Jewish groups shore up Ukrainian communities for an uncertain, freezing winter

As Russia bombs infrastructure, attention turns away from emigration toward keeping those still there warm and fed, with electricity, clothing and Hanukkah necessities

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A Hanukkah menora that was sent to Ukraine by Midreshet Schecter, a Masorti organization, after it was lit by a Jewish Ukrainian soldier serving near Bakhmut on December 20, 2022. (Courtesy Midreshet Schecter)
A Hanukkah menora that was sent to Ukraine by Midreshet Schecter, a Masorti organization, after it was lit by a Jewish Ukrainian soldier serving near Bakhmut on December 20, 2022. (Courtesy Midreshet Schecter)

As Russian forces continue to pound Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, causing regular power and water outages, Jewish groups have been working to shore up the country’s communities to fend off the winter cold, with generators, blankets and Hanukkah menorahs.

The latter have reached as far as the front lines of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Bakhmut, where a Jewish Ukrainian soldier, a one-time counselor in the Masorti movement, used one to mark the holiday, according to Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, the head of Midreshet Schechter, a Conservative institution that has operated in Ukraine for years.

At the start of the war, Jewish groups directed their efforts primarily toward getting people out of Ukraine, facilitating immigration into Israel as well as safe passage to Europe. As the fighting grinds on and most of those interested in leaving the country have done so, the focus has shifted to preparing the communities in Ukraine to endure the winter.

A recent survey of 600 Ukrainian Jews conducted by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews found that nearly all of them were struggling to keep warm and that most would need to choose between heating their homes and buying food. A majority, 56 percent, said they didn’t believe they’d have enough warm clothing for the coming winter.

“We’ll be providing generators to schools, old-age homes, community centers. Generators are really the most important thing because when there’s no power, there’s also no water. So there are old-age homes in Odesa that don’t have electricity and they don’t have water and they can’t cook food,” said Yael Eckstein, the president and CEO of the IFCJ, which says it has provided over $20 million of funding to Ukrainian communities since the start of the fighting.

Earlier this month, Eckstein’s group announced it was transferring an additional $6.5 million to organizations that work on the ground in Ukraine.

A Jewish Ukrainian woman holds a Hanukkah menorah that was given to her by the International Fellow of Christians and Jews. (Courtesy/IFCJ)

“We’re also working with our partners to drill wells for water, to set up generators, to provide blankets and emergency army-quality gear to get ready for the winter. As the needs change, we’ll be ready to provide more aid,” she said.

Eckstein noted that immigration to Israel has slowed — from hundreds of people each week to prewar levels of a few dozen — but she said her group was prepared to scale up immigration flights rapidly if need be.

But while the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has been providing generators to Jewish communities, Eckstein acknowledged that running them — both in Ukraine and in neighboring Moldova, where the organization also operates, is increasingly difficult and in some cases not financially feasible due to rising fuel costs and rising inflation.

“This is literally what keeps me up at night,” she said.

The global economic downturn has also raised concerns about IFCJ’s ability to raise money, as its funders may not be able to donate at the same levels as in the past.

International Fellowship of Christians and Jews head Yael Eckstein distributes a Passover food box. (Olivier Fitusi)

“The past few months we’ve started to see a slight softening, but I believe our donors will do whatever is necessary. Our donors have over and over again come through to meet the needs of Holocaust survivors and the Jewish people under threat,” Eckstein said.

“But is it something I worry about? Yes, I worry. I am constantly looking at the numbers and tracking the latest trends. I am sure that inflation will affect our donors, but it might not necessarily affect their donations. I believe that our donors will step up to do whatever is needed to help these Jewish people in Ukraine,” she said.

Fortifying communities

For Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, the aid her institution provides to Ukraine is focused on fortifying the small but lively Masorti communities in the country, though Midreshet Schechter was involved in the initial evacuation effort as well.

“We have four communities in Ukraine: the community in Kyiv; the community in Odesa; the community in Kharkiv, which is, as you know, in the most problematic situation; and the community in Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, which hosted most of the members of our other communities who had to flee their cities,” Gritsevskaya said.

Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, the head of Midreshet Schechter, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

The St. Petersburg-born, Tel Aviv-based Masorti rabbi has visited Ukraine several times during the war, particularly around holidays to host prayer services. She estimates that there were approximately 1,000 dedicated members of the Masorti communities in Ukraine, some of whom have since resettled in either Israel or Europe.

“The first time I went there was for Purim. It was less than three weeks after the beginning of the war. It was an incredible experience. We crossed the border [from Romania] into Ukraine and saw all the refugees — women and children — coming in the opposite direction. We were the only ones entering Ukraine through the border,” she said.

“There was no megilla in Chernivtsi, so we brought it with us, carrying it through the border, and we had a megilla reading there,” Gritsevskaya said, referring to the scroll of the Book of Esther, which is read on the Purim holiday.

She went back in the spring to put on a Passover Seder for over 100 people and helped the Conservative Ramah camp network put on a summer camp for Ukrainian kids in Romania.

A Jewish Ukrainian family in Odesa receives a care package from Midreshet Schecter during Hanukkah in December 2022. (Courtesy/Midreshet Schecter)

Gritsevskaya said she was working on three main areas ahead of the winter: helping members of her communities find employment; sending aid packages for Hanukkah; and fortifying Jewish community centers.

“We prepared kits that included warm blankets, warm sweatshirts, a kippah, a Hanukkah menora and sets of 44 candles so that everyone will be able to light in places like Kharkiv, where I can’t get to right now,” she said.

One such kit made it to the aforementioned soldier serving on the Bakhmut front, she said. For security reasons, Gritsevskaya did not want his name or other details to be published.

Care packages from Midreshet Schecter are prepared ahead of Hanukkah in December 2022. (Courtesy/Midreshet Schecter)

Amid the ongoing power outages and other infrastructure issues in Ukraine, Gritsevskaya said her organization was working to ensure that the Masorti community centers were “a place where everything works,” where there is consistent electricity and internet access, where people can safely gather.

“They have a generator and internet connection of some kind. We want to open our communities for the most amount of time possible so that people will be able to just come and meet each other and have a peaceful place,” she said.

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