By Lee Chottiner
Thirty years ago, when Slava Nelson lived in the Soviet Union, which included her native Ukraine, it was unlike any place most Americans have experienced.
“It was not a country; it was a big prison,” she said.
That was then. Today, Ukraine, once the scene of historic persecution of Jews, but now under brutal attack from Russia, has changed.
“I want you to know that Ukraine now is a completely different country. It’s a free country,” Nelson said while speaking at the recent Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society Refugee Shabbat service at Temple Shalom. “They cannot come back to what they used to [be] under that Russian hegemony, and they will fight. They will fight. They will fight for freedom.”
Along with much of the United States and around the world, Jewish Louisville is responding to the four-week-old Russian invasion of Ukraine. Using their pulpits, their prayers and their checkbooks, Louisville’s Jews are trying to make a difference.
So far, the war has claimed thousands of lives, besieging and leveling cities. Many civilian targets have been hit, spawning Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
(Russian President Vladimir Putin denies targeting civilians, a claim which the mayor of Kyiv dismissed with a one-word expletive.)
An estimated 3 million Ukrainians, including Jews, have fled their country.
The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial has been hit in Russian attacks; synagogues and JCCs are serving as refuges for the displaced and at least one Jewish Ukrainian soldier has died in the fighting.
Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has become a global symbol of resistance, making daily addresses to implore the West for greater assistance. Zelensky has addressed the British and Canadian parliaments, as well as Congress, during which he switched to English to make a personal appeal to President Biden for more help in defending his country.
As the war continues, Jewish Louisville continues to respond. Local rabbis have addressed the crisis from their pulpits. The Kentucky Institute for Torah Education held a 10-minute prayer via Zoom for the people of Ukraine. The Jewish Family & Career Services has provided counseling and support to Ukrainian clients.
Senior Director of Programs Mauri Malka, one counselor meeting with Ukrainians here, couldn’t give details from the sessions, but she reported “a sense of sadness and helplessness” pervading them.
Another JFCS caseworker, Aaron Guffey, said some of his clients with family in Russia told him they are scared to speak out about the invasion for fear of being arrested.
“Our clients are concerned about the safety of their family members and are upset that there isn’t more they can do to help,” he said.
During a recent Shabbat service, Adath Jeshurun Rabbi Robert Slosberg interviewed a Ukrainian rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Tzipi Zilbershtein, who is from Kyiv and whose family is still there.
Zilbershtein, who plans to return to Ukraine after her ordination in May, is using her Ukrainian bank account to help individuals back home with immediate needs. Among the people she has helped are a cancer patient and an epileptic running low on their medications, individuals who can’t afford to fill their gas tanks and those who need food and transportation to get across the border.
This is the kind of help I provide people,” Zilbershtein said via Zoom. “I only help people who really need money right now.”
She hears of people in need through her parents, who are still in Ukraine.
Slosberg said AJ is raising money to support Zilbershtein’s efforts, and donations are coming in every day.
“The nice thing is she is able to immediately help people without going through intermediaries,” Slosberg said. “We’re giving her funds without conditions; we just want her to help people.”
In a nod to the Purim festival this month, Slosberg branded Putin, without actually naming him, as the villain in this war.
“We are dealing with an Amalek in Russia,” he said, using a term synonymous with enemies of the Jews.
Beyond Louisville, Jewish organizations are stepping up, raising funds to help beleaguered Ukraine.
The Jewish Federations of North America has launched a $20 million campaign, which the Jewish Federation of Louisville is supporting, to help Ukrainian Jews who want to make Aliyah, and to provide other forms of assistance.
The digital news outlet ejewishphilanthopy has reported that the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine is providing staples – nonperishable food and water – to those in their communities.
Other organizations raising funds include the World Union for Progressive Judaism, HIAS, Hillel International, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Masorti and the Orthodox Union.
When Nelson’s family first arrived in Louisville, she recalls how they nervously walked through the airport sky ramp, not knowing what they would find at the other end in the terminal.
What they found were members of the Louisville Jewish community, who gathered to welcome them to their new home.
“To this day and ’til my very last day, I will remember that light at the end of the tunnel,” said Nelson, who went on to become the JCC’s acculturation director, helping other Soviet Jews arriving here.
The next day, they were taken to the JCC, which she equated at the time with the “Taj Mahal.”
So it was with some pride that she told the congregation that Kyiv today has its own JCC, three times the size.
“It’s so beautiful and gorgeous,” Nelson said, adding “if it will survive.”