Jewish aid groups worked well together in responding to the humanitarian crises caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, collaborating with one another instead of competing and helping ensure that Jewish refugees were well cared for, according to a survey published Wednesday.
When Russia launched its brutal invasion, a wide variety of Jewish groups, some of which were experts in humanitarian aid and others that had only limited experience in the field, were forced to spring into action as Ukrainian cities and towns were bombed. These attacks caused both a massive refugee crisis — the largest in Europe since World War II — as people fled their homes, and major issues for those who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave.
To assess the response of those groups to these crises, the OLAM network of Jewish and Israeli global service, international development and humanitarian aid organizations commissioned a survey, having researchers conduct intensive interviews — with a promise of anonymity — with 25 representatives of 21 organizations. They included the Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV, the Jewish Agency for Israel, World Jewish Relief, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Chabad, HIAS, IsraAID and others. The report was compiled by Rosov Consulting, a company that specializes in giving advice to Jewish organizations.
In addition to assessing past work, the survey also made recommendations for the future. The report called for Jewish groups to stake out roles for different groups in advance, to maintain healthy finances to ensure both day-to-day operations and emergency responses, to learn to cooperate with grassroots operations, and to invest in local networks.
“We commissioned this report from Rosov Consulting as a means of educating the general Jewish public about how their charitable dollars were making a difference, galvanizing continued Jewish philanthropic support for the crisis and its ongoing needs, and sparking conversations among Jewish groups and humanitarian aid organizations related to future crises,” OLAM’s CEO Dyonna Ginsburg said.
The survey found that even the best-prepared organizations were shocked by the “scale and magnitude of tragedy of the war [which were] beyond our worst fears,” as one respondent said.
Some organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad, had significant presence in Ukraine before the war, making them indispensable to other groups for logistics and for their existing relationships with local governments and organizations.
The survey found that the various Jewish and Israeli groups operating in Ukraine collaborated rather than competed, with each using its specific skills and experience to help in different ways.
“If you are a Jew in Ukraine, between all of the organizations involved, someone is going to provide you with a response. And they may all do it together: JDC gives us the money, someone else gives us the food, at the border JAFI puts you on a plane, and another organization supports you when you arrive in Israel,” one interviewee said.
According to the survey, the collaborations mostly came about organically as members of the organizations were often members of “informal grassroots networks, WhatsApp groups, and coordination efforts.”
These connections were described by the respondents as superior to similar partnerships in the past.
“In general, Jewish organizations collaborate right now better than they have in the last 10 years,” one interviewee said.
In part, the ability of the different groups to work together and to respond nimbly to the crisis was credited to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced organizations to become savvy users of technology.
“COVID taught us that we are well-placed to respond quickly. By the next day [following the invasion] we transferred funds to our partners; we had a flexible, responsive funding structure. We had funding available to do what they think is necessary,” an interviewee from a large, wealthy organization said.
The report was not solely glowingly positive, however. The interviewees also identified a number of problems and conundrums that arose in the rescue efforts.
One of those was the involvement of well-meaning but untrained volunteers who arrived in Ukraine and neighboring countries after the Russian invasion.
The survey’s authors found that while the professionals appreciated the desire and the energy of such volunteers, they felt they did “more harm than good,” as one respondent put it.
Some volunteers arrived without knowing Russian or with no experience in distributing aid, for instance.
“There is so much goodwill, but it is unproductive,” the respondent said.
Interviewees also warned of potential burnout of both volunteers on the ground and donors for their efforts.
“We are not sleeping, constantly on the move, constantly trying to help with things. Your personal life and health suffer in doing this, you really make a sacrifice, because you’re trying to save lives. There is a challenge in maintaining the high level of energy throughout. The burnout risk is real,” one interviewee said.
Interviewees also expressed concerns that donors would lose interest as the war grinds on but fades from the headlines.
“As [the crisis] declines from attention, how will we raise funds to keep the response going? As attention fades, excitement has passed, sustainable financial elements will be a bigger challenge,” one respondent said.
For Jewish and Israeli organizations, the war in Ukraine evoked thoughts of the Holocaust, which all of the interviewees said motivated them to act, according to the survey.
“We feel close to this. It’s Europe, many Israelis and Jews around the world have ancestors from this part of the world. There is definitely a Shoah resonance: ‘They didn’t help us then, 80 years ago, so now we’ll show them that we can help now.’
There is a psychological element to it,” one respondent said.
Yet while all of the respondents cited the Holocaust as a motivator and one-fifth said they were principally concerned with helping Ukraine’s Jewish population, the majority of the interviewees said they were uncomfortable with directing aid solely to Jews.
“Close to one-third of those interviewed reported that they serve all populations affected by the crisis in Ukraine. Most interviewees expressed discomfort with the concept of prioritizing aid to Jews, emphasizing that their organizations and networks were truly providing aid to all refugees, regardless of Jewish identity or affiliation,” the authors of the report wrote.
Some respondents also noted that there were major international efforts underway to help Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, while other refugees do not garner the same assistance.
“There is a huge difference with this crisis. These refugees are blond, Caucasian, white-skinned, with blue eyes. That is all the difference… Hundreds of thousands of Afghani refugees trying to find shelter in Europe right now, they are also fleeing war. How many Jewish organizations or Israeli organizations are helping them?” one interviewee said.