Risking life and limb, Hesed network continues caring for Ukraine’s neediest Jews

Staff of JDC group work on laptops from home to provide services, and some social workers move in with homebound Jews to ensure continued care, even as fighting rages around them

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A Hesed social worker hugs a client in Odesa on Monday, February 28, 2022. (JDC)
A Hesed social worker hugs a client in Odesa on Monday, February 28, 2022. (JDC)

With roads blocked and public transportation either shut down or commandeered for military needs, providing care to needy members of Ukraine’s Jewish community has never been more fraught. But social workers in Ukraine employed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are continuing to offer services to the beleaguered country’s Jews.

“Home care, miraculously, is, for the most part, continuing, even under such dire conditions,” said Amos Lev-Ran of JDC’s former Soviet Union department.

Hesed, a JDC network of Jewish social service providers in Ukraine, has had to close some of its 18 offices. But the branches remain active, including in Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea and the Dnieper River that has been at the center of Russia’s assault on southern Ukraine.

Alexander Vainer, director of the Hesed branch in Kherson, reported Sunday that the situation there was “critical.”

“The Hesed office is closed, due to restrictions on movement in town, but the work is continuing, with everyone doing what they have to do from home. They all have their laptops with them, data about the clients, and all the phone numbers and they can coordinate the work of the social workers,” Vainer said.

“The social workers are vising all the elderly and trying to provide whatever people need. Out of 165, only 40 have stopped working, for different reasons.”

Volunteers sort clothes, equipment, and groceries at a Hesed center still operating in Ukraine. (JDC)

Kherson has seen intense fighting, including large bombardments, as Russian forces have tried to establish a bridgehead across the Dnieper river. On Tuesday, reports indicated that Russian troops had entered Kherson, setting off street battles in the city.

“It’s not possible to enter or leave Kherson. Public transportation isn’t working, all city buses are being used for the fighters or to provide people with necessities such as bread and water,” Vainer said. “Only a few trolleybuses work along the city routes, which makes it almost impossible for people to move around.”

Vainer continued, “Everybody has been told to stay at home, close to the shelters. The town seems to be dead, there’s nobody outside. The sirens go off all the time. There is no food in the shops and people have to survive on what was bought before.”

Hesed director Mikhail Goldenberg echoed similar concerns over a lack of food and transportation in nearby Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding center on the Black Sea, which saw heavy fighting over the weekend. There, too, staff are working from home and social workers continue to visit the elderly and the sick.

People wait in line to buy food in front of a supermarket with a damaged building in the background in Kyiv on March 1, 2022. (Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

In Sumy, near the Belarus border in northeastern Ukraine, Hesed director Yelizaveta Sherstyuk said her family spent Saturday night sheltering in a basement as intense fighting raged outside, with explosions and shooting.

There too, social workers were continuing to visit the elderly, particularly those who had no family to take care of them, she said.

“Social workers are continuing to reach clients’ homes, sometimes risking their safety to do so,” JDC’s Lev-Ran confirmed. “Many are sleeping in clients’ homes because of the danger.”

In areas where providing homecare for all was impossible, social workers were focusing on the neediest — the homebound and bedridden, he added.

The Hesed network cares for almost 40,000 poor Ukrainian Jews, including 9,900 Holocaust survivors. When the war started, JDC, also known as The Joint, ensured that there were local hotlines linking clients to Hesed staff.

A Hesed social worker reaches a client in Odesa on Monday, February 28, 2022. (JDC)

Although internet and telephone lines within Ukraine appear to be functioning normally, the JDC has also launched a free international hotline (+380947111104) with 20 extensions, in case local Hesed hotlines are damaged during the fighting.

By Monday, more than 1,000 Ukrainians had already called the international hotline, which is manned by Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers in Israel and paid for by the Bezeq International and Partner companies. The operators were relaying requests for aid to counterparts in Ukraine.

In addition, a volunteer center in Moldova, created by JDC in 2014, has been recruited to proactively contact thousands of the neediest homebound and bedridden clients in Ukraine to make sure that they have everything that they need, Lev-Ran said.

Two years ago, the JDC launched a project to provide needy elderly people with specially designed smartphones so that they could keep in close touch with family and friends.

These enabled some 200 Ukrainians to take part in two Zoom sessions on Saturday. One offered art therapy, the other an opportunity to talk to an Israeli psychologist.

Jewish groups in the West have launched appeals to raise money for Ukraine, which has seen some of the worst fighting in Europe since World War II.

On Monday, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) increased the goal for an emergency campaign for critical humanitarian assistance to $20 million.

Projects for which the funds will be raised include meeting the urgent basic needs of vulnerable Jews, community security, temporary housing for displaced people, emergency needs in Jewish schools, and help with emigration to Israel.

The cash will be allocated through Jewish Federations’ core partners, The Jewish Agency for Israel, The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and World ORT, as well as others that are on the ground in Ukraine, a statement said.

Ukraine’s Jewish community was estimated in 2020 to number 43,000 people, but others put the size at several times that number.

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