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Operation SOS Instead of High Holidays: the Jewish Life in the Eastern Ukraine

Posted 28/8/2014

First published in the Israel National News; and also in The Jerusalem Connection.


With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur having been observed recently all over the Jewish world, it is important to reflect on the Jews jammed in between two sides of the non-stopping conflict in Ukraine, especially those in its Eastern region.

How did they celebrate during this major holiday period? How has the New Year in their lives started?

We are in constant touch with many people and with rabbis all over Ukraine, and receive information in realtime from different regions of the country - all the time.

The facts regarding the Rosh Hashanah observance in eastern Ukraine are stark. The synagogue in Lugansk has been without electricity and water for many months now and people cannot pray there as they are unable to read in the dark. If the synagogue is dysfunctional now, it is unclear how it can possibly function during the autumn and with winter approaching. In order to keep the building open, there is somebody from the Jewish community present at the synagogue at all times despite its being dark and cold.

Due to the existing curfew in Lugansk, Jewish people were unable to come to synagogue for the main evening service for Rosh Hashanah. Instead, they gathered there, in the cold synagogue without light and water, the next morning, on Thursday September 25th. There were only 40 people who came out of a community that lists 2500 people conservatively.

In an act of caring, the community leaders, with the help of private donors from the USA, were able to bring about 30 members of the Lugansk Jewish community to safety inside Ukrainian territory, and to arrange Rosh Hashanah festivities there, paying for their hotel accommodations and bringing in kosher food.

For a few nights, those 30 people lived 'in a clean and safe hotel', they told us. "Safe" was a key-word there. But it is important to realize that in order to be able to observe this most important holiday, those people had to be taken out of their homes and brought to safety. This is far from normal life.

This same acceptance of abnormalcy is the reason for the joy of the same Jewish community of Lugansk, when they told us in early October: "We have still no electricity and water in the (Lugansk) synagogue, but we have now got electricity in the (Jewish) school, for the first time in very many weeks, and so we were able to have fresh challahs (Sabbath loaves) for Shabbat, for the first time since hostilities began. We were so very happy about it!" I found it heart-breaking.

From the onset of the military conflict in Ukraine, with its violent and merciless battles in the Eastern part of the country, people and organizations are trying to help the Jewish people there who are living through a real disaster, from every point of view: economic, security, social, religious. Their entire life has been shattered and broken into pieces. They cannot afford elementary food and clothing; they cannot pay their apartment rentals or for anything else; many of their homes have been bombed and are destroyed. There is martial law in the region, and the people are living under terrible and ongoing pressure.

In early August, a shocking murder occurred in Donetsk where a well-known member of the local Jewish community, philanthropist Georgij Zilberbrod, was shot down along with the man who was responsible for maintaining the cottages he had built in the village. It happened when they were trying to stop robbers who had begun to ransack the village as people left their houses in panic. He was 47 years old. The macabre and senseless murder influenced Mr Zilberbrod's funeral – the family was unable to conduct a proper burial at their native place, and had to bring the corpse all the way to Kiev and to bury their husband, father and son there, in exile.

Several weeks ago, before Rosh Hashanah, a certain philanthropist made it possible for some 15 people from the Lugansk Jewish community who are living as refugees in Kiev, to come to a specific store and to buy some clothes for themselves. While coming to the store, those people were trying to smile, because they were genuinely happy and relieved that somebody was providing them with much needed help. But I do not remember ever seeing such endlessly deep sad eyes as I saw on photographs of those people who were supposed to be happy.

This war is not just dramatic; it is absurd and cruel. And what makes it much worse for the Jewish people who happened to live in Eastern Ukraine is that they are trapped between two hard-hitting players, pro-Russian separatists, and the Ukrainian military, neither of whom are sympathetic to the Jewish people, to put it mildly. Both sides involved in the conflict are known for large numbers of neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists in their midst; and thus, Jewish people in those regions have been dealt a double blow.

Operation SOS was the main organizational activity in which donors, sponsors and philanthropists from many countries were involved before the High Holidays in order to provide help to the members of the Jewish communities from Eastern Ukraine. "The money is needed badly for everything for those people, from housing and food to medicine. We have a real war here, and people are affected directly and badly. They have no means for most elementary and immediate needs", we were told by the chief Rabbi of Zhitomir region Shlomo Wilhelm whose community is helping people from the Eastern regions of Ukraine all the time.

We also know that many Jewish people from those regions have made aliyah to Israel. There is a sharp rise in aliyah from Ukraine, now the second largest after France, with figures that increased in percentages ranging from 292% to 371% for different Ukrainian regions, unprecedented for the country.

This should not come as a surprise to those who are aware of the current situation of Jewish people in Eastern Ukraine. The Jewish community of Donetsk which consisted of more than 10 000 members, has stopped functioning completely since early August 2014, with its Rabbi Vyshedsky moving to Kiev along with approximately 1 000 community members. The Jewish community of Lugansk had to stop its functioning, too, because of the total destruction of the city. The Jewish community of Mariupol which consisted of 5 000 members found itself in the same situation. Many of the people from those communities are living now as refugees in safer parts of Ukraine, and many have moved to Russia. Most of them are preparing to make aliyah.

There are several international organizations, both in Europe and the USA, that have been moved by concern for the Jewish situation in Ukraine in general and particularly by the desperate situation in Eastern Ukraine, which have launched special campaigns dedicated to help and support the aliyah from Ukraine, similarly to the ongoing campaign to help the aliyah from France. This noble work is conducted in co-ordination with the Israeli authorities.

According to Nathan Sharansky, himself from Donetsk, who visited Eastern Ukraine just after Rosh Hashanah, this process will be accelerated in the near future. After his brief visit to Ukraine, the Jewish Agency chairman asserted: "The Jewish people from Ukraine, and especially Eastern Ukraine, have no alternative but to make aliyah. It is clear on all levels (of Ukrainian Jewry) that they will have no choice but this decision".

But even in implementing this most obvious and vital decision, those poor people are not free of suffering. Nathan Sharansky has expressed his concern at the lawlessness in Eastern Ukrainian regions where, as soon as the local authorities learn of a family's decision to move to Israel, their property of all kinds is confiscated on a mass scale. This has become routine, so that they are now living in sheer terror, and even before leaving Ukraine for good, are robbed by the local authorities there.

This is even worse than it was during the Soviet regime – if only because we thought that nightmare is behind us. It seems to have returned, in an uglier way. It is important for the outside world to realize that, and to see the situation in Ukraine as it is, and not through some shameless propaganda fantasy produced by both warring sides in the escalating conflict.

Dr Inna Rogatchi is a writer, scholar and filmmaker. Her recent film on Simon Wiesenthal has been selected for several major international film festivals, and her forthcoming book is Dark Stars, Wise Hearts: Personal Reflections on the Holocaust in the Modern Times. She is co-founder and president of The Rogatchi Foundation –

Copyright © 2017 by the Inna and Michael Rogatchi Foundation. All rights reserved.