‘Jewish Geography Gone Wild’: How network of Russian-speaking Jews is helping Ukrainians

Children+in+Jerusalem+demonstrating+against+the+Russian+invasion+of+Ukraine%2C+February+28%2C+2022.+Photo+by+Olivier+Fitoussi%2FFlash90

Children in Jerusalem demonstrating against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, February 28, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Lev Gringauz, Special For The Jewish Light

In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an Israeli friend contacted Jenna Mitelman and asked her to help two Ukrainian refugees. A single mother and her nine-year-old boy needed housing. Where could they go?

“Within two hours she had offers in Switzerland, in Germany, and in Spain,” Mitelman said — and a travel plan for whichever housing option the mother chose.

How? “Jewish geography gone wild,” she said.

Mitelman, a data scientist in Minnesota, is one of the millions of Russian-speaking Jews and their children who live outside Eastern Europe. Many fled the former Soviet Union (FSU) to escape antisemitism and economic instability. But even as the FSU community spread largely across Germany, Israel, and the U.S., people stayed in touch and kept a connection to native countries like Ukraine.

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Now, those global connections are lighting up social media, from Telegram chats to Instagram stories, to help Ukrainians. Bypassing large humanitarian organizations, volunteers are fundraising for direct aid, organizing evacuations, teaching English, and translating guides on war trauma for therapists working with Ukrainians. Some medical professionals are also traveling to Europe to help refugees.

“It’s been literally phone call chains, gathering resources…’okay you have leads on drivers, you have leads on cars, you have leads on bus schedules, you have leads on housing,’” Mitelman said.

FSU Jews are “a pretty calm, peaceful community,” she said. “There’s a few restaurants, there’s a few grocery stores…but I think when something like this happens, it galvanizes the community.”

The internet has paved the roads for these networks to be fast and nimble, and to support the ad hoc aid that Ukrainians in war zones are organizing for each other. Despite Russia’s indiscriminate bombing campaigns targeting civilian areas, Ukraine has kept up a resilient internet connection, allowing for an avalanche of messages, posts, shares, and reshares to reach help.

“If there’s a need, you just screenshot it or [share] it,” said Katya Rouzina, a conversation designer for chat bots living in California, who is fundraising for Ukrainian refugee children. “Immediately, there’s a chain that happens and [Ukrainian volunteers] get people whatever is needed: whether it’s insulin; whether it’s medicine for grandma, who has cancer; whether it’s food for someone’s kids.”

Leaving or staying, Ukrainians get aid

Alice Chudnovsky was checking Instagram when Mark, an American Jewish friend, posted a story about his grandfather in Kharkiv. Before the war Kharkiv was Ukraine’s second-largest city, a predominantly Russian-speaking center of industry, culture, and education.

Now, Russia was leveling it with bombs, and Mark was unsure if the next time he called, his grandfather would still be alive. Chudnovsky messaged him.

“I was like, ‘hey, I have some friends that are on the ground. Maybe it would be helpful if I connect you so that they can bring your grandpa some food and water,’” Chudnovsky said. Mark’s grandfather got the help he needed.

Chudnovsky was inspired to keep connecting people online, and soon after, saw an Instagram story from her friends in Kharkiv. Distributing humanitarian aid and running buses to evacuate civilians, they needed financial support.

“How much money do you need? Let me help,” Chudnovsky said. She set up a Spotfund fundraiser called Lifeline for Kharkiv and raised $20,000 in less than two days. Now, after transferring the money to Kharkiv, she is aiming to raise $100,000 and is working to set up the fundraiser as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Evacuations have been particularly difficult in Ukraine. Trains are running, but families can’t take pets, and men, with rare exception, have to stay to fight Russia. The trains are also packed and often standing-room-only for hours of travel — not an easy journey for anyone, let alone children and the elderly.

“I only heard stories like that from my grandparents about the Holocaust,” Chudnovsky said of the trains.

As a result, in Kharkiv and across the country, many Ukrainians are not moving to a safer part of Ukraine, or across the border to become refugees. That’s why buses in Kharkiv are so important — Chudnovsky’s friends make it easier to leave by accepting pets, asking no questions about men, and having seating for those who need it.

Still, fear, pride, and misinformation create paralysis. Some Ukrainians think that if they leave the country and apply to be refugees, they’ll never be allowed back.

“People are very hesitant to leave their beloved country. Americans probably think, ‘they’ll be happy to leave as soon as possible’…But it’s not so simple,” Rouzina, in California, said. “Many of them feel very guilty for leaving.”

Rouzina is helping to organize evacuations and housing for several families from Kharkiv. They are exhausted and traumatized, and there’s little time to think clearly or figure out the best options as a refugee.

“They’re trying to decide, ‘my daughter got sick, but we have this only opportunity to drive to the next town tomorrow, do we go?’” Rouzina said. “And then the wonderful driver ends up waiting for them and [they end up] sleeping in the same apartment where there’s already eight people.”

Still, “I don’t think that it’s highlighted enough how many people have every intention to stay and help and also make a statement that this is…their home,” she said.

In the first few weeks of the war, Rouzina raised over $12,000 through a personal fundraiser on Facebook that went to a variety of causes, including a group of Kharkiv Jews who are bringing aid to the city and relocating people to safer areas.

In Kharkiv, night vision goggles were one of the most important purchases they made.

“It’s for night patrols…against Russian soldiers,” Rouzina said. “And the second purpose is to search debris for survivors, for bodies. That’s one of the biggest needs right now.”

