Wreckage of a rocket on a playground in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on the first day of the invasion, Feb.24, 2022. (Photo/Fotoreserg via Depositphoto)
Wreckage of a rocket on a playground in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on the first day of the invasion, Feb.24, 2022. (Photo/Fotoreserg via Depositphoto)

One year after Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pain is still fresh for local emigres

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It’s been a year since Russia launched its brutal attack on Ukraine. For 12 long months, lines of tanks and soldiers have advanced and retreated across Ukrainian territory, carving jagged scars on the landscape. Images of bombed cities, bodies lying in the streets and desperate residents scrounging for food and firewood have blanketed the media.

For many Americans, it’s too much. They are weary of the ongoing tragedy; others events have supplanted it in the news cycle.

But for the tens of thousands of Jews who immigrated to the Bay Area years ago from the former Soviet Union, especially those from Russia or Ukraine, the pain has not diminished. It is with them every single day.

“The war is so difficult for Jews from Ukraine because it’s like losing your homeland all over again,” said Irina Klay, who left Odessa in 1998 and today is director of community outreach for Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco. “First when we came here. And now…”

Irina Klay, community outreach director at Jewish Family and Children's Services in San Francisco.Courtesy JFCS-SF.
Irina Klay, Jewish Family and Children’s Services

Her voice trails off, and she chokes up. After 25 years, Klay still feels deeply connected to the city of her birth.

It’s just as heartbreaking for Bay Area Jews originally from Russia, especially those who still have family there.

Paul Neyman immigrated from St. Petersburg with his wife in 1998, soon after they graduated college. They now live in Campbell. But his wife’s parents remained behind.

They would like to leave Russia now, but it’s virtually impossible, Neyman said. “There are waiting lines at all the embassies for visas,” he told J. “You could say the Iron Curtain has come down again, and they are behind it.”

For some who immigrated here from Russia, the pain and concern are mixed with shame at coming from a country that is committing such atrocities.

That’s true for writer Masha Rumer, who immigrated with her family from St. Petersburg in 1993 when she was 13. Now a mother, she published a book last year called “Parenting with an Accent,” sharing stories of how immigrants from various countries deal with their dual cultural identities. After the war broke out, she convinced her publisher to print a second edition just so she could include an introduction condemning Putin’s invasion.

Rumer volunteers as a translator with JFCS, helping legal experts fill out paperwork for newly arrived Ukrainians. She told J. last fall that while clients are grateful for the help, she said, she got “some comments” when they heard her Russian.

“I didn’t want to tell them I was from Russia because I’m ashamed of what the government is doing — even though my family left because we suffered such abuses,” she said.  “We were refugees, too.”

Complicating the picture is the fact that Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union often have nuanced identities. The difference is largely generational.

Those who grew up in Soviet times, with the letter “J” printed on their internal passports, tend to think of themselves as Jewish rather than Russian or Ukrainian — because that’s how the state, and their neighbors, thought of them. Jews under 40, on the other hand, grew up in independent countries and are more likely to identify with those nationalities.

“It depends on when you left,” said Klay.

Personal circumstances also come into play.

Anna Borovik, director of the L’Chaim Adult Day Health Center, a program of JFCS, is from Kharkiv, a city near the Russian border. Like Kyiv, it was bombed on the first day of the war. Today the city lies in rubble, virtually destroyed.

Anna Borovik, director of the L'Chaim Adult Day Health Center, with two new arrivals from Ukraine that have joined her community. Photo/Courtesy JFCS
Anna Borovik, director of the L’Chaim Adult Day Health Center, with two new arrivals from Ukraine

At 77, like most of her peers, Borovik considers herself “100 percent Jewish, not Ukrainian,” although she completely supports Ukraine in this conflict.

“The only people who support Russia are either stupid or immoral,” she stated.

Borovik left Kharkiv in 1993, but she still knows people there. One of her classmates died when Russian bombs hit her building. Her body was found outside in the yard.

Borovik has another worry. She has family members buried in the city’s Jewish cemetery.

“My worst nightmare is that they will destroy the cemetery,” she said. “How could I tolerate that? To do harm to the deceased, that’s totally un-Jewish. I’m the person who takes care of their graves, and I’m completely helpless.”

There’s another twist to this diaspora story: Many Jews have roots in both countries, the legacy of internal Jewish migration during Soviet years, as upwardly mobile Jews left the Pale of Settlement for better opportunities in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).

