As Ukraine enters its ninth day of war with Russia, more than 1 million refugees have now fled into neighboring countries, following an invasion that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed was meant to “denazify” the country. On March 1, a Russian missile struck an important Holocaust memorial – Babyn Yar, the memorial site to the Nazi massacre of more than 100,000 people, including 33,771 Jews over two days in 1941.
For Tanya Gustol, what she calls Putin’s “propaganda talk” has been particularly painful to hear as a Jewish Ukrainian. Especially since Jewish Ukrainians had really begun to celebrate their identity, and the country was talking more openly about its history. Gutsol, who emigrated to Chicago in 2005, says her entire family is in Kyiv and plans to stay.
“My family, they, you know, I feel like it’s the mentality of Ukrainians to say, this is our land, we’re not going anywhere,” she said. “At the moment, my parents are on the right bank of the river Dnieper and then my sister and her family’s on the left bank. It’s hard to get in between both because, you know, everyone’s been monitoring what’s going on and the bridges are mostly closed.”
To cope with this sense of helplessness, Gutsol has attended rallies. She has also worked with other Ukrainians in Chicago to gather supplies for the Ukrainian military. Through an Amazon list, they’ve collected bulletproof vests, radios, ballistic helmets, binoculars and tactical knee pads. A planeload of goods took off for Poland earlier this week.
Last weekend, she said, so many people from the Ukrainian community came out that volunteers had to sign up for shifts. Gutsol believes the show of moral support is just as important as material aid. “I think when you’re sitting in Kyiv, somewhere, you know, underground and you hear the sirens go on and you’re just feeling so lonely and scared,” she said. “You want to know that people outside care about you, care about the situation.”
Members of Chicago’s Jewish community – some with family ties to the region, others with longstanding relationships with Ukraine’s Jewish communities – have shown up in force so far by attending rallies, raising money and organizing supply drives for Ukraine’s Jewish community and the country at large.
Ukraine’s rich and complicated Jewish history dates back many centuries. Despite the progroms of the early 20th century and one of the worst mass murders of Jews during the Holocaust at Babyn Yar, today Ukraine has one of the world’s largest Jewish populations. While Jewish Ukrainians live in many parts of the country, the largest communities have been concentrated in Kyiv, Dnipro, Odessa and Kharkiv. The city of Uman has also attracted thousands of Hasidic Jews every year who come to visit the grave of the 18th-century Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.
“While I am Jewish, I help [all] those in need,” said Leonard Mogul, who runs the Arts4Kids Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that introduces children to art.
Mogul was born in Odessa, a city that was once the center of Jewish life in the region and left Ukraine as a refugee during the collapse of the Soviet Union. He arrived in Chicago in 1989 at the age of 11. He still has family there. And like many Ukrainians in the Chicago area right now, he spends his nights checking for news and trying to reach friends and family to make sure they’re ok.
“I’m at the edge of my nerves, receiving these updates, jumping up in the middle of the night, calling Ukraine to check up on relatives and people close to you to make sure they are OK,” he said.
So he couldn’t just sit still and do nothing.
“We as human beings need to remain human beings and the only way to better our world is to do things,” he said.
Mogul has been helping fundraise to purchase supplies like helmets and first aid kits to send to Ukrainians who are volunteering to fight. And he’s teamed up with United Giving Hope, an organization that provides humanitarian assistance to refugees at the U.S.- Mexico border. They’re collecting things like underwear, socks, diapers, soap and feminine hygiene products to make backpacks of supplies for 100,000 women and children who have been displaced and are in Uzhhorod, Ukraine. Their goal is to put together 600 care packages.
Rabbi Michael Siegel at Anshe Emet Synagogue, a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, says many in his congregation have relatives from Ukraine, some whose families came to Chicago between 1880 and 1925, when more than two million Jews left Eastern Europe.
“Ukraine has not even a mixed history with the Jews … if you go back, not all that long ago, it’s a pretty, pretty horrific history. But, you know, it’s a very different country [now]. And so people have come to terms with that as well,” he remarked.
Rabbi Siegel said he’s been flooded with people asking: What can we do?
The synagogue has supported a Jewish summer camp program in Ukraine for a decade (Rabbi Siegel’s daughter has been a counselor), so they have longstanding ties to the Conservative Jewish community there. He said for this reason he has been encouraging people to support Masorti Olami, an organization that fosters Conservative Judaism and, through that work, has people on the ground in Ukraine.
“I’m sensitive about the idea that, you know, well, Jews are only interested in Jews. That’s just not the case,” he said. “Judaism always functions from the particular to the universal. In other words, we begin with literally charity at home, with your family, with your community, but it never stops there. It’s always moving toward the larger whole.”
The rabbi said one of the big questions he and others in the community have been wrestling with is a moral one about the American role in this conflict – especially because the U.S. has said it will not send ground troops or enforce a no-fly zone in Ukraine.
“As a Jew, I’m thinking about the times that we have castigated the United States for not bombing the railroad tracks to Auschwitz. Why couldn’t they just do that?” he asked. “In the back of my mind I’m wondering, ‘Is this another railroad tracks to Auschwitz moment where we’re going to watch people die wholesale?’ We’ve watched people die wholesale in Syria. And so when are we responsible to actually bomb the railroad tracks? What’s America’s role at this point? And what happens when America doesn’t want to take that role?”
He said he doesn’t have the answer.
Along with smaller efforts, established organizations like the Jewish United Fund (JUF) have been working on large-scale efforts to provide assistance on the ground in Ukraine, everything from supplying potable drinking water to providing emergency shelter for those who have been displaced.
JUF has advanced $2 million in emergency funds to its partners on the ground — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), and World ORT, said Jay Tcath, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund.
JUF has been working in Ukraine since it gained independence. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Tcath said the organization began to prepare, sending satellite phones in case cell service was cut, food, medical supplies, cots, pillowcases and bedding for those seeking shelter in synagogues and Jewish community centers.
“This was especially critical for the large population of elderly [in Ukraine], many of whom are Holocaust survivors,” said Tcath.
There are nearly 10,000 Holocaust survivors in Ukraine, many of whom are homebound and were already dependent on this sort of humanitarian aid for survival before the Russian invasion, according to JUF.
At Heritage Russian Jewish Congregation, an orthodox synagogue on Chicago’s North Side, all the members come from the former Soviet Union. Rabbi Eliezer Dimarsky, who grew up in Kyiv, said of the 100 families who make up the community, half are from Ukraine.
“Everyone has someone who has stayed there,” Rabbi Dimarsky said.
Some couldn’t leave because they are elderly or for health reasons. “Some stayed for patriotic reasons,” Dimarsky said.
While many community members come from Russia and many from Ukraine, they have always felt a sense of community identity as Jews, the Rabbi says. This has meant the congregation has been united in its support for Ukraine. The synagogue has been fundraising and they’re doing a special service each morning for Ukraine.
The prayers they’re reciting come from the Book of Psalms, also known as the Psalms of David. These Hebrew prayers look for comfort and elevation from the depths of despair and divine answers in times of trial.
In the Jewish tradition, the reading of these psalms comes at a time of trouble in an attempt to gain God’s favor.
“There is not much I can do in a physical way,” Rabbi Dimarsky said. “[I am] hoping and having trust in God that the goodness will prevail.”