Opinion | World

Op-Ed: Support Jews staying in Ukraine

(JTA) — At the end of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the classic musical celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Tevye and his family flee their village of Anatevka for a better and safer life.

In reality, however, not everybody left.

Elderly Ukrainians receive food packages at the Hesed social welfare center in Donetsk run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. (Courtesy JDC)
Elderly Ukrainians receive food packages at the Hesed social welfare center in Donetsk run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. (Courtesy JDC)

Today, several hundred thousand Jews still live in Ukraine, where the fictional Anatevka was likely located. And despite headlines on mass evacuations, Ukraine’s ongoing political crisis and serious concerns about anti-Semitism, they are not leaving in great numbers.

Some might find that hard to fathom.

Ukraine, after all, has a long history of anti-Jewish acts and attitudes, economic turmoil, and was center stage to Holocaust atrocities. Add to that dim prospects for a quick solution to the protracted challenges facing the country and increasing need among the poorest elderly and families, and a future there seems bleak.

Yet two things are important to remember.

First, 2014 is not 1939. Jews in Ukraine and elsewhere today have the freedom to leave places that are dangerous or unfriendly to them; they can find safe haven in Israel or other countries around the world. Additionally, Jews have developed strong voices and grassroots community groups, working with their governments and fellow citizens to valiantly challenge acts of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

Second, Jews throughout the region have deep ties to the societies in which they live. They have families and friends. They are leading politicians, artists, businessmen, journalists and contributors to Ukrainian society. They also have enthusiastically engaged in Jewish communities revived after the fall of the Soviet Union – replete with scores of Jewish community centers, synagogues, nursery schools, Jewish day schools, after-school programs and summer camps.

So what are we to do in the face of this phenomenon?

Primarily, we must respect the decision of Ukrainian Jews to stay at home or emigrate. Then we must do all we can to support those who choose to remain there and continue to live their lives. The global Jewish community, through a variety of philanthropic partners and institutions, has been at the forefront of these efforts.

Since the outbreak of violence in Ukraine, for example, our organizations have provided the neediest Jews with emergency aid, round-the-clock care and Jewish community connection through our network of Hesed social welfare centers that reach more than 1,000 locations around Ukraine. Other groups such as the Jewish Agency have done a stellar job of providing immigration options to Israel.

Ultimately the fate of the Jews of Ukraine is not an either/or proposition. Like many others in crisis zones in the world today, they will seek out what they consider to be the best opportunity or path for themselves.

And right now, the choice of the vast majority of Ukrainian Jews is to stay where they were born and raised.

That sentiment was voiced in the aftermath of unprecedented violence in the port city of Odessa amid rumors of a community-wide exodus. Tania Vorobyov of the city’s Beit Grand Jewish Community Center told reporters, “Reports about evacuation are baseless rumors. Jews in Odessa are worried about the violence like all other Odessans but have no special plans to leave as a community.”

This may be counterintuitive to the popular imagination, a la Tevye, which says Jews must flee Eastern Europe to find happiness and success.

Reality, however, often trumps our preconceptions.

Alan H. Gill is CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Paul Anticoni is the CEO of World Jewish Relief in the United Kingdom.