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Amidst conflict, Ukrainian Jewish women are thriving — and preparing for whatever happens next

As tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to mount, a chorus of male voices from the Soviet Jewish Diaspora, and an older generation of Jewish Ukrainian leaders, are telling us what to think about it. It is common to see panels of Jewish life in Ukraine with no women represented, hosting Ukrainian leaders who have been in the same post since the 1990s.

Recently, the son of refuseniks who immigrated to New York in 1987 told a journalist for the Forward, “I find it offensive when people describe me as a Ukrainian Jew…Most of the Jews I knew growing up wanted to leave, the ones there now … I really can’t understand them.”

Unlike the writer, I am proud to call myself a Ukrainian Jew. And unlike nearly every other voice that has been published recently on the topic, I am a female leader in the Jewish community in Ukraine.

Ukraine is where I was born, came of age, became established and where I am currently raising a daughter and a son. In the Soviet era, I witnessed firsthand Ukraine’s path to independence. I was here for the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan; I was here when Russia occupied Crimea, and I am here now for this latest show of aggression, which has persisted since Russia started war in Donbas in 2014.

Jewish women at a bat mitzvah in Odessa, Ukraine

Jewish women in Ukraine

I cheered when Zelenskyy was elected as our first Jewish president, and I commended his actions to demonstrate Ukrainian-Jewish unity throughout the country and to the rest of the world. And as our newly independent nation has grown, I have been serving as the Executive Director of Project Kesher Ukraine, an independent nonprofit organization that supports programs and campaigns by and for Jewish women activists in 42 cities throughout Ukraine. We have trained 300 Jewish women leaders who live throughout the country to run programs, locally and nationally, on topics ranging from Jewish education and holiday celebrations to sexual and reproductive health education and preventing gender violence.

I will try to help you understand and see Jewish Ukraine in a new light. There is a deep history of horrific acts of antisemitism committed in Ukraine, and we will never forget the past of the Jewish community in Ukraine. However, the claim that modern Ukraine is antisemitic or irrelevant for Jews does a great disservice to Jews living and thriving in Ukraine today.

Ella Goncharova, 62, is an active Jewish community member and one of our part-time staff members. She lives in Dnipro, Ukraine with her daughter and two grandchildren, and they attend synagogue weekly. Her son serves as legal counsel for the police department and volunteers his consulting services when needed to the community.

Ella is very involved with PK Ukraine’s Visiting Moms program, a project that provides psychological, emotional, and informational online support for young mothers with children under one year, as well as the Dnipro Regional Multiethnic Coalition, a platform for cooperation and mutual understanding across ethnic and religious communities. Ella was recently asked by the Dnipro Regional Council to advise on a special program to engage clergy to prevent domestic violence in her area. Ella is just one example of how multigenerational Jewish families are thriving in Ukrainian civil society.

Ella is just one example of many. In the past 30 years, Ukraine has developed a vibrant civic nationality that empowers Ukrainian Jews to openly embrace both our Jewish and Ukrainian identities in harmony.

Today’s Jewish parents in Ukraine are proud to send their kids to Jewish camp and attend synagogue, and enjoy successful careers and social lives. A few generations ago, Jews in Ukraine were afraid to share the truth about their identity and Jewish communities were nonexistent. An independent Ukraine has made it possible for Jewish Ukrainians to thrive without compromising, and the young generation of Jews is fully integrated in Ukrainian culture.

As Ukrainian Jews continue to move forward in claiming this dual identity, the issue of language has been a hurdle. In 2019, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law making Ukrainian the official language of the state. More recently, the country has transitioned into full use of Ukrainian, and the implementation of this transition is expected and required throughout the country.

This poses a challenge to the Jewish community, as the majority of modern progressive Jewish resources are available primarily in Russian. This year, Jewish life in Ukraine is getting a refresh with a new Jewish calendar by Project Kesher, a prayer for peace and an upcoming Haggadah in the works in Ukrainian.

Ukrainian Jewish women read from the Torah as part of a bat mitzvah ceremony, January 2022

Ukrainian Jewish women read from the Torah as part of a bat mitzvah ceremony for 12 Jewish girls and women in Odessa, Ukraine, January, 2022. Courtesy of Vlada Nedak

But in spite of these challenges, the days of the fifth line, or pyataya grafa —when Soviet minorities were required to list their nationality on the fifth line of their passports — are behind us, and we will not allow our children to forget or take their freedoms for granted.

We are in a moment of great patriotism among those working to move Ukraine toward greater democracy, and many Jewish families will not leave or emigrate to Israel; their families and their lives are here in Ukraine.

The current threat of war and economic destabilization is real and this situation disrupts our daily lives. My team is preparing for an economic crisis while working around the clock to ensure that our community is equipped with vital supplies and information in case of a national emergency. We are working with our insurance company to provide staff with first aid kits and emergency medical supplies, and consulting with lawyers to understand the NGOs limitations in providing humanitarian aid. In the case of an emergency where we might lose Internet and mobile service, landlines and emergency phone trees have been arranged, along with other contingency plans.

Jewish women at a bat mitzvah in Odessa, Ukraine

Jewish women at a bat mitzvah in Odessa, Ukraine Courtesy of Project Kesher

Like many here, my daughter’s school has been closed numerous times due to bomb threats in the last weeks. In addition to a surge in the COVID-19 Omicron variant, young people in Ukraine are facing the choice between evacuating and defending their country. Families in Ukraine are preparing for the worst and praying for peace.

Despite conflict at the borders and antisemitic incidents, Ukraine boasts the lowest rates of antisemitism in Eastern Europe today. Ukraine is now experiencing a new age of Jewish life.

In the early post-Soviet years, it was the American Jewish community that organized and responded to antisemitism in the region, but today, we Jewish Ukrainians are empowered with the tools to advocate for ourselves.

This weekend, we hosted a bat mitzvah ceremony for 12 Jewish women and girls in Odessa. With all of the COVID-19 and security measures, the women held a joyous celebration of their accomplishments and contributions to the Jewish community in Ukraine. This gives me even more reason to have faith.

I wholeheartedly believe that it is our Jewish values and community that will help us get through this trying time. As Jews, we have a responsibility to protect each other with dignity and mutual understanding.

My Jewish life has kept me grounded throughout the most difficult periods, and our Jewish rituals and traditions are keeping me strong today — throughout the pandemic, and even under the threat of invasion.

If you emigrated from the former Soviet Union, do you feel affected by what is happening in Ukraine? We’d like to hear from our readers who have emigrated from former Soviet republics. Email us at editorial@forward.com to share your story.

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