There is a certain irony to celebrating Chanukah, the rededication of the Temple in the Jews ancient homeland, as an internally displaced person. Yet, Ira Sborovskaya finds it hopeful

David Stern
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As Ira watches the little flames dance and glint off her seven-year-old daughters silver Star of David necklace while they sing the traditional song Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell) together in their temporary home in Odessa, she doesnt find Chanukah ironic at all. She finds it hopeful.

Thanks to Federation and its partners, there’s a bright future for Jewish kids in Ukraine

Who can retell the things that befell us?

Ira knows better than to despair. Growing up deep behind the Iron Curtain, she didnt even know she was Jewish until her late teens. I thought that if I live in Ukraine, Im Ukrainian, she says. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Federation partner JDC came in and filled the void, establishing Jewish education programs and social and religious services. It didnt take long for Ira to fall in love with the traditions, the people and her heritage.

Shes now JDCs point person in southern Ukraine and Moldova, charged with ensuring that those in need are taken care of and that all Jews in the region know and take pride in who they are. Her job became profoundly more difficult in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014 that killed thousands and left over one million people living in bombed-out cities with no running water, no electricity and no food on the shelves, including more than 3,000 Jews, the highest number of Jewish internally displaced persons (IDP) since World War II.

Thinking the conflict would last a few months at most, many fleeing families packed only a few summer clothes, leaving them totally unprepared for the brutal Ukrainian winter. Worse, of the Jewish IDPs, a significant percentage are seniors who fled the Nazis or lived in concentration camps as children. Now theyre again surrounded by violence, but this time, due to their age, they cant even run. So, with Federation support, Ira and her colleagues at partners JDC and The Jewish Agency for Israel run to them.

Masha (left) refuses to be a bystander when people are in need

Who can count them?

Anna Kushner is an elderly Jew left, in her words, completely alone by the conflict. Her father was murdered by the Third Reich; her beloved husband of over 50 years died suddenly of shock once the fighting in their village began in 2014, and that was just the beginning of her troubles. Her once-proud city has been mutilated into a ramshackle bungalow village. No one can step outside since the streets are lined with mines. As a frigid winter sets in, she cannot afford warm clothes or oil for heat as the cost of living has skyrocketed to the point where her pension can no longer meet any of her basic needs. If the fighting starts again, I do not know where I would go, she says. I cannot do it anymore.

For all her troubles, shes wrong about being alone. Providing food, clothing, home supplies and medical assistance, Federation has given her some semblance of normalcy. I dont know how I would survive if I was not getting this help, she says. From the bottom of my heart, my whole soul, I thank you.

For other elderly Jews, the best option is aliyah. At 16, Gregory Margolin joined the Red Army as his family fled the Nazis. At 86, a rebel missile destroyed his house in eastern Ukraine and killed his daughter. Now it was his turn to flee – to Israel.

Federation partner JDC helps thousands of elderly Ukrainian Jews caught in the crossfire

Since the beginning of the conflict, Federation partner The Jewish Agency for Israel has helped over 10,000 Jews begin again in Israel. From providing pre-aliyah counseling and travel arrangements in Ukraine to temporary housing, Hebrew lessons and social services once in Israel, The Jewish Agency is there to ease the transition every step of the way.

Gregory and his family now live in safety with his nieces family in Ramla. Thanks to Federation, they and so many other Ukrainian Jews affected by the raging conflict now live in safety, comfort and dignity.

In every age

Younger people arent much better off. Ira knows that in addition to providing young Jews with what they need to ensure their physical survival, it is no less imperative to provide quality Jewish programming to make sure they know their Judaism can be a source of comfort and strength through difficult times.

Masha Shumatskaya of Donetsk was the epitome of a post-Soviet Jewish success story. She began day school at age seven and went on to graduate from her towns Jewish high school. She was also active in Jewish youth groups and an alumna of JDCs Metsuda program for developing young Jewish leaders. She was speeding down the road to stardom, until the conflict blew the streets apart. Now fleeing for her life at age 24, she ended up 200 miles north in Kharkov.

But rather than despair, she got active. The leadership seminars, team-building exercises and sense of Jewish mission she received left her extremely well-equipped to step up in a time of crisis, and as soon as she arrived in Kharkov she signed up to volunteer to deliver necessary supplies to displaced elderly, at-risk children and families, and other vulnerable Jews.

Thank God, Im not in as bad condition as others, she says. I can work and support myself. For me its important and its an honor to be an ambassador for all the Jews in need in Ukraine, to volunteer through JDC.

A hero or sage arose to our aid

Ira knows the task ahead of her is enormous, but stories like these hearten her in her work, as does knowing she has the support of Jewish communities around the world. Federations have come together to raise over $5 million since this conflict broke out, earmarked to address the stated needs of the IDPs: emergency aid, secure housing and aliyah support, among other needs. Our support for Ukrainian Jewry in its time of need is the essence of what it means to be a global Jewish community, said Andrea Yablon, co-chair of Federations Ukraine Assistance Fund. Since we are in the position to give, a gift to Federation for their sake is not charity, its solidarity.

This support is the fuel that allows her to fire up her community through its darkest times. Last Chanukah, the 32 JDC-run Hesed centers under her watch sponsored food fairs, staged performances, provided classes and workshops, and of course, handed out chanukiyot, Chanukah menorahs. In Odessa, home to a 35,000-strong Jewish community, Ira makes every effort to include as many internally displaced Jews as possible in the celebration. She wants every one of them to know that Federation and its partners are sources of warmth, joy and comfort during yet another year away from home.

It was forbidden here to be religious under the Soviet Union. When we celebrate Chanukah so openly, it means weve really returned to our tradition, Ira says. And when we see young people, it means there will really be another [Jewish] generation today in Ukraine.

After lighting her chanukiah, Ira joins Jews of all ages, backgrounds and home cities to watch the Chanukah play at the JCC, just like she did last year. She is used to crying through the whole thing, but this year, as her daughter steps on stage to play a leading role, her sobs become uncontrollable as, with every move her seven-year-old makes, the silver Star of David around her neck reflects light from above the stage back onto the audience in the darkened room. 

For more information, visit www.JewishFederations.org