Celebrating Ukrainian Independence Day

By Jeff Dawson
Associate Director, Jewish Community Relations Council

Published September 22, 2023

Celebrating Ukrainian Independence Day: A Show of Support, Solidarity, and Shared History from the Jewish Community of Palm Beach County

On August 24, 2023, Ukraine celebrated its 32nd anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. This year, the occasion was especially meaningful as Ukraine continues to face the threat of Russian aggression and interference. As Associate Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, I had the honor of speaking at an event hosted by UA Florida, a non-profit organization that promotes Ukrainian culture and supports the Ukrainian people during Russia’s full-scale invasion. I shared updates on Jewish Palm Beach’s support for humanitarian aid to Ukraine, my thoughts on the special bond between Jews and Ukrainians, and the importance of standing in solidarity with Ukraine in its struggle for freedom and democracy. You can watch the video of my speech here, but my points were as follows:

Recently, our CEO Michael Hoffman and Board Chair Susan Pertnoy returned from a four-day mission to Ukraine to assess the ongoing needs and to express our solidarity with the Ukrainian people who live under the constant shadow of danger. Michael and Susan experienced midnight evacuations from their hotel to a bomb shelter, as air raid sirens wailed in the background. They saw the devastating effects of wartime inflation, which has soared above 40%, forcing people to make agonizing choices between food and life-saving medicine.

They met Ukrainians like Nadia, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor whose life has been a relentless marathon of escape and survival. She fled Eastern Ukraine during World War II, and resettled in Crimea, only to be uprooted again by Russia’s invasion in 2014. Now, she lives in Western Ukraine alone, her family long gone. She relies on Jewish Federation and our partner organizations for her basic human needs—food, medical care and community.

When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine unleashed the most devastating humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II, the Jewish community in Palm Beach County sprang into action.  We have raised funds and awareness for humanitarian aid, medical assistance and security measures. Jewish Federations throughout North America have collectively raised more than $90 million for relief efforts, providing vital services to the most vulnerable segments of Ukrainian society–from families to children to elderly Holocaust survivors, like Nadia.

This commitment stems from a deep-rooted connection. As Jews, we have a special bond with Ukraine, a land which is home to one of the largest and most diverse Jewish communities in the world for over a millennium. From the time of the Kyivan Rus to the birth of significant Jewish movements like Hasidism and Zionism, Ukraine has been a cornerstone of our collective history. Ukraine was home to over 1.5 million Jews before the Holocaust, many of whom perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Prior to the Russian invasion in 2022, Ukraine was home to approximately 200,000 Jews. In 2019, with the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine became the only country other than Israel to have both a Jewish President and a Jewish Prime Minister. Today, many Jews serve in the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces and volunteer battalions, defending their homeland from Russian aggression.

Currently in theaters is the film “Golda,” about Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister. Born in Kyiv, Golda devoted her life to shielding Israel from hostile neighbors determined to erase it from the map. Her resolve is encapsulated in her words “We intend to remain alive. Our neighbors want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.’ Today, these words resonate not only with Jews but also with Ukrainians who stand defiant against a Russia bent on their annihilation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, born in Mykolaiv, was one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century. He taught us that “A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.” In these challenging times, Ukraine stands as a beacon of light against the darkness of Russian aggression.

Natan Chazin, a rabbi from Odesa who served in the Israel Defense Forces, returned to Ukraine to lead the Jewish Regiment of the Euromaidan and co-founded the Aerorozvidka unit, specializing in aerial reconnaissance. Throughout the ‘Revolution of Dignity,’ Chazin stood as a symbol of the Jewish community’s support for Ukraine, highlighting the intertwined fates of the Jewish and Ukrainian peoples.

Both our communities have been tested by the harshest of circumstances—from pogroms to the Holodomor, from the Holocaust to the Soviet occupation. Yet, even in the face of oppressive regimes that sought to erase our identities, Jews and Ukrainians have found ways to preserve our traditions and dignity.

We stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. The Talmud teaches us, ‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’ We vehemently condemn the horrific invasion of Ukraine by Russia. This blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and democratic principles is unacceptable. We denounce the ongoing acts of murder, rape, torture, and the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. Enough is enough! The time for silence is over; the time for action is now. 

We urgently call on Congress to pass the bipartisan Ukraine Security Partnership Act to increase U.S. security assistance to Ukraine and impose sanctions on Russia. We also call on our allies in NATO and the European Union to continue standing with Ukraine and to impose even stronger diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia. In dire moments like these, the values of democracy and freedom must rise to meet the challenges that threaten them.

Yet, even in the face of this grim reality, we can still find reasons for hope and gratitude. We celebrate another Ukrainian Independence Day, marking the historic moment when Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union. This day commemorates the valiant struggle for freedom and salutes the modern-day warriors–the heroes who have laid down their lives to reclaim Ukraine’s sacred soil from the clutches of foreign invaders. We are also grateful to the United States government for its steadfast support of Ukraine’s independence and security. We appreciate the efforts of America and our allies to deter Russia’s aggression and to provide vital assistance to Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs.

Let us all draw inspiration from the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people, whose national anthem says it best: ‘Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom.’ I am confident that the day is not far away when Ukraine will live in peace, with its territorial integrity restored.

Happy Ukrainian Independence Day, God Bless America, Am Yisrael Chai & Slava Ukraini!