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 fierce 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 Friday while speaking at the 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.”
Jewish Louisville is responding to the two-week-old Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has claimed hundreds of lives, caused millions of dollars in damage to towns and cities and has spawned Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
An estimated 1.5 million people, including Jews, have fled the country, while back home the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial near Kyiv is among the sites and facilities damaged by Russian attacks.
As the fighting, including Russian shelling of civilian targets continues (Russia claims it is not doing so), local rabbis have address the crisis from their pulpits.
Last Thursday night, the Kentucky Institute for Torah Education held a 10-minute prayer for the people of Ukraine via Zoom.
The Jewish Family & Career Services has provided counseling and support to Ukrainian clients.
This coming Shabbat, Adath Jeshurun Rabbi Robert Slosberg will host a virtual interview with a Ukrainian rabbinical student, Tzipi Zilbershtein, who is from Kyiv and whose family is still there.
Beyond Louisville, Jewish organizations are raising funds to help the beleaguered country and its people.
The Jewish Federations of North America, which includes the Jewish Federation of Louisville, has launched a $20 million campaign to help those who want to make aliyah while maintaining welfare services and setting up an emergency hotline.
The digital news outlet ejewishphilanthopy is reporting that the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine is providing staples – nonperishable food water – to those in their community.
Other organizations raising funds include the World Union for Progressive Judaism, HIAS, the Joint Distribution Committee, JAFI, Hillel International and the Orthodox Union, among others.
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,” she said, “I will remember that light at the end of the tunnel.”
The next day, they were taken to the JCC, which she equated at the time to 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, “if it will survive.”