In Ukraine, Jewish charity buys 40 electric cars to manage rising costs of delivering aid
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In Ukraine, Jewish charity buys 40 electric cars to manage rising costs of delivering aid

A Holocaust survivor rescued from the war in Ukraine arrives at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, April 27, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
A Holocaust survivor rescued from the war in Ukraine arrives at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, April 27, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Negotiating the bomb-scarred roads of eastern Ukraine is the easy part of Ilya Pulin’s day as he delivers food and medicine across eastern Ukraine as a volunteer.

The difficult part, he said, is finding and paying for fuel in the war-torn country.

Since Russia invaded in February, “fuel prices have doubled,” Pulin continued. “There are hour-long lines at petrol stations. And until a few days ago there was a five-gallon ration per person” Pulin, a 38-year-old Jewish father of two in Dnipro, is a science professor specializing in thermodynamics. “You can easily wait for six, seven hours at select fuel stations and, until recently, you only got five gallons. It’s very difficult,” he said.

To solve this problem, which is affecting aid providers all over the country, the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine has spent more than $2 million buying a fleet of 40 electric cars — including some made by Volvo — that it is distributing this month to communities like Pulin’s.

“It’s going to save lives,” said Shlomo Salomon, the rabbi of the eastern city of Kremenchuk, where one member of the Jewish community is on life support after the war disrupted his access to a crucial medicine he required.

The cost of cars, including electric cars, has shot up globally amid parts shortages and other pandemic-induced changes. But even at an average price tag of $50,000 each, the cars are seen as a smart buy as Ukrainian-Jewish aid groups and volunteers use their extensive ties and funding sources in the West to adapt quickly to situations as they unfold during the five-month-long Russian invasion.

Amid the war’s surge both in the needs of aid recipients and the price of extending aid —medicine and food prices also have also skyrocketed, along with fuel — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is seeing unexpected returns on investments it made several years ago, according to Amos Lev-Ran, the director of JDC’s division for external relations in the former Soviet Union.

One of them is JDC’s switch from delivering food and medicines to needy Jews to a system where the recipients can get those items themselves at a supermarket near them, using a card preloaded with payments. Another is the JOINTECH system that allows caregivers and others to connect to elderly and other aid recipients online to combat loneliness without the need for travel.

“All of the adaptations that we made over the past few years are really benefiting us now, and saving a lot of costs,” Amos Lev-Ran said.

In Mykolaiv, a southern city that is the birthplace of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic dynasty, the fuel shortage is having a cooling effect on the willingness of volunteers to show up for errands, according to Sholom Gotlieb, a Chabad rabbi who’s been living in the city for the last 25 years.

“There’s a solidarity and willingness to sacrifice, but after 160 days of war, there’s only so much you can ask,” he said.

Sending volunteers to wait for hours for a fuel ration at a flammable gas station amid unrelenting Russian bombing is “not something that’s reasonable to expect from a volunteer,” said the rabbi, whose wife and 10 children left for his homeland, Israel, after the war broke out.

At least a third of his community of about 2,000 people also have left the city, including science professor Pulin’s wife and children. His wife, Helen Pulina, an English teacher, is staying in Israel. Her husband had to stay behind because of emergency rules that prevent most men under 60 from leaving Ukraine. Ms. Pulina looks forward to when her husband will be allowed to join her.

“I’m studying Hebrew,” she said. “Settling in. Starting something new. Very unexpected, but there you have it.”

In the first half of 2022, more than 12,000 people left Ukraine for Israel under its law of return for Jews and their relatives. That’s roughly four times the number of people who did so in all of 2021. The dimensions of this Jewish exodus from Ukraine, which had at least 47,000 Jews in 2020, are probably far larger, because many thousands of Jews have left for Europe, the United States, and beyond.

Does this movement mean that fewer Jews need aid back in Ukraine?

“The opposite is true,” Gotlieb said.

Those who leave tend to be young and have the means to make a move on short notice, he explained. Those who stay often move in with families outside city centers, which are more likely to be targeted by Russian rockets. This makes food delivery and aid routes longer, especially in the sprawling city of Mykolaiv and the many villages scattered around it.

And then there are those that JDC calls “the new poor” — middle-class families or individuals that the war-caused financial crisis has pushed into requiring aid for the first time. Millions of jobs in Ukraine evaporated and the local currency plunged into a tailspin. Since war broke out, the JDC has seen about 1,000 “new poor” Jews join its list of about 37,000 aid recipients.

Internally displaced Jews, who moved to what they hope is a safer location than where their home is, are another new and vulnerable group for JDC and other Jewish aid providers to care for.

The number of Ukrainian Jews living in Ukraine before the war is disputed. The European Jewish Congress says they numbered at least 360,000, whereas a major 2020 survey of the demography of Jewish communities in Europe estimated the community to be no larger than 47,000. Either way, aid recipients made up a sizable chunk of the community even before the war.

It will go from bad to worse, according to Rabbi Meir Stambler, chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the Chabad-affiliated group. “Clearly, a lot of people are going to be plunged into poverty because of the war, during it and for years to follow,” he said.

Preparing for that reality means tightening all kinds of belts, starting with the price of getting to and transporting the recipients, he said.

“The electric cars are going to operate at a fraction of the cost of fuel-burning ones,” Stambler added. “It’s one of those actions that are needed urgently now — and are also required to prepare for what’s coming.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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