“We would have done anything not to fight, and yet here we are.” These heroic words were not taken from the pages of a history book. They were shared with me by the women of Project Kesher Ukraine (PKU) in recent days. For years, PKU women have lived under the threat of escalating tensions with Russia, but despite their readiness, few could have fathomed the present reality – that Putin would declare war on their independent, sovereign nation.
Even while the threat was looming, twelve women from around the country traveled to Odesa just days before the war to celebrate Project Kesher’s Global Bat Mitzvah. Together they danced with the Torah, raised glasses with toasts of “l’chaim,” and with strong voices shouted, “Mazal Tov!” After the event, PKU Executive Director Vlada Nedak shared: “I wholeheartedly believe that it is our Jewish values and community that will help us get through this trying time.”
As CEO of Project Kesher, for years I have worked alongside PKU women in developing strategies informed by Jewish values and teaching to advance the status of women and civil society. These actionable plans address issues of gender equality, social justice, stopping gender-based violence, increasing access to health care, and promoting environmental stewardship through political engagement and educational programming.
Our movement began over 30 years ago during perestroika and has grown stronger and more energized by the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014. As a result, PK-trained leaders are prepared to adapt, assess, and react to the ever-changing needs of their communities. PKU women’s resolve and tenacity to fight for freedom is a core part of their identity as Ukrainian Jews. One leader refused to migrate, saying she will remain in Ukraine so that her children will grow up in a free Ukrainian society.
PKU women also recognize that the impacts of this war are not uniform and are responding to help all Ukrainians in need. Already, millions have been displaced by the fighting, marking a humanitarian crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the second world war. More than 700,000 people have crossed the border into Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Moldova. Over 50,000 people have moved on from these countries to others in Europe. (source: BBC News). Thousands more are displaced and in desperate need of food, medicine, and shelter.
In response to these realities, Project Kesher leadership has taken swift action in coordinating an emergency response. We have distributed vital information for IDPs and refugees via Telegram, trained our support network to take crisis calls, and empowered our local leaders to make grants for women in their communities. Throughout this process, we are in constant contact with our local leaders to assess where needs are strongest.
Project Kesher Ukraine’s team is charged with running emergency support relief even while navigating their own fear and protecting their families. We are developing partnerships with agencies outside of Ukraine, and our partners on the ground are committed to ensuring that every refugee in our pipeline finds food and shelter when they cross the border. Just days ago, a mother and her four children crossed the border into Poland where Project Kesher was able to send her a $300 grant by app and connect her with the Jewish Community of Warsaw. Requests like these are pouring in and we have the funds to respond immediately thanks to the amazing support of our network.
Somehow, even in the darkest hours, Project Kesher women have not abandoned their Jewish traditions. Small rituals like lighting Shabbat candles are keeping them grounded, providing structure and meaning to every passing day. But seeing the Torahs we have sent over the years sitting in bomb shelters is sobering.
Let us support and highlight the resiliency of the Ukrainian people while recognizing the depth of their tragedy and pain. We are there for them now and will be once the horror of this war is over.