizations now have to figure out how to provide the same services, many of which are life-saving, with much less.

“If we could repair two rooms for the money that we had, now it’s not easy to repair even one,” said Julia Goldenberg, who founded the All-Ukrainian Charitable Fund -To You in 2013. “If months ago the price of cabbage was 11 hryvnia per kilo, now it’s 22.”

Beyond the very real economic impact, which makes it even harder for many poor Jews to afford gas and electricity, there is also psychological stress.

“People are feeling afraid,” said Goldenberg. “People don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Sitting in her office in Kyiv’s Kurenevka neighborhood, Goldenberg spoke about an unexpected pain that many elderly Jews are experiencing now. “They got used [to it] that Russians were our neighbors, good neighbors. Now all this escalation is very painful.”

She told of a 92-year old man, his chest covered in medals from his World War II service in the Soviet army. “I’m so unhappy that I’m still alive,” she recalled him telling her. “I couldn’t even imagine that I would watch Russia attacking Ukraine.”

A Joint Distribution Committee delivers food before the Shavuot holiday to a Jewish client in Sumy, Ukraine (courtesy JDC)

“When you get to an elderly lady, and she tells you, these are the pills I need for cancer,” related the Joint’s Gershcovich. “The pills cost 6000 hryvnia a month. My pension is 1800.”

“What about gas? What about water? What about electricity which is eight times more expensive now in some places? How are they supposed to pay for that?”

“I’m following the news,” said Vera Y., a 68-year-old Kyiv resident who participates in many programs at one of the Joint’s Heseds, or social welfare centers. “I cannot say that I’m panicking or worrying about the war. I wake up every day and pray to the God that everything will be ok— there is no other way for us. I’m trying to cheer up my fellow seniors from the Hesed if they start to worry about it.”

The Joint

The Joint Distribution Committee – or Joint – which describes itself as the largest Jewish humanitarian organization in the world, operates seven Jewish community centers and 18 Heseds in Ukraine. They serve over 37,000 elderly Ukrainian Jews, including 9,900 Holocaust survivors.

The Joint considers as Jewish anyone eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return — that is, people with at least one Jewish grandparent.

Most of the funding comes from the German government through the Claims Conference, which represents Jewish victims of Nazis and their heirs.

Gershcovich said the Joint is in regular contact with the German Embassy in Kyiv about its needs. Amid the recent tensions, those conversations have focused on the impact of inflation on the clients and on salaries for their 7,000-8,000 Ukrainian workers.

A Joint Distribution Committee worker hands food to a Jewish client in Odessa, Ukraine (courtesy JDC)

The relationship is extremely positive, said Gershcovich. “They come with open arms and willing hearts into conversations like this.”

The Joint in Ukraine has an annual budget of around $66 million, $63 million of which goes to caring for Holocaust survivors. Most of that goes to caretakers for the elderly.

The Joint is better equipped to operate under the threat of war because of its adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic, explained Gerschcovich.

“In some ways, we’re lucky we had corona in this period,” he said. “Because many of the things we learned to do during corona make our work easier in the current tensions.”

The Joint decided to stop all their in-person activities for senior citizens in early 2020, which included clubs, day centers. and events around Jewish holidays.

While the cancellation of events was designed to protect the elderly clients, Gershcovich is well aware that the activities themselves also save lives. “When someone doesn’t have a reason to get up in the morning, he withers,” he said.

Joint Distribution Committee employee Alexei Lidovsky launched an initiative to bring tablet computers to elderly in isolation across the former Soviet bloc. (Courtesy JDC)

Some residents did whatever they could to meet their friends at Joint JCCs or Heseds. A 92-year-old former table tennis Olympian named Wolf used to compete  with his friends at a Joint JCC every day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. When the Joint shut down its in-person programs, the friends discovered that the center was renting out its space to outside groups. They got their money together, called the Joint, and tried to rent the table tennis room instead.

Their ruse was quickly discovered, but they were promised that they would be the first to be notified when in-person programming resumed.

Some activities have since restarted, but last week, as Western leaders warned that an invasion was imminent, the Joint closed its offices and had everyone working from home.

The Joint went through a “technological revolution” over the past two years, Gershcovich said. The Jointech-FSU initiative distributed user-friendly smartphones to isolated elderly clients, which allowed them to easily contact caretakers and participate in online programming.

That same technology will come in handy if offices remain closed.

“If you told me two years ago I’m working from home, I would have said, what?” said Gerschcovich.

Despite the ongoing economic downturn in the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Joint decided not to fire a single one of its Ukrainian workers.

“We didn’t want to send anyone home, because we knew exactly where we were sending them,” said Gerschcovich.

‘Not panicking’

When Vera Y. was a girl growing up in Podil, her father would go to synagogue and observed the holidays. As she grew up and became a factory worker, labor representative, and employee of the National Research Institute, her connection to Judaism waned.

When she retired, a friend told her about the services provided by the Hesed, and her relationship with Judaism changed.

Kyiv reisdnet Vera Y. (courtesy JDC)

“I participate in every holiday that is celebrated in Hesed,” she told The Times of Israel. “It’s a tradition for me now – if any celebration takes place in Hesed – I will be there! And for me – my tradition that I’m proud of is the lightning of Hanukkah candles. I light them each year because it’s very important for me.”

The social aspect of the Hesed‘s programming is especially important for her, she said.

“You know, I love company, and programs give me a chance to connect with people so I can feel better…We are glad that they remember us and help us.  I will say for myself—it is challenging to me to imagine my life without Joint’s programs.”

