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'Volunteers can't wait at gas stations while bombs fall'

In Ukraine, Jewish charity buys 40 electric cars as fuel crisis hinders aid delivery

As costs of food, medicine and gasoline rise along with the number of recipients who require them, humanitarian groups maximize efficiency ahead of what they see as a long haul

A woman takes out an aid package from an electric car owned by the Jewish Federations of Ukraine in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 1, 2022. (Courtesy of the Jewish Federations of Ukraine/ via JTA)
A woman takes out an aid package from an electric car owned by the Jewish Federations of Ukraine in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 1, 2022. (Courtesy of the Jewish Federations of Ukraine/ via JTA)

JTA — Negotiating the bomb-scarred roads of eastern Ukraine is the easy part of Ilya Pulin’s day as he delivers food and medicine across the region as a volunteer.

The difficult part, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, is finding and paying for fuel in the war-torn country.

Since Russia invaded in February, “fuel prices have doubled. There are hour-long lines at petrol stations. And until a few days ago there was a five-gallon ration per person,” said Pulin, a 38-year-old Jewish father of two in Dnipro who works as a science professor specializing in thermodynamics.

“You can easily wait for six, seven hours at select fuel stations and, until recently, you only got five gallons. It’s very difficult,” Pulin said.

To solve this problem, which is affecting aid providers all over the country, the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine has spent over $2 million buying a fleet of 40 electric cars — including some made by Volvo — that it is distributing this month to communities like Pulin’s.

“It’s going to save lives,” said Shlomo Salomon, the rabbi of the eastern city of Kremenchuk, where one member of the Jewish community is on life support after the war disrupted his access to a crucial medicine he required.

The cost of cars, including electric cars, has shot up globally amid parts shortages and other pandemic-induced changes. But even at an average price tag of $50,000 each, the cars are seen as a smart buy as Ukrainian-Jewish aid groups and volunteers use their extensive ties and funding sources in the West to adapt quickly to situations as they unfold during the five-month long Russian invasion.

Amid the war’s surge both in the needs of aid recipients and the price of extending aid — in addition to fuel, medicine and food prices have also skyrocketed — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, is seeing unexpected returns on investments it made several years ago, according to Amos Lev-Ran, the director of JDC’s division for external relations in the former Soviet Union.

One of them is JDC’s switch from delivering food and medicines to needy Jews to a system where the recipients can get those items themselves at a supermarket near them, using a card preloaded with payments. Another is the JOINTECH system that allows caregivers and others to connect to elderly and other aid recipients online to combat loneliness without the need for travel.

“All of the adaptations that we made over the past few years are really benefiting us now, and saving a lot of costs,” Amos Lev-Ran said.

Illustrative: Holocaust survivor and refugee Tatyna Ryabaya, 99, and her daughter sit on a bed in a hotel room in Moldova after fleeing Ukraine before flying to Israel on a special medical transport flight on April 27, 2022. (International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

In Mykolaiv, a southern city that is the birthplace of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty, the fuel shortage is having a cooling effect on the willingness of volunteers to show up for errands, according to Sholom Gotlieb, a Chabad rabbi who’s been living in the city for the past 25 years.

“There’s a solidarity and willingness to sacrifice, but after 160 days of war, there’s only so much you can ask,” he said.

Waiting for hours for a fuel ration at a flammable gas station amid unrelenting Russian bombing is “not something that’s reasonable to expect from a volunteer,” said the rabbi, whose wife and 10 children left for his homeland of Israel after the war broke out.

At least a third of his community of about 2,000 people have also left the city, including the wife and children of Pulin, the science professor. Helen Pulina, an English teacher, is staying in Israel. Her husband had to stay behind because of emergency rules that prevent most men under 60 from leaving Ukraine. She is planning on settling in Israel and awaits the moment her husband is allowed to join her.

“I’m studying Hebrew, settling in. Starting something new. Very unexpected but there you have it,” she said.

In the first half of 2022, more than 12,000 people left Ukraine for Israel under its law of return for Jews and their relatives — roughly four times the tally of the whole of 2021. The dimensions of this Jewish exodus from Ukraine, which had at least 47,000 Jews in 2020, are probably far larger as many thousands of additional Jews have left for Europe, the United States and beyond.

Holocaust survivors rescued from the war in Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, April 27, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Does this movement mean fewer Jews require aid back in Ukraine?

“The opposite is true,” said Gotlieb.

Those who leave tend to be young and have the means to make a move on short notice, he said. Those who stay often move in with families outside city centers, which are more likely to be targeted by Russian rockets. This makes food delivery and aid routes longer, especially in the sprawling city of Mykolaiv and the many villages scattered around it.

And then there are those that JDC calls “the new poor” — middle-class families or individuals that have been pushed into requiring aid for the first time by the financial crisis brought on by the war, as millions of jobs in Ukraine evaporated and the local currency plunged into a tailspin. Since war broke out, JDC has seen about 1,000 “new poor” Jews join its list of about 37,000 aid recipients.

Internally displaced Jews, who moved to what they hope is a safer location than where their home is, are another new and vulnerable group for JDC and other Jewish aid providers to care for.

The number of Ukrainian Jews living in the country before the war is disputed. The European Jewish Congress says they numbered at least 360,000, whereas a major survey from 2020 of the demography of Jewish communities in Europe estimated the community to be no larger than 47,000. Either way, aid recipients made up a sizable chunk of the community even before the war.

It will go from bad to worse, according to Rabbi Meir Stambler, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the Chabad-affiliated group.

“Clearly, a lot of people are going to be plunged into poverty because of the war, during it and for years to follow,” he told JTA.

Preparing for that reality means tightening all kinds of belts, starting with the price of getting to and transporting the recipients, he said.

“The electric cars are going to operate at a fraction of the cost of fuel-burning ones,” Stambler added. “It’s one of those actions that are needed urgently now — and are also required to prepare for what’s coming.”

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