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Jewish community members in Kharkiv, Ukraine, are mourning the bombing of the building that housed the city’s chapter of Hillel, an international Jewish student organization. The building in Constitution Square—once a gathering spot for up to 600 Jewish students and young professionals—was destroyed as Russian forces bombarded Ukraine’s second-largest city last week.
“I’m crying,” Yulia Pototskaya, director of the Hillel chapter in Kharkiv, told Haaretz, an Israeli news outlet. “I gave 25 years to Hillel. It’s horrible. It was my home and home for my students.”
Hillel International has had a presence in Ukraine for almost 25 years. It serves more than 4,000 students and young professionals in five cities across Ukraine—Kharkiv, Kyiv, Lviv, Dnipro and Odesa—and a total of 15,000 students at 24 Hillels in Eastern and Central Europe, including in Moldova, Georgia, Germany and Poland. The chapters operate as community hubs for Jewish students and young adults and host weekly Shabbat services, holiday gatherings, educational programs, volunteer opportunities and social events.
Pototskaya planned to stay in Kharkiv when the war broke out, and some of the students served by her chapter joined the Ukrainian army to fight the onslaught of Russian forces. But by Wednesday, the day the Hillel building collapsed from the attack, she and her family had decided to flee to a safer area and stay with friends in Dnipro, a city about 140 miles away. No students or employees were hurt in the bombing.
“People have to know about this,” Pototskaya told Haaretz. “They have to know what is going on in Kharkiv and in Ukraine. It’s a war. It looks like Syria.”
Adam Lehman, president and CEO of Hillel International, said most of Hillel’s 40 staff members in Ukraine have left their home cities for safer regions of the country or other countries as the Russian attacks escalate. Many of the staffers had hoped to stay and support Jewish students on the ground.
“I know just how painful that decision has been for so many of them,” he said.
Lehman described the demolished building as a “really graphic visual reminder of what has been lost.”
The destruction of the Hillel building is especially saddening to organization leaders against the backdrop of Ukrainian Jewish history, stretching back 1,000 years.
Ukraine’s Jewish community has undergone a revival in the last few decades after multiple periods of violence and disruption, said William Brustein, interim director of the Global Studies Center at the University of Pittsburgh and Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of History at West Virginia University.
Robust Jewish communities were hard hit by pogroms, local killing sprees targeting Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he noted. Nazi killing squads slaughtered one million Ukrainian Jews during World War II. Then the uncertainty caused by the fall of the Soviet Union diminished what was left of the community, as many Jews fled to North America and Israel.
Jewish communities in Ukraine have rebuilt themselves over the last 25 years, especially in Kharkiv, Odesa and Kyiv, the nation’s capital. Today Ukraine is home to the fifth-largest Jewish community in Europe and the ninth-largest community in the world, Brustein said.
“The Ukrainian Jewish community has really found its footing,” he said.
Many Jewish leaders now worry that the violence and disruption to daily life in Ukraine may be a setback to years of communal growth.
“It’s been one of our greatest accomplishments as an organization that we’ve been able to promote this resurgence of Jewish life and service in Ukraine, and that’s making it even more painful to watch the way in which Hillel colleagues and the students we’re serving are being so impacted by this war,” Lehman said.
While Hillel has paused all programming in Ukraine, the organization’s chapters in Israel, Germany and Poland are preparing for an influx of Ukrainian refugees, a migration Lehman says has already begun in all three countries.
Hillel offices in Germany and Poland will be used as emergency temporary housing for Hillel employees and students but also “anyone who shows up at Hillel’s doors,” he said.
Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, director of Jewish learning for Hillel Deutschland, opened his Hillel center to incoming Ukrainian refugees, with the first students scheduled to arrive today. He previously lived in Ukraine as a member of the Peace Corps, where he researched Ukrainian Jewish history with local students, and then as a member of the Jewish Service Corps, an international volunteer program by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish humanitarian organization.
“We’re converting our space from a student hangout learning center, where we have Shabbat dinners, to a place where people can live,” Borovitz said via voice messages sent through WhatsApp. “It’s literally transforming as we speak.”
The main room where programming usually takes place is now filled with mattresses. He hopes to house up to 10 students.
He noted that Hillel employees in Germany and Poland are mostly connecting with students in need, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, through word of mouth. For example, the first group of students staying at the center, six Nigerian students who were studying engineering or medicine in Kyiv, were found at a train station by an American Jewish expat in Berlin and referred to Hillel.
Setting up a temporary haven for refugees has been a welcome distraction from feeling “terrible” about the war and its effects, but Borovitz said his efforts also feel like “so little, given the scale and the scope of all the problems that we have.”
“It’s definitely good to be doing something, but I feel awful because this place I called home for almost four years of my life is getting destroyed,” he said. “Ukraine is on fire, and to a certain extent, the world is just watching. I mean, we’re doing things, for sure … but in the end, we’re so helpless, it feels like, to stop these terrible crimes against humanity, against people I love. And it’s really hard.”
Hillel International launched an emergency relief fund last week to support Hillel students and professionals in the region. The funds will go toward setting up temporary housing, with blankets, mattresses and other essentials; supporting displaced Hillel employees and their families; and providing food, water, medicine and mental health counseling for Jewish Ukrainian refugees between the ages of 18 and 36. Lehman said Hillel has raised about $100,000 per day on average since the campaign started.
“This is not typically what we’ve been set up for, but we are fundamentally a social services agency,” he said. “We want to make sure we can be there for members of the Jewish community and broader community who are so desperate in this moment.”
The war has affected Ukrainian and international college students across the country. More than 800 mostly foreign medical students at Sumy State University were trapped in Sumy, a city in northeast Ukraine about 40 miles from the Russian border, because access to nearby roads and trains has been obstructed. A fourth-year medical student from India studying in Kharkiv was killed, reportedly after leaving a bunker to get food on Tuesday. African students trying to flee the country have been turned away at border crossings and have described racist treatment by Ukrainian border officials. American students in Ukraine and Russia have returned to the United States after their programs were paused by their colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, efforts to get Ukrainian students out of the country are underway. For example, a group of professors at Dartmouth University is working to get graduate students in Ukraine to the United States as the war puts their studies on hold.
The Pittsburgh Network for Threatened Scholars at the University of Pittsburgh plans to help Ukrainian scholars and students come to the university and other American institutions to continue their studies and research.
“What we’re trying to do at many of our universities … is to find ways to help students who are fleeing from Ukraine or who are trying to get out and assist them in their efforts to find universities,” and for scholars, “a welcome reception in temporary positions at our universities,” Brustein said.
Despite the upending of the lives of the students in Kharkiv, Lehman said he believes Hillel will eventually be able to reconstruct the Jewish student community in Ukraine.
“As devastating as this period is, as depressing it is to see the personal loss and crisis and the institutional damage, our leadership in Ukraine continue to speak of their commitment to rebuilding in the future and making sure Jewish life continues to have a home in Ukraine, that Jewish students and young adults continue to have a way to develop themselves and serve the broader Ukrainian community,” he said. “So, I remain hopeful as well, even in what are really dark moments.”