Volunteers brave ‘war zone’ to aid elderly Jews in Kiev

Old and infirm in area of Independence Square, heart of Ukraine uprising, receive visits and care packages to the sound of sniper fire

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Protesters manning a barricade in downtown Kiev last month (photo credit: courtesy of JDC)
Protesters manning a barricade in downtown Kiev last month (photo credit: courtesy of JDC)

Although the capital of Ukraine is appreciably quieter than when the armed fighting escalated Thursday, violence has not fully subsided, making the provision of medical and food aid to the Jewish elderly of Kiev a far from simple affair.

“Central Kiev looks like a war zone — you see the actual fighting,” the Joint Distribution Committee’s Ofer Glanz told The Times of Israel from Kiev Sunday night.

Glanz, an Israeli who is the JDC’s former Soviet Union director, has shuttled between Tel Aviv and Kiev in the past week of violence and overthrow in Ukraine to supervise the smooth execution of the JDC’s mitigation plan. An emergency network of volunteers and professionals ensure the supply of food and medical care to the 80,000 or so elderly and infirm Jews the JDC serves in the country.

Protests calling for the downfall of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych took a violent turn Tuesday, and Thursday’s bloody battles left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. On Saturday, Yanukovych fled the capital, and jailed opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was freed after nearly three years behind bars.

Ukraine is deeply divided between eastern regions that are largely pro-Russian and western areas that seek closer ties with the European Union. Yanukovych’s shelving of an agreement with the EU in November set off the wave of protests, but demonstrators quickly expanded their grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.

By Saturday, protesters had taken over the capital of Kiev and seized the president’s office as parliament voted to remove him and hold new presidential elections on May 25.

The parliament, in a special session Sunday, voted overwhelmingly to temporarily hand the president’s powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, a top ally of Tymoshenko.

Glanz said the JDC’s mitigation plan was formed months ago when the protests began, based on similar experiences in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. “About two months ago we had some assumptions that one of the possible scenarios is that the situation would deteriorate,” said Glanz.

Mihail Solomonovich holding a food package delivered by JDC in the kitchen of his modest one-bedroom apartment in downtown Kiev. (photo courtesy of the JDC)
Mihail Solomonovich holding a food package delivered by JDC in the kitchen of his modest one-bedroom apartment in downtown Kiev. (photo courtesy of the JDC)

The JDC, said Glanz, works in Ukraine supporting the local Jewish population, which it estimates at 300,000 based on Jewish community data. (Other estimates place the Jewish population at roughly 67,000.) It operates through a network of some 30 charity operations, largely under Hesed Kiev, supporting elderly Jews at various requirement levels through home care, material support, food, and social clubs.

“Many are living in an area where there is violence and cannot leave home,” said Glanz. These are pensioners, often poor, some of whom are living alone in the heart of the war zone near Independence Square.

“It is not a nice situation: These elderly people are living alone and hear Molotov cocktails, crossfire and snipers,” said Glanz.

Although evacuation was offered to those living in the most dangerous areas — and some did leave — some of those who remained and are most in need have someone staying with them, said Glanz.

“I have seen people here — we consider them real heroes — supplying food to elderly clients in areas with snipers and Molotov cocktails. It is real avodat kodesh (holy work),” said Glanz.

One of Kiev’s four chief rabbis called for Jews to evacuate the city on Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city altogether and if possible the country too… There are constant warnings about intentions to attack Jewish institutions,” Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman told Maariv.

When asked if he has witnessed a mass flight from within the Jewish community, Glanz said, “This is not a Jewish issue, not an anti-Semitic issue.”

On Sunday, as Glanz walked in war-torn areas of Kiev, there were “no anti-Jewish slogans, at least in the streets and in the epicenter of the demonstration, and I didn’t witness any anti-Jewish issues being brought up by anyone.”

Azman concurs that the violence has lessened and told Maariv, “Things could be a lot worse” in Ukraine. Azman, a messianic Chabadnik, said women and children should not be out on the streets, but “there is no need to run away from Ukraine.”

‘It is a miracle of the month of Adar that the whole struggle is behind us’

“It is a miracle of the month of Adar [the Hebrew month in which the biblical Queen Esther and the Jews of Persia were saved from genocide] that the whole struggle is behind us,” said Azman.

According to Israel National News, however, there is some danger to Jews. The online news magazine cites a “Russian-language source” Saturday saying that the police are openly threatening the Jewish community there.

In a separate article, Israel National News quoted Hatzalah Ukraine chairman Rabbi Hillel Cohen saying, “Now that Yanukovych is gone it appears to be over, but actually it is during transition times like these that the danger increases.”

Cohen said the crisis was abating, but “until order is restored, we are recommending that everyone act with great caution.”

As a means to enhance security at Jewish institutions in Ukraine, the Jewish Agency for Israel announced Saturday it will provide immediate emergency assistance from its Emergency Assistance Fund for Jewish Communities, a fund created following the March 2012 terror attack in Toulouse.

“We have a moral responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s Jews… The Jewish Agency’s assistance aims to increase security at Jewish communal institutions in Ukraine,” said Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

There is speculation this fund will be soon be used if extremist party Svoboda gains traction in the upheaval. The neo-Nazi party, which has been on the forefront of the protest movement, has members who have been linked to the reburial and glorification of Nazis and many other anti-Semitic incidents in the past year.

AP contributed to this report

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