Klay says half of her family is from Ukraine and half from Russia. Neyman’s wife also has family in Ukraine, with her parents in Russia.

That’s also the case for Natalie Vershov, 35, newly hired head of Ukrainian refugee efforts for Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. She is a Moscow native who has family in Odessa.

Natalie Vershov, Ukrainian Refugee Program lead, JCFS-East Bay.
Natalie Vershov, Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay

“It’s very difficult to find someone in the community with no Ukrainian and Russian roots,” she said.

Rabbi Ilana Baird, 48, a native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, runs the Russian-Speaking Jewish Program ( RSJ) at Jewish Silicon Valley in Los Gatos. Most of her clients are elderly, and they experienced “deep trauma” when the war broke out last February, she said.

Because the Covid pandemic was still in full force, she offered online “anti-stress meetings” to teach clients techniques for dealing with anxiety. “I needed to support the community mentally and emotionally,” she said. “People were in shock. It was traumatic for everyone. Almost all of them have family in Ukraine or Russia or both, like me. We worry about our relatives.”

The current conflict is particularly difficult for older Jews, especially those who lived through World War II, when Ukraine and Russia were united in the fight against Nazi aggression.

Irina, a 55-year-old immigrant from Ukraine who lives on the Peninsula, spends her time taking care of her parents, who are in their late 80s. (She declined to give her last name, citing privacy concerns.)

She came to San Francisco with her parents and sister in 1987 from a small town near Lviv, in western Ukraine. Both of her grandfathers fought in the Soviet army and were killed in 1941, the first year of the war. Their young wives, Irina’s grandmothers, fled ahead of the German invaders, babies in tow.

For her parents, the current war is incomprehensible. She feels the same. “Ukraine and Russia are brother and sister,” she said. “The fact that they are fighting breaks my heart. It breaks my father’s heart. He is glued to the news. He cries every day.”

At the L’Chaim Center, Borovik organized a Ukrainian solidarity event last March, a month after the invasion. Her elderly clients come from throughout the former Soviet Union but are united in their opposition to the Russian invasion.

The event featured Ukrainian songs and foods; the staff wore traditional Ukrainian folk costumes, even though virtually everyone in the group was Jewish. “We read poems in Russian, because many of the people don’t understand Ukrainian,” Borovik said. (Until recent years, Jews in Ukraine generally spoke Russian.) “We decorated the room, and had a banner saying ‘Ukraine Is My Other Half.’”

How to Help

The organizations mentioned in this story accept donations, and some accept volunteers.

Jewish Family and Children’s Services Ukrainian Emergency Fund

Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay

Jewish Family Services Silicon Valley

Russian Speaking Jewish Program of Jewish Silicon Valley

Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s Ukraine crisis response

Cash For Refugees

While the war has bitterly divided the people of Ukraine and Russia on the ground, it has not had that effect on the Russian-speaking Jewish diaspora, according to community members.

In fact, the opposite is true. The invasion has brought them together in their shared pain, concern for friends and family they left behind, and desire to do something to help the refugees and the internally displaced.

“A lot of the community here says the stress is just terrible,” JFCS’ Klay said. “For many, volunteering helps heal.” 

Indeed, as soon as the war began, fundraising efforts were launched nationwide to support Ukraine.

Locally, the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, JCCs and other Jewish institutions set up funds to channel dollars and essential items to nonprofits working on the ground. Hygiene kits, blankets, winter clothing, diapers, aspirin bottles — all of it had to be boxed up and sent to the refugees overseas. Efforts increased as winter approached, and continue to this day.

As refugees began to arrive in the Bay Area, all three local Jewish family service agencies set up programs to help the new arrivals find jobs and shelter and build new lives.

JFCS in San Francisco, which has a long history of helping Jews from the former Soviet Union, has welcomed “hundreds” of Ukrainians, most of whom are not Jewish, Klay said. 

Jewish Family Services in Silicon Valley has helped some 100 Ukrainian newcomers, according to Michelle Lee, director of refugee and career services, and another 100 to 150 are expected in the near future. The agency’s case managers enroll the new arrivals through a partnership with Santa Clara County, which has seen a recent uptick in numbers applying for help.

That’s because many of the earliest arrivals are not aware that they are now eligible for a variety of benefits that initially were unavailable to them. “There’s a lack of understanding that they can now enroll,” Lee said, and her agency is doing outreach to get the word out.

