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Unetaneh Tokef, the High Holidays’ roll call of ruin, is heartbreakingly real for the Ukrainian Jews I’ve gotten to know

(JTA) — A catalog of calamities is central to the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holidays that begin later this week.

We Jews are asked to imagine ourselves perched on the precipice of life and death. Nothing frames it as starkly as Unetaneh Tokef, the roll call of ruin enumerating various disasters that might befall us in the coming year.

With its repetition of “Who by …” fill-in-the-blank awfulness — strangling, stoning, famine and plague — the medieval poem is the stuff of myth and legend, an opportunity to ponder fate and frailty. But for the Jews of Ukraine, the majority of whom remain in the country despite the ongoing conflict, the text is heart-wrenchingly real.

When we Jews pray, we face east, toward Jerusalem. But as the grandson of a Ukrainian Jew, east always conjures “the old country” — that’s where my soul calls home and where I’ve often directed my most fervent prayers. This year, Unetaneh Tokef is a compass for my heart.

I’m sure “who by water” resonates for Lyubov Irzhanskaya. When the Kakhovka dam burst in June, the Dnipro River surged into her second-floor apartment. The 76-year-old retired teacher had hours to decide where to flee.

Damaged buildings stand at the site of a missile strike in Odesa, Ukraine, July 27, 2023. (Peter Druk/Xinhua via Getty Images)

“Who by fire” must send a chill through Lyudmila Dobroyer, 87 — a Holocaust survivor and the primary caregiver for her son Yuriy, who has developmental disabilities. During attacks on Odesa this summer, her building was badly damaged.

And then there are more workaday terrors, fears that keep me up at night half a world away in my safe Ohio bed. What if I lost my job and couldn’t provide for my family? What if it happened amidst power cuts and sub-zero cold?

“Who shall become impoverished” — ask Evgeniy Moshkovitch, 40, a forklift operator who fled Kherson with his family two months into the crisis. With employers skeptical of the displaced, he’s unable to find a job and relies on Jewish community assistance to pay the bills.

Grim as it is, Unetaneh Tokef isn’t about blindly submitting to fate. Instead, it gives us the keys to our own salvation — ”repentance, prayer, and charity,” it exhorts, “can lessen the severity of the decree.”

Our own hands can rescue us, and post-Soviet Jews, who’ve doggedly rekindled identity and community after the Holocaust and communism, could teach a master class. As a longtime staffer at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, the humanitarian organization that for decades has aided needy Jews and built Jewish life across the former Soviet Union, I’ve seen it firsthand.

In Ukraine, I’ve witnessed local Jews volunteering for relief efforts in record numbers and my colleagues delivering over 800 tons of humanitarian aid, home care to the bedridden and Shabbat gatherings during air-raid sirens. We’re also addressing new waves of need: unemployment, educational gaps and trauma — all with an imperative to strengthen lives, even if peace remains elusive.

Hidden in Unetaneh Tokef’s horrors are some best-case scenarios, too: “who shall be exalted,” “who shall reach the fullness of their days.” What if it all goes right, the prayer asks? What if we sustain each other? What if we write our most vulnerable into the High Holidays’ symbolic Book of Life?

Liliya Sumka is the only Jew in her small town in Western Ukraine. (Arik Shraga)

We can do that by marshaling our resources, as my organization has done since February 2022 with tens of millions of dollars from our partners — the Jewish Federations of North America, the Claims Conference, International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, individuals, families, corporations and foundations — and by lifting up individual stories so we understand the stakes if we fail to act.

For centuries, Jews have debated the identity of the nameless Unetaneh Tokef writer who gave voice to the cruel uncertainty of human existence and the possibility of redemption even in the darkness.

That anonymity hasn’t blunted the poem’s cold wisdom — life will often disappoint you, but it just might surprise you, too. I’ve learned that by listening to other Jews who could just as easily be lost to history and have just as much to teach.

In western Ukraine earlier this year, I met Liliya Sumka, the last Jew in a small village only accessible by dirt roads. A 54-year-old widow with cerebral palsy, she ekes by on a $52 monthly disability pension.

For her, the difference between “who shall live and who shall die” is sometimes the stack of firewood and food packages delivered by my organization — or finding God in her own still small voice reciting the Shabbat blessings.

“Life?” Liliya chided me with a wry smile. “You can’t make it through that alone.”

