The hardship caused by the conflict in Ukraine has hit home for a group of local people with a special bond to a Jewish community there, and now they are hoping to lend a hand.
When the group, most of them residents from central New Jersey, first visited the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir 20 years ago to learn about its Jewish residents and help them make aliya, they had a secret weapon: Elizabeth resident Sol Kramer, a real estate developer with a business based in Morganville. A Holocaust survivor from Poland, he could speak Russian, and that opened doors of communication.
“Sol would talk his lungs out to persuade people to go to Israel, but he understood that many of them didn’t want to make aliya,” Leonard Posnock recalled. “They were comfortable in Ukraine, and they had roots there. It gave Sol the greatest joy to speak with these people and explain to them that we would help to make their life better.”
The mission participants, active supporters of what was then the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey — now part of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — decided to help fund a center in Zhitomir providing aid for at-risk children, the sick and frail elderly, and righteous gentiles in need of help. It was named Chesed Shlomo in Kramer’s honor.
Sol, a leader in numerous community organizations, died in 2011 at the age of 91, but his wife, Clara, also a Holocaust survivor and an equally dedicated campaigner, eagerly agreed to host a meeting in her home on June 18 in light of the current political conflict.
Organized by Posnock and his wife, Freida, long-time community activists now living in Monroe Township, the meeting included an appeal by the Chabad emissary to Zhitomir, Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, on a visit to the United States. He was accompanied by another Chabad rabbi, Moshe Thaler, who is based in Berdichev, a community with 500 Jews not far from Zhitomir.
Wilhelm, an Israeli, settled in Ukraine in 1994, the year before the NJ group’s visit.
Also taking part in the meeting were Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky, the Russian-born leader of Bris Avrohom, the Hillside-based Chabad Lubavitch organization; community members Leon Baukh, Toby Goldberger, Gordon Haas, Marcy Lazar, and Elyse Deutsch; and Gladys Halpern — a childhood friend of Clara Kramer and, like her, someone with a vivid memory of the Jewish culture that Zhitomir once epitomized.
Sitting in Clara Kramer’s living room, they watched a video about the 5,000-strong Zhitomir community and its religious, social, educational, and welfare programs, and discussed its financial needs. The Chesed Shlomo center is in dire need of repair and improvement, Wilhelm said, but funds are strained because of the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists.
The immediate region has been relatively peaceful, but the financial demands on the Jewish community have been exacerbated by the throngs of Jews fleeing the conflict areas, passing through Zhitomir on their way to Israel.
“We have had about a thousand come through in this past year,” Thaler told a group. “We put them up in one of our buildings and then we find local families for them to stay with. But our funding has gone way down, because even the people in Kiev who used to give money to Jewish causes now don’t have as much to give.”
Kramer said, “We Jews have always had to rely on ourselves.” She urged those present to help their fellow Jews on the far side of the world.
Wilhelm said about $200,000 is needed for Chesed Shlomo. A significant portion of the Zhitomir community’s financial aid comes via the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, but, as Goldberger pointed out, the JDC’s funding has been dropping, too. Wilhelm made it clear that any contribution would be welcome.
For many of the people who come to Chesed Shlomo, according to the literature Wilhelm gave to the group, receiving aid there “is without doubt a matter of life and death.”
Meeting attendees debated how they might spread the word at a time when so many other causes are vying for attention and assistance.
“But we’re doing this in Sol Kramer’s memory, and so many people would want to support that,” Leonard Posnock said. There was sadness about his absence, but then laughter again as they recalled what it was like when Sol asked one to give.
“You couldn’t say no to Sol,” Goldberger agreed.
To find out more about this effort, contact the Posnocks at email@example.com.