Hanukkah lights the darkness in Ukraine
For countless numbers around the world on Dec. 13, especially in America, lighting the eighth and final Hanukkah candle and eating latkes have become routine features of the season, whether you are Jewish or not.
But imagine if these activities, staples of the Jewish "Festival of Lights,"could provide respite from war and violence, displacement, and economic collapse?
For thousands of Jews in Ukraine — who like their Christian neighbors are suffering through a protracted crisis with no end in sight — the annual Jewish holiday that recalls victory over adversity has become a symbol of resilience.
The humanitarian toll of the conflict in Ukraine, long fallen from the headlines, includes displacement by the millions, thousands killed, widespread damage to property, sky-rocketing prices, and an economy in tatters. If you are among the most vulnerable, like the homebound elderly or the poor, you suffer doubly, living in fear, and wondering where your next meal or heating fuel will come from.
And while aid in the form of food, clothing, medical care, and housing is critical to survival, people suffering the trauma of upheaval and conflict also need outlets to rejoice in their humanity and connect to their faith communities who often become a central address for relief in their times of need.
Since the crisis began two years ago, the Jewish community of Ukraine, numbering an estimated 300-350,000 Jews, has come together not just to provide much-needed aid, but also to celebrate the Jewish holidays with bravery and gusto unmatched under such circumstances. They have been joined in this massive undertaking by my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and other overseas Jewish and Christian aid groups -- the Jewish Federations, Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, World Jewish Relief, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians & Jews -- individual philanthropists, foundations, community leaders, and activists all seeking to ensure that life goes on even under duress.
In the eastern Ukrainian cities of Lugansk and Donetsk, deep in the separatist-controlled region, hundreds of Jewish children and teens are lighting menorahs, learning about the Hanukkah story, and attending community parties and performances. Elderly Jews, who suffered under Communist oppression and, in some cases, Nazi barbarism, are taking part in a Hanukkah food fair where they will sample traditional holiday cuisine made by seniors at a Jewish social welfare center supported by my agency.
For internally displaced Jews, numbering in the thousands, Hanukkah in their new homes has become a time to integrate into their surroundings and to take part in local holiday fare. Their plight is marked by the need for housing, jobs, and access to social services in unfamiliar surroundings. Many of them fled to cities where they had no connections, relatives, or friends and face concern by potential landlords or employers that they would one day return to the east.
And yet from Odessa to Kharkov, they happily join Chabad's renowned public Hanukkah candle lightings that kick-off the holiday, attend Hanukkah cooking workshops and concerts at local Jewish Community Centers, and enthusiastically volunteer to run or organize cultural events and activities for the elderly.
Especially touching for the displaced are holiday visits and the delivery of Hanukkah gifts by young Jewish volunteers in the southern Ukrainian cities of Kherson and Nikolaev. These brave, proud young people have turned 70 years of Soviet disdain for philanthropy and volunteerism on its head and are leading efforts to give back and better the lives of the neediest.
The power of these wide-ranging celebrations among people facing terrible odds cannot be understated. And perhaps there is no better expression of the strength it offers them than this excerpt from the poetry of Boris Keselman, an 56-year old retired engineer-electrictian from Kiev who is, once again, participating in Hanukkah celebrations and activities in the capital city:
"The Hanukkah candle is pure and hot,
It may warm even a hut…
The Hanukkah candle gives us its shine
And our souls brighten up…
The city on seven hills (Kiev), with grief in eyes,
Has been bringing the candle
For a long time…for centuries…
And the light of this candle
Will bring peace to Ukraine…"
With another brutal winter setting in across Ukraine, may these words -- and ongoing efforts to address the human side of this crisis -- bring warmth to those who are freezing and light to the darkness.