Leo Hmelnitsky and the driver who helped him cross the Ukrainian border in 2022.
Leo Hmelnitsky and the driver who helped him cross the Ukrainian border in 2022.

Walnut Creek man on a mission for Ukraine

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Leo Hmelnitsky is the kind of guy who gets things done. Former head of global equity trading at Mellon Capital and now an independent investment strategist, he is also deeply involved in the Jewish community. He serves on boards ranging from Federation and Jewish Family and Children’s Services, to Contra Costa Jewish Day School and his local Chabad.

So it’s no surprise that when Hmelnitsky flew to Prague last March to help Ukrainians suffering from the Russian invasion, he managed to set up a nonprofit to procure food, medicines and other essential supplies, secure huge warehouses to store the goods, and establish a delivery network to ferry them deep into Ukraine itself — all within two days.

“It’s all because of Jewish connections,” he told J., noting that when he got to Prague he hooked up with the city’s Chabad rabbi, who introduced him to Jewish business leaders and attorneys, who helped him set up the charitable nonprofit as well as a local bank account. “You can’t just walk into a pharmacy as an individual and buy thousands of bottles of aspirin,” he explained.

The Walnut Creek resident left for Europe on March 23, one month after the invasion and the day before his wife’s birthday. “She said that was the best gift I could give her, to show our kids what we stand for,” he said.

One of the first actions he and his partners took was to rent a hotel to house refugees pouring into the Czech capital. A native of Moscow, Hmelnitsky is sensitive to the cultural differences between Russia and Ukraine; he and his team right away hired a few of the refugees to work in the “command center,” so that those who followed would be greeted in their own language.

Hmelnitsky, 50, had plenty of adventures during his monthlong visit. He drove into Slovakia and Ukraine to find warehouses to store the food and supplies his nonprofit was collecting.  At one point he crossed into Ukraine on foot. In the midst of everything, on the third day of his trip he contracted Covid, and spent a week managing from his hotel room.

“We bought goods according to what the Ukrainians told us they needed,” he said. “Whatever we could buy in Ukraine itself was much cheaper.”

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Bulletproof vests were one item they procured. “We worked with the design, sending it back and forth, making sure it was light and easy to wear, and that it protected the neck from shrapnel,” he said. He and an Israeli driver, whose license plate said “Pan Rambo” (“Pan” means “Mr.” in several Slavic languages), drove the vests to the border. The Ukrainian border guard refused to let them pass.

“He said we were missing stamps,” Hmelnitsky recalled. Clearly the guy wanted a bribe. “My driver said, we’re not paying you a penny, we’re doing this to help your people!” After four hours of negotiations they were able to cross, and the bulletproof vests made their way to war-torn Kharkiv.

“Listen, you take the good with the bad,” he said philosophically.

One thing he found troubling is when Jews from the FSU questioned what he was doing. “They’d say, ‘Why are you helping Ukrainians, after what they did to us? More Jews were killed by Ukrainians than by Germans during the war.’

“I’d say, I know you have bad memories, but for now, put it on the back burner,” he said. “When we are saving Jews, it’s more palatable to them. But we didn’t discriminate. Saving a life is like saving the whole world.”

Hmelnitsky wasn’t the only family member to reach out. His wife, Anna Levin, spent time last year at the Mexican border, also helping Ukrainian refugees. And his daughter, a student at NYU, traveled to the region during summer break to work with refugee children in a summer camp.

In addition, the family as a whole is supporting two refugee families from Ukraine.

“We are in a very privileged position to be able to save lives. These are our Jewish values.”

Sue Fishkoff

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