Two Years Into the Crisis, Here’s What Ukraine’s Jews Need

Kharkiv may be one of hardest-hit cities in Ukraine — but amidst this destruction, Nika S. is determined to cultivate Jewish life and Jewish joy.

By Nika S. - Program Director, Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC); Kharkiv, Ukraine | February 15, 2024

Nika S. lights a menorah on Chanukah at the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

As she marks two years since the Ukraine crisis began, Nika S. remains more committed than ever to her fellow Jews in hard-hit Kharkiv.At the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC), Nika serves as the program director, where she helps create a safe and welcoming space for the city’s Jews. In this reflection, she walks us through what it’s like to live in Kharkiv at this time, what her community needs right now, and why Jews around the world must not forget the Ukraine crisis. 

Nika S. (left) with a young member of the Kharkiv Jewish community.

Sometimes you dream of missile strikes. You dream of fleeing by train. And then you wake up. 

Nerves taut as strings, your body scarred, you are hurt by things that never hurt you before. The world grates on you. You’re emotional. 

Then, the missiles cease for a while, the air-raid sirens start to feel routine, and you relax, miraculously. You gather with your coworkers and maybe even laugh together. For a moment, it’s like life before the crisis.

Then a missile strikes. You are shocked into the present moment. The dream you had is no dream at all. It’s your undeniable reality. 

Sure, you have moments when you can focus on work. But it doesn’t take you more than an hour or so to look at your newsfeed — your nearest and dearest are in other cities, and you need to understand what’s going on with them. You can’t let go, even for a moment. 

I never forget about what’s going on in my country. I feel it everywhere, always. I pour a cup of coffee, go to work, sit in the movie theater, but all of my thoughts, all my feelings, all my fears are always with me. This life I live — that we live, here in Kharkiv — isn’t normal. 

We’ve felt this way for two years. We might be meeting our basic needs — food, water, and shelter, to name a few — but all of our “higher” needs, like a sense of connection and friendship and purpose, receded into the background on February 24, 2022. We are all just trying to survive. 

Two years later, basic needs are still essential — so many Ukrainian Jews are still engaged in a daily struggle of just trying to survive — but they aren’t enough to live for. All of us need something more substantial to motivate us and keep us going. 

Nika S. (second from left) sings with members of the Beit Dan JCC team.

I think all of Ukraine’s Jews need two things right now: a sense of safety and a sense of home. Even in my apartment, I sometimes lose these feelings. Everyone does. And so we get together. It doesn’t matter how — at the movies, in the park … it’s just important that we feel there are people around us. Everyone must have someone to share their feelings with.

Many Jews in Kharkiv find safety and home at the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC), where I proudly serve as the program director. Before the crisis, my purpose was to help revive Jewish life in the community, but now, in addition to that goal, my mission is to make every active or would-be member of Beit Dan, every new Jewish family, feel at home and feel safe within these walls, despite the chaos outside. 

Here at Beit Dan, I see that people are being social again: Children hang out with children, parents share their experiences with each other, and the elderly meet old friends. At the same time, this place has strengthened our commitment to Jewish life. It may seem awful that it took an emergency to bring us close. But in these times, we have to be. Passover in a bomb shelter is a much more powerful experience than in a year when you have a million choices of where to go. 

There’s one need that hasn’t been met, simply because it can’t: overcoming trauma. Here in Kharkiv, there is no “post-trauma”: We continue to endure nearly-unlivable conditions. We settle for just trying to stay sane. 

This nightmare must end. Only then will we heal our trauma.

Long before February 24th, I knew that I was not a weak person and that I could adapt to different situations. It’s hard for me, but I can if I have to.

I want to lend this strength to others. Frankly, I continue to live and work in Kharkiv only because of my Jewish community here at Beit Dan, and it isn’t just me. The people I work with tell me that Beit Dan is the only place where they feel at least a little bit happy. I can’t take that away from them — that’s the only reason I stay. 

It’s the people, people like Yarik — my colleague and friend here at Beit Dan — who keep me here. Yarik is the kind of person who, even during the worst of this crisis, has treated everyone with kindness. I have never met a person who is able to stay so positive, no matter what happens around them. It’s a trait that’s unique to Yarik. I can only dream of being like him. 

I think all of Ukraine’s Jews need two things right now: a sense of safety and a sense of home.

Rosh Hashanah and New Year’s Day are all about anticipation — “This year is going to be even better than before, “Everything I haven’t had time for might still happen.” February 24th is nothing like that. With every February 24th I mark, the more stuck in the past I feel. I don’t look forward to these dates. I try to treat them as normal days, but I can’t shake the sense that I’ve lost yet another year — a year of life that could have been lived otherwise, normally. 

These years would have been so much worse without the support of JDC. They don’t just act — they monitor the situation and research the needs of the communities, providing exactly the kind of support that people need at any given moment. This is the best thing that can be done: to give people exactly what they need, on the spot. 

If you ever come here — and I hope you do — don’t just look at the destroyed buildings. Talk to the people. Once you do, you’ll understand what we have been through, what we’ve seen and felt and heard. And then maybe you’ll grasp what these two years have meant to us. 

Nika S. is the program director at the JDC-supported Beit Dan Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

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