Ukrainian Jews Struggle
But Remain Determined
Samantha Dubrinsky, the Birmingham Jewish Federation’s Director of Community Impact, is in Ukraine for a few days. She is part of a group of Jewish Federation professionals and volunteer leaders who are spending several days in Ukraine and then traveling to Israel. Trip members are learning about needs facing Ukraine’s Jews and what programs funded by Jewish Federations are doing to help. In addition, the group is learning strategies for fundraising.
The group is staying in Kiev in western Ukraine. Samantha is pictured here, on the left, with a young woman she met on a Federation trip to Ukraine in 2015.
By Samantha Dubrinsky
KIEV, UKRAINE – I woke up this morning, my last morning in Kiev before traveling to Israel, thinking about a young woman I met the day before. She looked so familiar and I couldn’t quite place her. It took me all morning to realize who this girl was. I had met her on a Jewish Federation trip to Ukraine in 2015 and even wrote about her in Update because she made such an impression on me.
Her passion for Ukraine emanated from her when I first met her at a dinner immediately after we landed in Dnipro over two years ago. I remember being so jet lagged and wanting to go to bed, but I stayed at the dinner table long after the meal was finished so I could talk to this young woman.
Katerina was born as the Soviet Union fell and her parents were not religious because they grew up under an oppressive Communist regime, which caused them to hide their Judaism. At the age of 10, she began teaching her parents about Judaism when she attended a Jewish day school.
She told me in 2015, which she echoed today, that she didn’t want to leave for Israel like so many Jewish families in Ukraine. I asked her why? It was hard for me to imagine that this woman in her early 20s felt like she could have a life in Ukraine. Weren’t her chances for a fulfilling Jewish life better in Israel? Her answer then, without hesitation, was that Ukraine needed her.
“EVERYTHING & NOTHING”
Today, when I saw her, I reintroduced myself and she gave me the biggest hug. I had a few minutes to sit down with her and hear about what she’s doing now. She’s working for the Federation-funded Jewish Agency, which she credits for the development of her strong Jewish identity. I asked her to tell me what has changed since I last saw her. Her response was, “Everything and nothing.”
She explained that the war is still happening and it has affected her, as well as others, but that the community has come to accept conflict as part of life. In that way, she said, nothing has changed. On the other hand, she told me that the war brought her even closer to the Jewish community, made her realize just how precious her relationships are and cemented her dedication to her country.
Katrina told me about the promotion she recently received, due to her commitment to the Jewish Agency and the people that she serves. She lives in Dnipro, but makes the five-hour drive at least once a week to Kiev for Shabbat dinners with her Jewish Agency family. Katerina’s dedication and our conversation made me realize all that she has accomplished at such a young age. She has sacrificed her life and economic opportunities to be in the country that she loves and to be with the community to which she is so dedicated.
When I saw Katerina today, it was at a summer camp organized by the Jewish Agency for Ukrainian kids. The camp provides Jewish content and experiences for children who wouldn’t get that education at home. But this particular day at camp was a little different. We were notified this morning that the original place that was to accommodate camp was unavailable because the owner began asking for bribes and saying things with anti-Semitic undertones. (The government responded and the Jewish Agency handled this swiftly.)
This announcement came in the wake of the group hearing from Israeli Ambassador to the Ukraine Eliav Belotsercovskyl. He told us about Ukraine’s relationship with Israel which, though once rocky, is strong — Ukraine views Israel as a model, a “light unto the nations.” Toward the end of his talk, I asked him about anti-Semitism in Ukraine. While we know that anti-Semitism is growing throughout Europe, I asked him if Ukraine is seeing those trends as well. He said there are isolated incidents of anti-Semitism (such as the one our group experienced), but that there is no government sanctioned anti-Semitism.
ON A DIME
While his answer was somewhat comforting, the camp experience highlighted how those incidents can happen at any time. Because of Federation support, the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee are able to turn on a dime — whether it is responding to the crisis in Ukraine within 24 hours of the breakout of war in 2014 or moving hundreds of people from a secure location to another in several hours.
After camp, we headed to the airport for a flight to Israel. I couldn’t get a question that Katerina asked me off my mind. She looked me in the eye and said, “Why did you come all the way here for the second time?” Through her question, she implied that Ukraine wasn’t a place people want to come more than once, for obvious reasons. My answer was easy and simple. I said, “I believe that all Jews are responsible for one another.”
This is what we’re taught; this is what connects us with one another.