War in Ukraine revives support networks of American Jewry

WASHINGTON (JTA) — HIAS, the Jewish immigration and refugee advocacy group founded in the heat of mass Jewish immigration in the late 19th century, has had plenty of practice for more than a century to save people in Ukraine.

Which is convenient, because with Russia’s massive invasion of the country, its institutional knowledge of evacuating refugees comes into play.

Melanie Nezer, senior vice president of the advocacy group, said the group had been preparing the ground for refugee influxes in neighboring countries for weeks, with one of its targets being Jewish refugees.

“The goal is, if Ukrainian Jews have to leave, to make sure they have a place to go and are supported,” she said in an interview on February 24, the first day of the war.

She said caring for non-Jewish refugees for years provided the group with the muscle memory needed to help Jews in crisis. “In recent years, however, we haven’t focused on the Jewish community,” she said. “But today we are in talks with Jewish leaders in Poland, Moldova and Ukraine, to make sure we can support, along with other Jewish organizations, whatever the Jewish community needs. So that’s definitely one of our priorities in Ukraine right now.

RELATED: Here’s How to Help Ukraine’s Jews

HIAS is one of many American Jewish organizations that pivoted in the day after the invasion to help Jews and others in Ukraine, through fundraising and evacuation efforts.

On Thursday, Jewish federations across the country sent out e-blastings with links to emergency fundraisers for Jews in Ukraine.

“The Federation and our partners on the ground in Ukraine are coordinating to ensure that we can respond quickly to the emerging and urgent humanitarian needs of the more than 200,000 members of the Jewish community in Ukraine,” an appeal from the Federation said Thursday. Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. (Estimates of the number of Jews in Ukraine range from 43,000 to 200,000, depending on how they are counted.)

On Friday, the UJA Federation of New York, the nation’s largest federation, approved up to $3 million in emergency funding for Ukraine’s Jewish community.

Last weekend, United Hatzalah, the international corps of Jewish first response volunteers, had set up its volunteers on the border between Ukraine and Moldova. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was raising funds to meet the needs of some 37,000 elderly Jews nationwide.

An internal letter to members of the Jewish Federations of North America described the coordination between several Jewish relief agencies that was already in place Thursday.

“JFNA’s professional team for Israel and Overseas has continued to be in very close and continuous contact with JDC, Jewish Agency and World ORT staff – all of whom are updating their plans in response to growing challenges,” the letter reads. “JFNA has also heard from other organizations operating in Ukraine and we are aggregating the information they provided.”

The letter said the Jewish Agency was focusing on community safety and bringing Jews to Israel, the JDC was helping the internally displaced, and World ORT was providing humanitarian aid to its students and their families.

“The exact nature and number of services needed and the number of people who will request or need different forms of assistance are not yet clear, but we are rapidly getting some of the critical infrastructure and staff costs that these operations under control. will result,” says the letter from Shira Hutt, JFNA’s executive vice president, and Rebecca Caspi, the organization’s senior vice president for Israel and Abroad.

Organizations are also concerned about staff. The JDC and the Jewish Agency move their operations to Lviv in western Ukraine. HIAS said it meets the needs of the approximately 160 employees of HIAS’ Ukrainian subsidiary, Right to Protection, also known as R2P.

“We have been in constant conversation with them about their staffing needs, how can we ensure their safety? How do we plan for an evacuation, what kind of support they would need – housing assistance, financial assistance,” Nezer said.

HIAS has served non-Jewish populations extensively in recent years, but remains committed to keeping the infrastructure in place to assist Jews, a need that seemed to have receded decades but is once again becoming a priority in Ukraine.

Nezer said Jews from the former Soviet Union who received aid from the agency are now among HIAS and R2P personnel who now care for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians from the country. Thousands of refugees from other conflicts have also used Ukraine for their entry into the West. “We have a lot of employees who are former Soviet Jewish refugees from Ukraine,” she said.

Nezer said HIAS is looking at ways to make it easier for Ukrainian refugees to enter the United States and will lobby the Biden administration to ease visa applications for refugees for reasons of religious persecution or family reunification.

“The United States will have to be more flexible,” she said.

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