JFCS/East Bay is doing the same kind of outreach, said Vershov. So far the organization has welcomed about 140 Ukrainian families, and new inquiries come in every week. “Everybody is so grateful to find people willing to help them navigate the process,” she said. “It’s been wonderful to work with them.”

The local Jewish community, Russian-speaking or not, has been welcoming people on an individual basis. The family service agencies note that residents have opened their homes to shelter refugees for a day, a month, sometimes an entire year. 

Synagogues are also stepping up. For example, Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame is supporting a Ukrainian family that arrived at the end of January. Rabbi Lisa Delson said the impetus came from the Reform congregation’s eight-member welcome circle, which operates with the help of HIAS. 

“Many of those on the committee were helped themselves by HIAS when they immigrated,” she said. “That’s where our desire to help came from.”

There were also missions to the Ukrainian border earlier in the conflict. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders traveled together to witness the influx of refugees, give emotional comfort and come home to share their stories. 

When Rabbi Baird heard that Jewish Federations of North America was establishing hubs for volunteers traveling to help the refugees, she signed up three times, going twice to Poland and once to Barcelona.

Rabbi Ilana Baird in Warsaw with Ukrainian refugee children, July 2022.
Rabbi Ilana Baird in Warsaw with Ukrainian refugee children, July 2022.

“I really wanted to make a difference, to help people,” she said. Noting her language skills and rabbinic experience, she added, “I really could.” 

In Warsaw she worked in a day care program, taking care of 5- and 6-year-olds. She brought suitcases filled with children’s books, games and other donated items, including socks — one Silicon Valley man had donated thousands from Bombas, an apparel company with a philanthropic mission. All made their way to the refugees. In Krakow, Baird answered a call for a rabbi to lead High Holiday services. In Barcelona, she worked with women refugees in a program set up at the local Reform synagogue, leading Shabbat services in Russian with a Spanish translator for the locals.

In between trips, she focused on work at home, organizing donation drives through the Russian-speaking Jews in her community. The JFS’ Mitzvah Club for pre-teens collected toothbrushes and toothpaste to send to refugees and wrote cards of encouragement.

Some locals simply picked up and went there to see how they could help.

Walnut Creek resident Leo Hmelnitsky, originally from Moscow, spent all of March 2022 in Ukraine and the Czech Republic. He connected with a Chabad rabbi in Prague, met local business leaders, and within two days had established a nonprofit to funnel goods and supplies into Ukraine.

“It was thanks to this incredible Jewish connection all over the world,” he said. 

San Francisco residents Marina Eybelman, 42, and her husband, Alex Furman, 43, also took action shortly after the invasion. Both are from Moscow.

Alex Furman of Cash for Refugees, at Ukrainian border, Spring 2022.
Alex Furman of Cash for Refugees at Ukrainian border in 2022.

In the early days of the war they heard about Cash for Refugees, a nonprofit based in Boston that was handing out cash to Ukrainians as they crossed the border. It was run by a couple they knew, so they jumped on board.

On his first trip to the Ukrainian border last March, Furman literally handed out cash to people as they walked across. He was a bit nervous they would react badly to his Russian. “I steeled myself that I’d be speaking to them in the language of the oppressor,” he said. “I expected it to be difficult, but it wasn’t.”

One year later, Cash for Refugees is still run by the two couples, and still focuses on face-to-face donations. They have since incorporated as a nonprofit, have a subsidiary in Kyiv and now send teams of volunteers deep into Ukraine to locate and help displaced people. And instead of handing out bundles of cash, they finance needed repairs such as broken windows and furnaces, or buy firewood for people without electricity so they can heat their homes. 

Like Baird, Furman and Eybelman, a large number of the people behind these fundraising and volunteer efforts are former immigrants themselves. Many were helped when they first arrived by the same agencies where they are now volunteering. Others strike out on their own. 

It helps the refugees. It helps the volunteers. And it does something else.

“There were always complaints that the FSU Jewish community was not really active in the philanthropic world,” Eybelman said. “But this past year, there have been lots of efforts, on both coasts. It will have a lasting effect on the community.”

Klay of JFCS concurs. “We have seen such an outpouring of support from the community,” she said. “Russian-speaking Jews have been reaching out to us in the hundreds. I’ve never seen such unification of the community. 

“Some are on the right, some on the left, like any community. But they are completely united in wanting to help, both here and in Ukraine. It makes me incredibly proud.” 

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].