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Tucson social worker lends hand, finds joy in war-torn Ukraine

Rabbi Nachum Ehrentreu, left, and Tucsonan Ron Rosenberg with Jewish kindergarteners in Zaporozhye, Ukraine (Courtesy Ron Rosenberg)

Looking back at 2015, there is no question that the growing number of refugees worldwide has become a huge concern. The United Nations refugee agency reported this summer that there are more refugees in the world today than ever previously recorded. The agency labels Syria, Ukraine and South Sudan as the three countries with the “most urgent emergencies around the world.” Tucson resident Ron Rosenberg shared with the AJP his story of visiting Ukraine, and how the Jewish community there guided him in his efforts to help the country’s refugees.

In Ukraine, conflicts between the government and its people, along with Russian military intervention, have left an internal displacement of over 1 million Ukrainian people. They have fled from war zones in the east; many remain homeless and lack medical supplies.

A retired psychologist, Rosenberg had been focusing on the development of health projects in Nogales, Mexico, and surrounding areas. But after a leisurely trip to Odessa, Ukraine, earlier this year, he learned about the conditions resulting from the war in eastern Ukraine and decided to shift some of his social work to help the Ukrainian people. He organized a trip to Zaporozhye, a Ukrainian city 100 kilometers from the war zone in Donetsk.

“I became acquainted online with a journalist in the east-central, industrial city of Zaporozhye. Fluent in English, she filled me in expertly about the horrific conditions in her country,” says Rosenberg. “At one time, she mentioned that to get anything done in Zaporozhye, one had best ‘seek out the Jews.’”

Ukraine is home to the third largest Jewish community in Europe and is the fifth largest Jewish community in the world, according to the World Jewish Congress. Rosenberg reached out to the Jewish community of Zaporozhye, hoping community members could give him insight on the current issues. He was put in contact with Rabbi Nachum Ehrentreu, the chief rabbi of Zaporozhye, who gave Rosenberg a tour of the city and introduced him to the family of a 9-year-old severely disabled girl, displaced by the war.

Rosenberg took the child and her family on as “informal clients,” conducting research on her condition and what else could be done to aid her situation. He left Zaporozhye in May, returning to Ukraine just four months later, when Ehrentreu invited Rosenberg to celebrate the High Holy Days with the community. At this time, Rosenberg took on two more clients, a mother and her son, who had serious medical problems. Before Yom Kippur, Ehrentreu suggested that Rosenberg do a mitzvah. “It means completing a duty, which is very important on Yom Kippur,” Rosenberg explains.

“Before the service, the rabbi appeared with the medically beleaguered boy and his mother, and suggested that I present the boy with a very nice Lego set,” says Rosenberg. “I did that, and the boy was glowing.”

Rosenberg says what he discovered about Judaism in Ukraine is nothing like anything he had ever experienced growing up in a largely secular, Reform Jewish family. “It is a form of Judaism based on joy. There is a lot of singing and dancing. They are a strong, close community.” During his second visit, Rosenberg met with the local mayoral candidate for the Ukrainian Association of Patriots (UKROP) and his staff. The party’s staff included soldiers, lawyers, doctors, political operatives and other health workers, who familiarized Rosenberg with the social services they coordinate. He visited the state children’s oncological hospital; a child care center; the UKROP café, which is the site for food processing equipment that supplies a large contingent of the Ukrainian army; and a clothing distribution center for displaced people from the war zone as well as families remaining in the war zone.

Now back in the United States, Rosenberg has been making progress to aid UKROP.

“I’ve accumulated a large store of cancer education materials in Russian. I have a lead on free cancer medications for children. I’ve downloaded a battlefield emergency medical manual in Russian. I’ve browsed up the physician in charge of training Ukrainian Army medics, and may likely be able to acquire state-of-the-art battlefield wound treatment equipment for them through a U.S. company. I have contacted a Bay Area non-profit that ships container loads of warm clothing to Ukraine.”

And this is just a start, he says.

“Modern day Ukraine is confronted with terrible crisis. But most importantly, this is an area with tremendous resilience and potential.”