Answering the Call for Ukraine’s Jews
September 22, 2022
For years, Evgenia Kasap and her family received JDC humanitarian assistance — food, bedding, school supplies for her two sons, and more.
Then, overnight, she traded places: She became the voice on the other end of the line for Jews needing emergency aid and human connection as they fled Ukraine.
“It was a call from within — simply, help people,” said Kasap, now a key leader at the JDC-supported volunteer center in Chișinău, Moldova. “JDC provides people with help, ensures they’re not alone or forgotten, and works to unite Jewish people all over the world. This was one way I could give back.”
Since the conflict broke out in February, JDC has operated emergency hotlines in collaboration with Jewish communities in Ukraine and nine other European countries. Five months into the crisis, hotline staffers in Ukraine, Moldova, and Israel had already fielded 60,000 calls and counting.
With every phone call, Kasap and other hotline operators deliver critical help to those with nowhere else to turn — and the need is immense.“We work from 8 in the morning until 10 at night,” Kasap said in early March, just a few weeks into the conflict. “Very often, people call at night and don’t know where to go. They ask us to help them find a place to stay, and so we work quickly — doing whatever we can to find a place that can take them in.”
The JDC hotlines are a lifeline for Ukraine’s Jews, a source of both practical assistance — accommodation, transportation, and medicine — and connection to community for those in danger. Terrified callers, many sheltering from bombs and other threats, hear the supportive voice of someone who speaks their language and can guide them to safety.
“We receive calls from people who are trying to get out of harm’s way, or from refugees who have already arrived and don’t know where to go,” Kasap said. “We do all in our power to support them and direct them on their journey to whatever’s next.”
The hotlines can also save lives, with operators often serving as the first sign of hope for those caught in immediate danger. They’re also the first people to alert JDC’s on-the-ground team that someone needs help.
That was the case for Pola Barkan, a native Russian-speaker who works as the director of venture development at Hackaveret, JDC’s social innovation hub in Lod, Israel. When the crisis began, Barkan put that role on pause to help staff JDC’s Israel-based hotline.
One night, she received a call from a mother in Kharkiv, breathless and frantic.
“She told me, ‘I’m sitting in a basement with my month-old baby and I’m running out of formula,’” Barkan recalled.
The mother of an infant herself, Pola jumped into action, connecting the woman with local volunteers who rushed to assist her and her newborn.
“As mothers, we always try to do the best for our children. We’re willing to sacrifice everything for them, whatever it takes,” Barkan said. “When I learned that our colleagues on the ground reached her and gave her the formula she needed, I could finally breathe again.”
Barkan’s story is a testament to the seamlessness of JDC’s call-center system.
When an incoming JDC hotline call is marked as “urgent”, data about the situation is directed to staff and volunteers at JDC-supported Hesed social welfare centers in Ukraine who, in many cases, already have deep relationships with the callers. Once they’re alerted, Hesed staff work to quickly meet the needs of the vulnerable and elderly.
It all happens thanks to the Hamal — the Jerusalem-based “situation room” that gathers real-time data about traffic at various border crossings, open beds in refugee camps and centers across Europe, and messages received by call-center operators like Kasap and Barkan.
“Once the conflict began, we quickly realized that a lot of information was flowing in. The Hamal organizes this data, helping JDC make informed decisions,” said Shay Kognitsky, who manages innovation projects for JDC’s former Soviet Union team and coordinates situation room operations. “On a day-to-day level, someone might need to be evacuated, and someone else might need food, water, or medicine. The Hamal is responsible for presenting the bigger picture, making a picture from a puzzle.”
The “puzzle pieces” include data submitted by call-center operators, as well as information flowing in through social media, government sources, and other aid organizations. JDC staffers like Kognitsky then evaluate the raw material to understand where help is needed and how to prioritize multiple emergency requests.
Ultimately, these decisions save lives,” he said. “And in the future, perhaps we can use a tool like the Hamal in peacetime. We can leverage this data to show people — people like our supporters and future generations studying modern Jewish history — the full picture of our response.”
For Kasap, answering calls in a Jewish Community Center located 1,100 miles from the nerve center in Jerusalem, it all comes down to the people on the other end of the line.
“We try to give moral support to those who are left alone and, if possible, provide them with medical supplies and food,” she said. “There are so many stories and so many calls. We’re always trying to help as much as we can.”