Times are tough for Jews in France and Ukraine, but the Jewish communities in Philadelphia and around the world continue to rally in support of our extended nation, writes a local communal leader.
The old adage — Jews is News — has taken on a new life in the last year. Israel’s war with Hamas this summer, rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the equally distressing but less-recognized plight of Jews caught up in Ukraine’s ongoing conflict have all made headlines.
Such overwhelming stories may tempt many to change the channel or swipe to another story. They may also be succumbing to a larger isolationist streak in American society.
But we in the Jewish community — tied to Jews overseas through an enduring responsibility for one another — know full well that the stakes are too high to simply tune out. Taking action to help in a time of great need is how we express our connectedness and caring for one another, for Am Yisrael.
One month after the Hyper Cacher kosher market massacre in Paris, more than a year after political change in Ukraine gave way to escalating conflict, what does the landscape on the ground look like for local Jews? And how can we help?
In France, where rising anti-Semitism is fomented by radicalism and political extremism, the 550,000-member Jewish community also faces a tough economy, death threats, routine bullying and violence in suburban enclaves. Many French Jews have, in turn, immigrated to the United Kingdom and Canada, or made aliyah to Israel through the Jewish Agency for Israel. But the vast majority remains.
Now the community has to address several critically important areas to maintain a strong, unified Jewish presence. Trauma and fear, mushrooming in the aftermath of terror attacks and anti-Jewish sentiment, are pervasive among scores of French Jews. Poor and elderly Jews remain in neighborhoods plagued by crime, poverty and growing Islamist influence. The community needs to bolster crisis preparedness and plan for possible future emergencies.
Hundreds of miles away, Ukraine’s 300,000-plus Jews, like their neighbors, are facing a worsening humanitarian crisis intensified by armed conflict in the East, complicated by dizzying economic worries. Ukraine’s currency has collapsed by more than 50 percent, and state pensions, already meager, are not being paid in the conflict zone. The cost of basic goods is rising dramatically — medication is up 100 percent, food prices up 40 percent — and the harshest winter months are exacerbated by rising utility costs, measures to conserve energy and limited thermostat temperatures.
These conditions have taxed an already fragile socioeconomic life for Jews. For those who remain in the East in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, unemployment and general economic demise are paired with fear of ongoing violence and unpredictable attacks. Many, like the homebound elderly, cannot flee; all fear for their lives. For those who have fled the region — more than 900,000 internally displaced to date — worries about food, housing, medical care and jobs are paramount in new cities where many lack family connections or resources to get by.
The picture is bleak, to say the least. But we as a Jewish community have always stood at the ready to take on such global challenges. Through the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, we’ve led the charge and funded overseas partners like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as the JDC, whose life-saving work I have seen up close for decades.
Partnering with French Jewish community agencies like the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, the central fundraising body; OSE, an organization aiding needy Jews; and the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, JDC is supporting new resiliency programs addressing trauma, crisis management and relocation of at-risk Jews from troubled French neighborhoods. JDC and Israel Trauma Coalition experts are ensuring counseling for hundreds of traumatized French Jews, relocation mapping and planning, and training in best emergency preparedness practices.
In Ukraine, local Jewish community groups, Chabad and JDC have collaborated to deliver services and expanded aid to thousands of Jews in distress, often at great personal risk. JDC staff and its network of 32 Hesed social welfare centers have worked day and night to serve more than 1,000 locations, even in places wracked by violence. In fact, the Hesed center in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine was hit by two rockets on Tuesday. The rockets, which JDC officials say damaged the nine-story building where the center is located, did not explode and no injuries were reported.
Throughout the region, beleaguered Jews have received food, medicine, home care, stipends for new accommodations, post-trauma care as well as vitally important winter fuel, bedding and clothing. These populations include more than 4,600 Jews in the eastern conflict zones and 2,400 internally displaced Jews who have fled to Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa. The numbers, already staggering, are still growing.
With the future uncertain and Jews facing increasing need, especially in Ukraine, we must again stand together and act. We have bucked the winds of history before, reviving Jewish life after the Holocaust and communism, and building the State of Israel.
Let’s leverage that legacy, and the immediacy of today’s needs, and save Jewish lives once again.
If not now, when?
Betsy R. Sheerr, a corporate public speaking coach, is a board member of JDC and a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.