A couple of weeks before Hanukkah, Helen Chervitz sent an email blast from her home in central Kyiv to about 30 American synagogues.
She’d found their names on Google. “I’m a Jewish Ukrainian-born American,” she wrote to the rabbis, not knowing whether the letters would even be read. “Today was another explosion which hit the power station on the left bank of Kyiv city.”
“Electricity breakages last up to eight hours every day. Apartments are cold. Cooking is challenging. Children can’t do their homework, or they do them with candles. Elderly people sit alone in their apartments in the dark and cold.
“We haven’t had hot water for 10 days and consequently no heating,” she wrote. “And winter has arrived – the streets and trees are covered with snow and it’s cold!”
Chervitz grew up in Kyiv but lived in Swampscott for 15 years, and worked as the aquatics director of the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore. She and her husband moved back to Ukraine a decade ago because of her husband’s business. A fashion writer by profession, she has pivoted to writing about life in wartime Kyiv for several Jewish publications. She misses Massachusetts deeply, but life, for now, remains in Ukraine.
She still feels connected to the U.S., so she turned to the synagogues for help, in the form of gadgets and appliances to bring light and heat to Jewish families. Could they possibly raise funds to purchase solar lamps, power banks, and space heaters?
She included an Amazon shopping list of “things for heating and charging” – LED waterproof camping lanterns, rechargeable flashlights, and other products that are in short supply – or no supply – in Ukraine, or available only on a black market at skyrocketing prices.
“I’m writing this letter on my own initiative because I truly want to help Jewish families in the Ukrainian capital,” Chervitz wrote. She calls her endeavor an “alternative power sources mitzvah project.”
Her fundraising campaign is working, albeit slowly, as it faces numerous logistical challenges, including getting the items to Ukraine.
So far, three synagogues have responded to her email and follow-up calls. “I hope more will answer,” she said.
One of the first people to get involved was Paulette Black, on behalf of an enthusiastic sisterhood of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont. At Hanukkah time, the sisterhood, together with other congregants, raised over $900 to provide solar lamps and heating packs for Ukraine. They were able to transfer the money to Chervitz, who ordered the items on Amazon.
“It is such a horrible situation, and in this difficult time of war and power outages, I was moved to reach out to my community to help provide lighting and heating equipment to support the Kyiv Jewish community,” said Black, whose family is close to Chervitz’s daughter. “The theme of light and heat fit in so well with Hanukkah.”
Black is also working to spread the word more broadly through the organization called Women of Reform Judaism.
Synagogues in Manhattan, Brooklyn and White Plains, N.Y., also initiated fundraising campaigns. Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn formed a committee and collected $17,000, and began sending goods. Chervitz’s daughter, Olga Ryrakhovsky, who lives in the Boston area, collected about $3,000 through her network of friends.
“This is really a direct way to help,” Ryrakhovsky said. “If you donate to an organization, you don’t necessarily know how your money is being used. “But in this case, you know a solar lamp costs, say, $70, and how much shipping is, and in a month you’ll get a photo of a family with it.
“There are so many things I’m concerned about, but heat and power definitely are at the top of the list,” she said.
As the war in Ukraine grinds on, it seems to capture fewer front page headlines in the U.S., and inspire fewer fundraisers and sermons. But the brutal reality continues, exacerbated by damage to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – which is under Russian control.
Authorities have been forced to introduce planned power outages to prevent the country’s remaining infrastructure from being overloaded, according to Amnesty International. In December, more than 50 percent of energy users had seen their electricity supply cut off.
“The situation is challenging and difficult and depressing,” said Rabbi Reuven Stamov, a Conservative rabbi who is leading Jewish communities across Ukraine, interviewed on Zoom.
He said no one seems to fully understand why the power outages are so staggered. “I have an engineer’s degree, but it’s not up to that level,” Stamov said. “But it is huge damage, so the government shares whatever ability the non-damaged stations have throughout the country. It’s not enough for all the regions.”
What is clear is that it has triggered a cascade of new challenges for people in Ukraine. When the outages are scheduled, people set their alarm clocks to do laundry and cook, even if it’s 2 a.m. “For two or three days we had no water, and I was collecting ice and snow outside,” said Chervitz. “I think I deserve a Boy Scout badge.”
Residents, by now deeply resourceful, are developing work-arounds. The Mayor of Kyiv arranged for USB charging stations to be installed in subway stations, so people can recharge mobile phones and other devices. Traffic is increasing on the roads because cars have become “generators on the move,” Chervitz said. “People drive around with their families because it’s warmer and they can charge their phones. Although it’s illegal, she’s heard reports of people barbecuing on their balconies, shivering in their heavy coats.
A woman she knows who lives on the 14th floor of an apartment building can’t remember the last time the elevator worked; she needs to haul her groceries up all 14 flights. There’s a small grocery store in the building but only one working cash register, so shoppers line up outside and the cashier brings them in, one by one, and guides them around the store with a flashlight. Chervitz had a hair appointment cancelled five times due to lack of power, so she brought her hairdresser to her gym, where a blow dryer worked. “She was happy to oblige, it’s so hard to make money,” she said.
Rabbi Stamov said he conducted a Shabbat service in the western part of Ukraine, when there had only been four hours of power during a 24-hour period. It was too dark to read the Torah for the mincha service.
But while simple devices exist to keep darkness and cold at bay, getting them to Ukraine from the U.S. can be a challenging, circuitous process. People can buy the items on Amazon, and have them sent to a shipping company called Meest, which delivers parcels to Ukraine and has local agents in Massachusetts as well as a warehouse in New Jersey.
Chervitz can also purchase them on Amazon in Germany, though they’re much more expensive than in the U.S., and Meest will drive the appliances to Kyiv.
It’s possible to send things by sea from the U.S., but it takes two or three months. Chervitz said it also appears that new restrictions have been imposed on directly shipping alternative power supplies by air.
Stamov is in the process of setting up a charitable fund to receive donations, along with a committee to purchase and distribute the items.
In the meantime, about 60 packages have arrived in Ukraine so far, including space heaters, power banks, solar generators, rechargeable lanterns and portable power stations. Chervitz passes on what she gathers to Stamov, who distributes them to people in need, prioritizing families with children and the elderly. Always, they are deeply grateful.
“Now, having a power station, I am calm,” said Viktoria Pasichnik, an editor of a woman’s magazine responded, with thanks. “I have a “back-up” in case of emergency. … There is a “magic box” that you can count on and not be afraid to remain in complete isolation and darkness.
“In addition to such a purely psychological and emotional factor, I want to thank you for its technical characteristics. More precisely, for their simplicity. I am not friends with technology and was afraid that I would not be able to manage. But! Oh, a miracle! The power station is very convenient and simple to use. … In addition to connectors for charging the phone, laptop, and power banks at home, the station itself can be recharged in the car. There is even a flashlight in case everything goes really “downhill.”
She concluded: “It’s not only the power station that warms me, but the fact that we Jews can live in different countries, hold different views, and argue about culture politics and history, but we are always in solidarity when in trouble. Thank you.” Θ
To contribute to the campaign to send heating and power supplies to Ukraine, contact Helen Chervitz at email@example.com
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org