Forget about the firebombing of synagogues and the distribution of fake leaflets calling on Jews to register with the government or face deportation. Forget, in short, the undercurrent of anti-Semitism pervading the increasingly violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine. What really concerns Ukraine’s estimated 350,000-strong Jewish community is the accessibility of food and medicine — and the future of its own identity.
Dov Ben-Shimon, executive director of strategic partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as JDC, arrived in Philadelphia on April 30 to give what he called his “hunger and thirst” lecture at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Center City.
On the way, he stopped by the Jewish Exponent to outline his mission.
“The message is that there is a dichotomization in Jewish life between ‘hunger’ — real poverty, real need, hundreds of thousands of elderly and young Jews who are at risk and vulnerable — and ‘thirst,’” which Ben-Shimon defined as “a real thirst for Jewish community and Jewish life — the aspects of Jewish community that many of us here in the United States take for granted.”
Specifically, in the case of Jews living in Ukraine, one of 80 countries where JDC operates in support of Jewish communities around the world, Ben-Shimon pointed to basic amenities as the No. 1 priority.
“The first thing we have to do is ensure a continuous provision of food, medicine, winter relief supplies and home care provision,” Ben-Shimon said, noting that some 60,000 elderly and 10,000 underprivileged children have been affected by the events of the last few months. “I think there is a tendency for us to focus on immediate disasters and not always to remember the ongoing suffering.”
He added that JDC is also attempting to stabilize the functionality of the Jewish community’s institutions and to prepare for an emergency should the conflict escalate.
“We hope that nothing of this kind would happen, but we have to prepare for every contingency,” he said, citing as an example the situation in 2008, when JDC rescued elderly Georgian Jews affected by the military conflict between Russia and Georgia.
Snowballing violence in Odessa, where clashes over the past several days between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian millitants have left at least 40 dead, has Jewish community leaders there worried about the possibility of anti-Semitic violence and considering an evacuation of the city’s estimated 30,000-45,000 Jews.
But raising enough money to actualize JDC’s goals hasn’t been an easy task for the humanitarian organization marking its 100th anniversary this year, especially in today’s economy.
“We are facing a dire funding shortage,” Ben-Shimon acknowledged, adding that a donation of $1,000 can provide a year’s worth of food, medicine and home care for an elderly person living in the former Soviet Union.
Though he lauded the American Jewish community’s “depth of commitment and understanding about the challenges of Jewish life,” Ben-Shimon said that the issues of anti-Semitism and heated politics emanating from Ukraine have overshadowed the real day-to-day needs of the Jewish community there and the importance of financial support from American Jews to address these more mundane needs.
“It’s very difficult, I think, for us here in the United States to understand that connection, to understand the impact that we can have with our charitable dollars to change the world and to impact people’s lives on a very real basis and not as some abstract concept,” he said.
JDC’s $365 million budget is funded largely by dollars raised from American Jews and funneled through the Jewish Federations of North America. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia provides $800,000 in direct grants to two JDC programs.
One provides food and other basic necessities to Holocaust survivors living in Siberia; the other is an umbrella program called Ashalim that services at-risk youth in Israel.
Philadelphia has also raised $22,000 of its $32,000 goal of emergency funding for Ukraine as part of an open mailbox relief fund organized by the national Jewish Federations.
No matter how much funding JDC receives, Ben-Shimon said, the organization is committed to its motto of “no Jew gets left behind.”
In some instances, he explained, this means working in tandem with other parties such as the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Efforts to help the Ukrainian community become autonomous on a local level have raised the persistent question of how the JDC should allocate its funds.
The conundrum becomes whether or not to allocate money to long-term solutions such as programs aimed at establishing new leadership among Ukrainian Jewry’s younger generation or to address the more pressing concerns of poverty and hunger.
“How we navigate between ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’ while meeting the challenge of both is going to shape the way that ouJewish world will look like in 20 years’ time,” he said.
Ultimately, the fact that Jewish organizations such as JDC are on the ground in countries like Ukraine is making a difference whether or not the completion of their mission takes years or decades, said Ben-Shimon.
He hopes his message will encourage American Jewry to step up efforts to support the global Jewish community, not just in Ukraine, and to learn more about the issues.
“It’s very challenging for us to remind people what community actually means, because community means taking care of the vulnerable, it means protecting people who need our help, it means connecting to people,” he said. “And to continually highlight and headline these issues are the challenges we have to face on a daily basis.”