Gathering for the Good of Ukraine פּרשׁה ויקהל

Our Parasha for this week begins with the words, “Moses gathered all of the people of Israel.” The word used for “gather” is “Va-yakhel”, [ויקהל] in Hebrew. The three-letter root of the word “Va-yakhel” – kuf, hey, lamed – is used to form another word in Hebrew – “Kehillah”. A “Kehillah” is a congregation. Sometimes you will see the letters “kuf-kuf” [ק״ק] before the name of a synagogue. These letters stand for the Hebrew words “Kehilah Kedosha”, [קהילה קדושׁה] which means “Holy Congregation”. 

When Moses gathers the people, he asks them to bring donations for the construction of the Tabernacle. He needs gold, silver, and copper, yarns and linens and goat skins, oil for lighting the Menorah, and spices for the aromatic incense. We are told that the people were so generous that Moses had to ask them to stop giving! 

Several weeks ago in our Torah reading we read of a different kind of gathering of the Jewish people, this time, in the Wilderness. When Moses was late in descending from Mt. Sinai where he was receiving the Ten Commandments, the people gathered – “Va-Yikahel” [ויקהל] – against Aaron and demanded that he make a Golden Calf to worship.  The people donated gold, and out of their donations Aaron fashioned a Golden Calf to worship. 

Of course, these two “gatherings” were very different. The gathering of the people which led to the construction of the Golden Calf incident consisted of a mob that assembled itself and threatened to kill Aaron if he did not do their bidding. Aaron cooperated as a delaying tactic, hoping that Moses would return before the people would descend into idolatry. In our parsha this week, Moses convenes an orderly gathering to solicit funds for building the Tabernacle. Still, these two gatherings elicit a wry comment from the rabbis of the Talmud. “What a peculiar people,” the Talmud says of Israel. “When solicited to build the tabernacle to worship the One God, they give generously. When solicited to fashion an idol, they give equally generously!”

A “Kehillah”, a gathering, can thus be organized for both positive and negative ends. When degenerating into a mob, a Kehillah can be very destructive. When organized for productive purposes, a Kehillah can build a home for G-d here on earth. Over time the concept of Kehillah changed and evolved.

 For example, In Eastern Europe, “Kehillah” was the name given to Jewish communal organizations. At times that organization would have quasi-governmental authority over the Jews of the community and its relationship with the local or national government. The kehillah might be an elected body that would levy taxes on the Jewish community and provide educational and social welfare services for the Jewish population. In the United States, the Jewish Federation of each Jewish community is the professional organization that became the “Kehillah” of each community. Today Jewish Federations across the United States assess the needs and requirements of their local Jewish communities and raise and distribute funds to where they are most needed and to where they will have the greatest impact. 

The reach of the Jewish Federations extends beyond local needs as well. Throughout my tenure here and in my many travels to Europe as part of the Rabbinic Mission through the JUF, I have witnessed firsthand the contributions of our Chicagoland Jewish community to the welfare of struggling communities in Europe. I have been to Ukraine twice on these missions – The first time to Kiev, the second time to Odessa. Tonight, our thoughts and prayers are with all the people of Ukraine, and particularly with our fellow Jews there.  i 

Jews have lived in Ukraine since the 8th century, when Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution in the Byzantine Empire. Persia, and Mesopotamia arrived and established homes. The Cossack uprising in the 1630s led to the infamous Khmelnitsky massacres in which 30,000 Jews perished and 300 Jewish communities were destroyed. The late 19th century saw the beginning of what became a periodic outbreak of pogroms that lasted for the next 40 years. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left Ukraine during this time, seeking new lives in the United States and other countries. Many of our grandparents and great grand-parents came from Ukraine during this time.  A series of pogroms of 1919 to 1923 killed over 100,000 Jews alone in Ukraine. One the eve of World War ll there were 2.7 million Jews living in Ukraine. By the end of World War ll only 840,000 remained. The rest were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The years of Soviet repression led to further assimilation and emigration. In 1990 there were 500,000 Jews living in Ukraine. In the decade following the fall of the Soviet Union, 80% of the Jewish population left Ukraine, the largest number, over a quarter million, emigrating to Israel. 

As with much of Jewish history, Ukraine has not only been the scene of tragedy and destruction but a place of flourishing communities, of renewal and creativity as well. Ukraine was the birthplace of the Hasidic movement. The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, born in 1698, the founder of that movement, have had a profound influence on Judaism all over the world.  Ukraine was the home to famous Yeshivot, centers of Jewish scholarship, and of many well-known rabbis. It was the center of the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment movement. Late 19th century Odessa was the Yiddish publishing center of the world. Famous poets and authors made their homes there – Chaim Nahman Bialik, Shalom Aleichem, Ahad Ha-am and Nobel Prize winning author S.Y. Agnon, to name a few. Odessa served as the center of the Hibat Zion movement, and early Zionist movement that called for the revival of the people Israel on the land of its ancestors. Odessa became the port of embarkation for Jewish emigration from Russia to pre-state Israel. It was called “The Gateway to Zion”. 

Today Ukraine is the home to 200,000 Jews. This makes it the 5th largest Jewish population in the world. Ukraine is the only country outside of Israel to have both a Jewish head of state, Vladimir Zelelnsky, and a Jewish head of government, Prime Minister Volodymer Groysman. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, there has been a remarkable revitalization of Jewish life in Ukraine. Ukraine today has about 75 Jewish schools in some 45 cities, among them 15 day schools and 80 Sunday schools, 11 kindergartens, 8 yeshivas, and some 70 Hebrew-language ulpanim. Synagogues and other religious and cultural institutions function in every place with a significant Jewish population. There are Jewish sponsored nursing homes, JCCs, Jewish sponsored orphanages, Hillels at Universities, Birthright trips, and Jewish summer camps. There are Jewish newspapers – ten of which are published in Kiev alone – and a Jewish television program on state-run television. 

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the country faces the prospect of political instability and all that comes with it – scarcity, chaos, the breakdown of law and order. Whenever this happens in a country, Jewish communities become especially vulnerable. This is where the “Kehillah” – the Jewish community organized for good – can make a difference.  The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Chicago, which members of our congregation helps to fund, has already advanced one million dollars to our partners in Ukraine to help support the Jewish community in Ukraine. Through our contributions, we are helping to provide 40,000 poor Jewish elderly and families, with food, medicine, winter relief and emergency assistance. We are helping to equip the staff of the field offices in Kiev, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Odessa with the ability to continue to reach the homebound with aid in the event of major disruptions of transportation. Keenly aware of the current relentless assault on the country, we are preparing to dispatch mobile medical units to get supplies where they are needed most. We are bolstering institutions to withstand the indiscriminate destruction, the   aggression, homes, businesses, and infrastructure that accompanies the breakdown of social order. We are helping those who are willing and able to emigrate to Israel to do so. 

People often ask me, “What can I do about a conflict so far away? I feel helpless.” We can certainly offer our prayers for peace and for the welfare of the invaded and besieged Ukrainian people. But we can do more than that. We can make contributions to our Jewish United Fund that will go directly to those on the ground in Ukraine most able to help. In the words of the well-known prayer, recited in our congregation at many bar and bat mitzvahs, “We cannot merely pray to You, O’ God…..Therefore we pray to You instead/For strength, determination and willpower/ To do, instead of only to pray……” 

Shabbat Shalom