Many Ukrainian Jews have left over 2 years of war. Many others are still invested in their local communities.

World News

KYIV, Ukraine (JR) — Before their country was plunged into war, the synagogue in Kropyvnytskyi, a city in central Ukraine, was lucky to get 20 people to attend Shabbat services.

But two years after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the arrival of more than a dozen Jewish families from the country’s traumatized Eastern regions has invigorated the community.

“The rabbi there has new people … who moved from Kharkiv and Donbas,” Rabbi Mayer Stambler told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “He tells me that things have changed because they know what a Jewish community is about and they brought life to the kindergarten, to the synagogue, to the Sunday school, to the holidays.”

The silver lining for Kropyvnytskyi’s tiny Jewish community, about 300 out of a total population that stood at more than 220,000 in 2017, is just one part of the complicated reality for Ukrainian Jews as the deadly war grinds into its third year. While the anniversary of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24 attracted a flurry of coverage hearkening back to the war’s terrifying early days, most Jews are focused primarily on building — or rebuilding — their lives and communities.

Yet at the same time, attacks are ongoing — 17 people were killed in a Russian missile attack in Odesa on Friday — and the outpouring of international aid, including from Jewish donors, has largely dried up. Jewish federations in North America, for example, raised nearly $100 million after the Russian invasion but distributed all of that money and, since Israel was attacked on Oct. 7, have ceased fundraising for Ukraine.

“At the beginning of the war the American Jewry, Europe, Jews from all over the world were really hugging us with sending money and other kinds of help; now that Israel is at war it is tough,” said Stambler, a rabbi with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who heads the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine.

“There’s almost no local income and the expenses are growing due to the many needs that have appeared,” Stambler, who is based in the Chabad stronghold of Dnipro. Now, he said, Jewish communities across Ukraine that used to be self-sufficient are struggling, and some Ukrainian former donors are now on the list of people needing aid.

The shift in aid priorities has left some Ukrainian Jews feeling abandoned. “A lot of people here forget about my country and our war,” Yeva Hryhorevska, a Ukrainian teenager, told her peers at the international convention of BBYO, the Jewish youth movement, in Florida last month. “Our country is really lonely.”

Yeva Hryhorevska, sitting third from right, told fellow teens at a recent BBYO convention in the United States about how it feels to be a Ukrainian Jewish teen, February 2024. (Courtesy Jason Dixson Photography)

And yet Ukraine and Ukrainian Jews have demonstrated solidarity with Israel since Oct. 7.  Many Kyiv businesses exhibited Israeli flags in the weeks after Hamas’ attack, while 69% of respondents to a December opinion poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology said they sympathized with Israel — and only 1% voiced preference for the Palestinians.

What’s more, the high rate of emigration from Ukraine to Israel in recent years, which accelerated rapidly after the Russian invasion, means that Jews still living in Ukraine are likely to have personal connections in Israel.

“There is a strong feeling of solidarity because every Jew in Ukraine has friends or family there, so it was an immediate response in our communities,” said Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, an Israeli from the former Soviet Union who periodically travels to Ukraine to serve the country’s Masorti communities as the director of Midreshet Schechter. (Masorti Judaism is similar to the Conservative movement in the United States.)

“People started to come with money [from Ukraine for Israel], in some cases people who have almost nothing, because there are real economic problems in Ukraine,” Gritsevskaya said. She said her organization specifically used the money to help Ukrainian Jews who had moved to Israel after the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

Among the recent arrivals is a Ukrainian teenager whom Gritsevskaya and her husband have adopted; an orphan, he moved to Israel in the first year of the war in Ukraine. Like other boys his age, he has started the process to join the Israeli army.

Gritsevskaya said the attack on Israel had been transformative for recent Ukrainian arrivals whose immigration was born not out of Zionist fervor but out of practicality and fear.

“When they see what is going on, how everyone is helping each other and people are being together, they really start feeling belonging, and that’s amazing, it’s an unexpected immigration shock which makes them feel being part of their new society,” Gritsevskaya said.

As happens every year, a massive menorah marked Hanukkah at the center of Kyiv in 2023, despite the ongoing war with Russia. (Marcel Gascon Barbera)

Since the start of war on Ukraine, more than 15,000 of Ukraine’s Jews have moved to Israel, according to Israel’s records, and Stambler estimates that 30,000 have left the country. Estimates of Ukraine’s Jewish population before the war range from 45,000 to 10 times that if one includes those with Jewish ancestry who don’t necessarily identify as Jews, or those who have at least one Jewish grandparent, or those living in a household with a Jewish member.

Despite the exodus, many remain on the radar of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine.

“At the end of the day we have a database of 52,000 families that we serve, and it hasn’t changed much,” says the Chabad rabbi, who explains that many have sought material or spiritual support for the first time or have joined their local community to offer help to those in need.

Ukrainians across the country have adapted to living under the threat of Russian bombs. Yevhen Lando, 48, who teaches at the Department of Highways, Geodesy and Land Management of the Academy of Construction and Architecture in Dnipro, says Jewish life in the city hasn’t “changed significantly” despite all the convulsions of these two years of war.

“Of course we struggle with anxieties, but somehow we got used to it, we adapted, and we live,” Lando said.

But the steep degree of internal displacement, in a country where an estimated 3.7 million people have moved because of the war, has induced striking changes. As in Kropyvnytskyi, Jewish refugees from regions closer to the frontlines or occupied by Russia have revitalized other communities further away from the combat zone.

In Chernivtsi, a city of 260,000 in western Ukraine that has received thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians from regions more exposed to Russian attacks, the Masorti community has more than doubled its local membership, which has now reached nearly 70 members.

“With the beginning of the full-scale war, our community gained many new interesting members who are now part of the community life; some come for Shabbat and the holidays or help to prepare for events,” said Anastasiia Zlobina, a youth leader in the city’s Jewish community.

“The new members came from places like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhzhia or Odesa,” said Zlobina, who goes by her Hebrew name of Naomi. “They are not immigrants anymore but full members of the community, part of our family.”