May we all remember that, recognizing that we only get to fullness by giving it — showing up with full hearts and a full commitment to aiding those living on a knife’s edge around the clock, not just in the pages of our prayer books.


The post Unetaneh Tokef, the High Holidays’ roll call of ruin, is heartbreakingly real for the Ukrainian Jews I’ve gotten to know appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Over 1,000 university professors will participate in a new campaign to show solidarity with Jewish students experiencing levels of antisemitism that are without precedent in the history of the United States, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which promotes academic freedom, announced on Tuesday.

Titled “KeeptheLightOn,” the initiative comes amid a reckoning of congressional investigations, lawsuits, and civil rights inquiries prompted by an explosion of antisemitic discrimination at some of America’s most prestigious universities. It will see the formation of a new group, the Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement (FAAM), comprising professors from across the US who will pressure senior administrators at their schools to address anti-Jewish hatred as robustly as other forms of racism.

“We have written books, op-eds, and articles, but they are not penetrating the echo chamber of anti-Zionist antisemitism,” Southwestern University English professor Michael Saenger said in a press release. “As with previous protest movements, visual displays are sometimes necessary to get people to stop demonizing marginalized groups. We need to respond to bullying and hate, directed against ourselves and Jewish students, more directly and more personally: by visibly advocating for a university that treats Jews as people, and that treats Israel as a nation.”

As part of the campaign, FAAM professors will leave their office lights on after hours to “publicly demonstrate their commitment to fighting antisemitism.” AEN added on Tuesday that the lights will “also symbolize the faculty’s commitment to ‘light a fire’ under administrators to ensure a better academic year ahead.”

“Keep the Light On” was inspired by University of California, Berkeley professor Richard Hassner, who last month held what was widely believed to be the first teacher “sleep-in” protest of antisemitism, AEN said. For two weeks, Hassner lived in his office until administrators agreed to stop an anti-Zionist group’s blockade of a campus foot-bridge which made it impossible for Jewish students to cross without being verbally abused.

Numerous Jewish faculty members at other campuses have also begun stepping up and demanding a change. Some have organized faculty trips to Israel. Others have cobbled their peers together to form groups — such as Yale’s Forum for Jewish Faculty & Friends and Indiana University’s Faculty and Staff for Israel — which have since grown exponentially and will serve as a well of support for FAAM.

“The FAAM initiative is both a distressing sign of the times and a hopeful symbol for the future not only for Jews but also for the academy,” Smith College professor and AEN advisory board member Donna Robinson Divine said. “An academy that has become the core location for an activism promoting social justice cannot sustain its credibility by tolerating hostile attacks against its Jewish student and faculty. Nor can education leaders preserve the legitimacy of the universities over which they preside by ignoring the recycling of this old and dangerous hatred. Rooting out antisemitism in classrooms, lecture halls, and social gatherings is thus as important for Jewish students and faculty as it is for the academy and the nation.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, Jewish college students have never faced such extreme levels of hatred. Since Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists invaded Israel, massacred 1,200 people, and kidnapped 253 others as hostages — they have endured death threats, physical assaults, and volleys of racist verbal attacks unlike anything seen in the US since the 1950s.

Many college officials at first responded to the problem sluggishly, according to critics, who noted universities offered a host of reasons for why antisemitic speech should be protected even as they censored students and professors who uttered statements perceived as being conservative. At the same time, progressive thought leaders came under fire for hesitating to acknowledge a swelling of antisemitic attitudes in institutions and organizations reputed to be champions of civil rights and persecuted minority groups. One recent study found that US universities have demonstrated an “anti-Jewish double standard” by responding to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel and the ensuing surge in campus antisemitism much less forcefully than they did to crimes perpetrated against African Americans and Asians.

The situation changed after three presidents of elite universities were hauled before the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for their handling of antisemitism and said on the record that there are cases in which they would decline to punish students who called for a genocide of the Jewish people. The stunning admissions prompted the resignations of Elizabeth M. Magill as president of University of Pennsylvania and eventually of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s former president, who would not leave until a series of reporters exposed her as a serial plagiarist.