Tied to Ukraine

“I promised my friends in Ukraine I wasn’t gonna turn my phone off overnight,” said Leora Eisenberg, a Ph.D. student in Russian and East European history at Harvard. “So I’ve been getting messages at all hours of the day.”

Eisenberg is running English classes through Telegram for a group of mostly adult Ukrainians. During lessons, air raid sirens go off, and students apologize for having poor wifi. “It’s really ok, it’s not your fault,” she tells them.

But as Eisenberg’s life revolves around people and a war thousands of miles away, it feels like Americans are going about their usual business. It’s frustrating, but she recognizes the apathy.

“I was in high school when [Russia was bombing civilians] in Syria,” Eisenberg said. “I probably virtue-posted about it on Facebook once or twice, maybe gave $15, and moved on with my life. And I realize how wrong that was.”

For Russian-speaking Jews in their 20s and early 30s, the obligation to help Ukrainians comes from a personal connection to the country, more so than any familial ties.

Chudnovsky has an affinity for Kharkiv after traveling in Ukraine, though her mother is also from the city. Rouzina worked in Kharkiv on a months-long JDC Entwine fellowship. And Eisenberg had a whirlwind trip to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, to work on her undergraduate thesis — where she also fell in love with a Ukrainian Jew.

“I wish I could give everyone that experience” to make them care about Ukraine, Eisenberg said. “But I can’t, so people are just gonna have to take my word for it.”

It’s the personal touch that also makes fundraising or giving to direct aid efforts more appealing.

When donating, “I tend toward the smaller initiatives, because I know exactly where the money is going, and I know exactly what good it’s going to be doing,” Eisenberg said. “Whereas if I donate to a larger organization, and they’re…doing great work, but so much of that [funding] goes to overhead.”

Older Jews, along with personal connections, have a broader view of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Mitelman is originally from Moscow, Russia, “which at the moment is not something you particularly want to admit,” she said. Her husband is from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. But in the FSU community, there isn’t much of a distinction between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

“So many of us have families that historically have spanned those places,” Mitelman said. “I’m from Moscow. I was born in Minsk, Belarus. My grandparents were born in Ukraine…and so I think, emotionally, it’s been really hard to watch this happen. The idea of Russian troops marching on Ukraine is surreal.”

Cultural similarities also push Jews to try and help. “These people’s parents are not fundamentally all that different from my parents,” Mitelman said. And the ability to understand Russian propaganda highlights just how polarized the region is.

“I can go and I can read Russian newspapers, and it’s completely horrifying,” Mitelman said. When Russia bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol, an eastern port city in Ukraine, Russian news claimed the site was being used for military purposes, and that no women or children were in it. In reality, three people were killed and 17 were injured — and a pregnant mother photographed on a stretcher later died along with her baby.

Mitelman spoke to a family friend in Russia who denies that the war is real, and insists Western media is lying. “It’s a 1984 version of reality” for Russian citizens, she said.

But language can also be used to help. Mitelman is one of around 60 people using their native skill in Russian and Ukrainian to translate English guides to children’s war trauma for therapists working with Ukrainian refugees. Normally, professional translators might take a year to translate the materials.

“But people need it now,” Mitelman said. So Russian-speaking trauma psychologists, many in the U.S., created an informal network to speed up the process. Fluent Russian and Ukrainian speakers across North America and Europe do a first pass at translating documents, and professional translators fix up the rest.

“Instead of translating from scratch, the professionals are able to take something that’s 90% good and just clean it up a bit,” Mitelman said. “That way, you’re able to turn it around a lot faster.”

Fifty-three documents have been translated and sent to therapists in just a few weeks, and the group is looking to partner with larger humanitarian organizations to make the materials more widely available.

For Jews, full circle

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bears a striking similarity to Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Despite claims of “de-nazifying” Ukraine, the English letter Z, painted on Russian trucks, cars, and shirts, has become a new swastika. Both invasions started with an early morning surprise attack. And where one extended the reach of the Holocaust, the other is accused of being a modern genocide.

“It was almost disbelief, especially when you’re a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, to be like, holy shit is this really happening?” Chudnovsky said.

When the war started, she felt guilty about watching from a distance, unable to help. But family Holocaust stories pushed her to do more. “You start realizing that most of your life, your family has been preparing you for something like this to happen,” Chudnovsky said. “Their stories about how to survive, how to help…my entire life I’ve been ready to go.”

The war has also prompted many Jews to move past a deep-seated bitterness toward Ukraine, where Jews faced oppression, pogroms, and the Holocaust.

“I’ve talked to some [American] Jews who [said], ‘they were antisemitic toward us back in the day…I don’t really want to help them,’” Eisenberg said. “I understand that Ukraine has a long history of antisemitism. I don’t think anyone will deny that. But I don’t see how that’s related to not helping somebody in a humanitarian crisis.”

In some sense, focusing specifically on Jews in Ukraine is missing the bigger picture: Ukrainians and Jews are in the same boat now. “Neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians are making any distinction at the moment,” Mitelman said. “We’ve reached a point where it’s just not mattering all that much.”

And Russia’s invasion highlights how much attention every Russian-speaking Jew – long lumped together simply as “Russian Jews” – is now giving to the nuances of their identity. The Soviet Union gave the impression that Eastern Europe is one cohesive unit. Russia, in pursuit of that impression, shattered it for generations.

For one of Eisenberg’s Ukrainian students, a 13-year-old girl, that was one of the very few silver linings about the war.

“The one thing that’s really nice…is now, no one is going to ask me if Russia and Ukraine are the same thing,” she told Eisenberg.