A small group gathered recently for an intimate evening at the Paradise Valley home of Cyndi and Jamie Rosenthal to learn more about the Federation’s work in Ukraine through its overseas partner, the American Joint Distribution Committee.
Cyndi welcomed Michael Novick, JDC executive director for strategic development, who spoke about the value of the partnership between the Federation and the JDC and our shared history of helping Jews in need. He updated the group of JDC’s efforts in Eastern Ukraine and the critical services to Jews in the conflict zone, made possible through Federation dollars.
Michael introduced a special guest, a young woman, “Mikka,” who risks life and limb to provide aid to Jews behind “enemy lines” in the Ukrainian conflict zone. Mikka shared that she wasn’t raised Jewish. In fact, she had not known she was Jewish until five years ago, when she told her mother that she was working with fellow university students to gather the Jewish history of Kiev. Mikka’s mother commented that it was interesting since Mikka’s father was Jewish. He had left before Mikka was born and his identity was never discussed. Mikka began looking for her father only to discover that he had died some years before, so she started her own quest for her Jewish identity and community.
Mikka told the group that it was through the JDC she had her first Jewish experiences—her first Shabbat, her first Seder.
She discussed the 32 Jewish welfare centers now operating in Ukraine—three of which are located near or within the conflict zone. Before the conflict, there were 23,000 Jews living in the conflict zone; now there are 6,000.
A JDC video was shown in which victims shared the horror of their situation—bombings without shelter, the lack of work, devaluation in the currency as the price of medicines and food double or triple. They are afraid to leave their homes when the action is critical because others have returned to find their homes taken over—leaving them with literally nothing.
Some are trapped and isolated in cities without food or medicine.
Mikka shared how she felt drawn to serve, to give hope to Jews who remain in the conflict zone. She told of her narrow escape from security guards who wanted to shoot her as a spy. She also told about the numerous times she has been turned away from the front lines, unable to provide help, as well as the glorious times she has been able to help those in need.
Mikka also related the story of 89-year-old Ludmila whose village had been destroyed by bombs. Ludmila and her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, were living in the basement without food or medicine because it was too much of a risk to get to the next village for supplies. Mikka and the JDC were able to rescue the couple from their dire situation.
Michael credited JDC’s partnership with the Federation for the work, “The fact that we have this infrastructure made possible by the Federation allows us to provide these services at a very high level.”
Through Federation dollars, thousands of refugees receive toiletries, shelter, food and medicine. Emergency workers like Mikka work with refugees to engage in the community, help them find jobs and regain their independence. Many are now giving back to the community.
“Life in Ukraine is not easy today. People are struggling to keep bread on the table, but Jewish life goes on,” Mikka said. “We are there when they are looking for a shoulder to lean on and grateful for the feeling that they are not alone.”
Michael shared that the JDC is spending $50 million annually in Ukraine, much is coming from Holocaust restitution sources, but many of whom were born after the Holocaust are not eligible for services paid for from restitution sources, and funds are needed to provide aid.
“We are so very reliant on Federation to help provide assistance to those who do not the meet the criteria of Holocaust victims—for food, utilities, medicine and more,” Novick said. “Those we serve just want to be able to live the rest of their lives in dignity.”
The JDC has volunteers in 15 Ukrainian cities to meet the growing needs of refugees and social services.