Vera said she has adapted to the online offerings, and particularly enjoys virtual concerts and theater.

Vyacheslav P., a 72-year-old graphic artist, still creates works though he is officially retired. He didn’t come from an especially religious family.

“I wasn’t connected to the Jewish community back then, but we used to go to synagogue to celebrate Purim, Rosh HaShanah, and Yom Kippur,” Vyacheslav said. “We used to make a Seder for Pesach [Passover]. Maybe it wasn’t a classic Seder, but it definitely was a Seder.”

He was forced to retire suddenly after a heart attack. He was told about the Hesed and, being something of an introvert, enjoyed spending time in the library and reading the newspaper.

Kyiv resident and retired artist Vyacheslav Y (courtesy JDC)

“Nowadays,” Vyacheslav said, “everything is transferred to the Internet, and I’m trying to keep up with things, so I’m used to reading news and literature online.”

He said he is following the news about the tensions with Russia. “I’m not panicking, and I’m not worried about it,” he said.

Not all the Joint’s services are for the elderly, explained Gershcovich. The organization provides for over 2,500 children, many of whom live in appalling conditions.

“As an Israeli who came here, I didn’t understand what living on $2 a day meant,” he said.

He knows families who live in crumbling apartment buildings with communal bathrooms and showers at the hall.

“The mother tells me she wakes up her kids at 4 a.m. for the bathroom, otherwise there will be a line and they won’t get in, and then they have to go outside.”

Without the Joint’s support, which will continue even in case of a conflict, many Ukrainian Jews would struggle to survive.

“Every time I go into an apartment, and I see that the gas, and the toaster, and the microwave, everything comes from the assistance of the claims conference, from the Heseds, through the JDC, and I see she has medicine, and she has a caretaker,” said Gershcovich.

‘We owe them’

Goldenberg, whose grandfather fought against the Nazis in the Red Army and scratched his name into Berlin’s Reichstag in 1945, grew up in Kyiv without deep knowledge of Judaism.

“We always had matzah at home,” she explained. “I knew that it was for Passover. I would join my friends on Easter for their very delicious Easter cake, and I would come with matzah, but it wasn’t explained exactly what it was.”

ACF 2U founder Julia Goldenberg holding a book her organization published on Ukrainian Righteous among the Nations, February 16, 2022 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

She also remembered her family celebrating a “very strange new year,” and saying in Yiddish “a gut yontif, a gut yor [happy holiday, a good year].”

Goldenberg founded ACF 2U in 2013. Though the charity also helps many non-Jews, much of its work is with elderly Jewish Ukrainians, especially Holocaust survivors.

The organization, the board members of which are all non-Jews, partners with the British charity World Jewish Relief to maintain the homes of elderly Jews in Ukraine.

Ukrainian Righteous among the Nations at a reception in their honor hosted by ACF 2U (courtesy ACF 2U)

There is also a special focus on non-Jewish Ukrainians who saved Jews during the Holocaust, also known as Righteous among the Nations.

Goldenberg’s organization provides them with monthly food packages, medication, and medical consultations. Volunteers also repair their homes.

“We are pretty often their link with this world,” said Goldenberg, whose own relatives were murdered in the Babyn Yar ravine in 1941.

Every year, ACF 2U hosts a major reception with Kyiv’s mayor to honor those who saved Jews from the Nazis, which include the Righteous of Babyn Yar, and those who were at risk as children because their parents were protecting Jews.

Goldenberg’s paternal grandmother was rescued by a Polish non-Jewish man whose full name she didn’t even know. “So it’s very personal, and I think we owe them, all of them.”

ACF 2U worked with Ukraine’s postal service to design a stamp honoring the righteous, which was unveiled in an official ceremony.

Some of the Righteous are still afraid to share their stories, Goldenberg explained. During the Soviet era, those who survived the Nazi occupation could be persecuted as potential collaborators.

A reception hosted by ACF 2U honoring Ukrainian Righteous among the Nations (courtesy ACF 2U)

When she started the 2U organization, Ukraine was a very different country, she said.

“It was a very peaceful place, we were very proud that it was so calm, it was so tolerant,” Goldenberg remembered. “In 2013 everything started, and we had refugees pretty soon.”

Her organization provided blankets, cigarettes, bed linens and t-shirts to Ukrainian soldiers fighting the Russians and their proxies, as well as assistance to internal refugees in Ukraine.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, the organization continued to serve all 2,300 of its clients. ACF 2U launched a psychological hotline and provided medical supplies and personal protective equipment to Ukrainian hospitals.

She has no intentions of leaving, though her relatives in Israel are trying to convince her otherwise. Her aunt in Netanya, who grew up in Lithuania, woke her up with a phone call last Sunday morning.

Following the September 1941 massacre of more than 33,000 Jews at Babyn Yar outside Kiev, the German killers and local Ukrainians ‘clean up’ the ravine and gather victims’ belongings (Public domain)

“What are you doing?” her aunt yelled through the phone. “I still remember the  Russians entering Vilna, you must fly tonight!”

Like many Russian-speaking Jews in Israel, her relatives watch Russian TV and adopt Moscow’s narrative, lamented Goldenberg.

“We are not able to cope with propaganda,” she said. “I speak to my friends and family in Israel, and they are all under Russian influence unfortunately.”

She calls herself a peaceful person, and hopes war with Russia can be avoided.

“I don’t want people to be killed,” she stressed, “but people are being murdered in the eastern part of the country already.”

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