The US Congress is currently investigating whether several colleges intentionally ignored discrimination when its victims were Jewish. On Wednesday, its focus will shift to Columbia University, where Jewish students have been beaten up and harassed because they support Israel. The school’s president, Minouche Shafik, is scheduled to testify, and the event promises to be a much scrutinized affair.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

The post New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one

It was close, but Toronto synagogues Adath Israel and Beth David will remain separate entities after Beth David’s vote on amalgamation fell short of the required two-thirds threshold. Adath Israel, the larger of the two Conservative synagogues by membership and facility size, voted overwhelmingly on April 14 to amalgamate, with 91 percent in favour. But […]

The post Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder

Jewish women in Ethiopia sort through grain to be used in baking matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

The Jewish community in the embattled region of Gondar, Ethiopia is preparing for the world’s largest Passover Seder this year, with nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews residing in camps and awaiting immigration to Israel expected to attend.

Over 80,000 matzot have been baked by members of the community over the past several weeks in preparation for the holiday, Jeremy Feit, the president of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) aid group, told The Algemeiner. A smaller Seder, with almost 1,000 attendees, will take place in the capital of Addis Ababa.

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, will begin next Monday evening and end the following Tuesday.

A portion of the 80,000 matzot for use during Passover in Ethiopia. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

Past Passover Seders in Ethiopia have provided attendees a rare opportunity to partake in the traditional feast, offering some their first ever taste of meat — a luxury they could not otherwise afford. But according to Feit, food price hikes of 50 percent to 100 percent have meant that this year’s feast will largely consist of potatoes and eggs.

“With the extreme price increases and the resulting hunger, the community will feel the intensity as they pray to celebrate the Seder next year with their families in Jerusalem,” Feit said.

The Seder comes on the heels of an airlift of medical supplies for the beleaguered community, facilitated by SSEJ. Ten pallets of aid were delivered to a medical clinic established by the group a year ago in Gondar, serving 3,300 children and 700 elderly. The aid was dedicated in memory of former US Sen. Joe Lieberman, who served as SSEJ’s honorary chairman and who passed away during the weeks-long airlift operation.

SSEJ, which is based in the US  and entirely volunteer-run, is the only provider of humanitarian aid to Jews in Ethiopia. The group aims to mitigate some of the hunger ravaging the community by providing more than 2.5 million meals per year, prioritizing very young children, pregnant and nursing women, and students at a local yeshiva, who Feit said were often “so hungry they would faint in class.”

SSEJ and its leaders have assisted around 60,000 Ethiopians immigrate to Israel, more than the total number brought to the Jewish state during its storied military operations in 1984 and 1991.

Jewish men in Ethiopia need the dough that will be baked into matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

According to Feit, some 13,000 Jews still remain in Ethiopia. Recent years have seen several hundred Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel at a time, especially during periods of violent civil strife, but even that trickle has dried up following the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel.

“The average person in Gondar and Addis Ababa has been waiting to make aliyah for 20 years,” Feit said, using the Hebrew term for immigration. “They left their villages with the thought that Israel was going to bring them in. And they’ve been left since as internally displaced refugees.”

Feit said the decades-long wait is especially painful for those with first-degree relatives in Israel, and is further compounded for those with relatives serving in the Israeli military.

“Jews in Ethiopia are extremely concerned about their [family members’] welfare as the IDF [Israel Defense Fores] battles Hamas terrorists” in Gaza, he explained. “They are especially concerned given the vastly disproportionate number of Ethiopian Jewish soldiers killed in Israel during the current conflict.” Jews in Ethiopia, he averred, comprise “one of the most Zionist communities in the world.”

Since Oct. 7, there has been no indication as to how many Ethiopian Jews will be brought to Israel and when. Those with relatives in Israel were struck with another blow when Israel’s economy took a hit following the Hamas onslaught, and many of those who rely on remittance from their loved ones in Israel stopped receiving money.

“This has left the Jews in Ethiopia in a dire situation, with food and medical care hard to come by. Living in squalor, without access to clean water, electricity, or even bathrooms, the malnourished Jews in Ethiopia suffer untold horrors,” Feit said.

Despite the grim depiction, Feit struck a more positive note about the upcoming holiday.

Ethiopian Jews eating matzot in synagogue last year. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

“Given that most of the year they’re feeling despair at their lack of redemption, at least Passover is a time to celebrate the possibility of redemption and reunification,” he said. “Being able to celebrate with thousands of their friends and family members in a joyous celebration of Passover is a welcome relief.”

The post Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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