Insights from a Leadership Mission to Ukraine

An open letter to the community from Federation’s Board Chair Susan Shulman Pertnoy and CEO Michael Hoffman.

Published August 18, 2023

We have just returned from an intense four-day leadership mission to Ukraine organized by Jewish Federations of North America. Our purpose on this mission was to assess the ongoing needs on the ground of this war-torn country, witness firsthand the lifesaving work taking place on behalf of the Jewish Federation system and most importantly to express our solidarity with the Jewish community that lives in the midst of danger every day.

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, which resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since WWII. In the ensuing months, the Jewish Palm Beach community came together to provide vital resources and support that enabled Federation’s partners at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and The Jewish Agency for Israel to meet the emergency needs of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

In the eighteen months since the start of the war, the needs continue to accelerate significantly. More than 70% of Ukraine’s infrastructure has been destroyed. There is concern over how Ukrainians will stay warm during its harsh winter when there is limited electricity. They are facing inflation over 40% and most are making the difficult choice between food and medicine, with a rising concern of getting sustenance to certain areas of the country where the war rages. Every night loud air-raid sirens signal an incoming missile attack somewhere in the country. We experienced this in a midnight evacuation where we spent several hours in a shelter at our hotel.

Of the 200,000 Jews in Ukraine, more than 55,000 have made Aliyah (emigrate to Israel) to escape the conflict. The remaining Jews are displaced persons with harrowing stories. Seniors and Holocaust survivors too frail to leave their homes. Women and children who are alone while their husbands, brothers and sons fight on the front lines.

Meet Nadia – a Holocaust survivor
While visiting a JDC Hesed social service and community center, we met Nadia – an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor. Nadia has in essence been running her entire life, having first evacuated from her home in Eastern Ukraine during WWII, settled in Crimea, which was invaded by Russia in 2014, and has been living in Western Ukraine ever since. Nadia has no family living in Ukraine as her children left the country years ago and is dependent upon the JDC Hesed to provide her with the most vital human services like food, medical support and socialization.

Lydia and Igor – in search of a better tomorrow for their children
We met Lydia and Igor while visiting an Aliyah seminar sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel. They are considering moving to Israel for several reasons. They have the desire to live free of conflict and without the worry of how long it will take for Ukraine to recover after the war. They’d also like to be closer to relatives and for their two children to have the prospect of a better life.

The positive impact of Jewish summer camps
While visiting a Jewish Agency summer camp, we met with a group of children and teens. Between Covid and the war, these teens have faced dramatic disruption in their lives including inconsistent and limited schooling. These camps serve as a wonderful respite from the struggle of daily living in a humanitarian crisis and provide some hope for a normal future.

And we met with Sasha, who is a unit head for Ukrainian children at Camp Szarvas located in Hungary. Szarvas has been running a camp for Ukrainian teens and families for the past eight months giving more than 1,200 Ukrainians a sliver of normalcy amidst this chaos. Sasha also has his own powerful story, having once lived in Eastern Ukraine. When the war broke out, Sasha was out of the country. Now, if he goes back, his only options are either to join the Ukrainian army or be enlisted in the Russian army. So instead, he waits, hoping one day to see his family again.

What left the strongest impression on us was the seemingly unbreakable spirit of the Ukrainian people. Despite the barrages of missiles, the disruption and ongoing stress, they are resilient and striving to maintain a semblance of a normal life.

The dedication of Federation’s global partners, who are deeply embedded in the region, was inspiring. Fueled by a common mission, the JDC, The Jewish Agency, Chabad, Hillel, and so many others have come together to do incredible life-saving work – made possible in part by the incredible generosity of Jewish Palm Beach.

We are humbled by this experience and return home with a fortified commitment to our global Jewish community.

To see photos from the mission, please click here.

Shabbat Shalom,