SA oleh there for Ukraine before and during war
The son of parents who survived the Holocaust, South African-born Solly Kaplinski is now helping Jews in Ukraine survive the war.
Kaplinski, who grew up in Cape Town, was a principal at United Herzlia Schools, made aliya, and now lives in Jerusalem.
For the past 16 years, he has been executive director of overseas joint ventures at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), where he has been at the forefront of working with impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Now, as devastation is wreaked upon these communities, he’s doing what he can to ensure their survival.
“As a child of Holocaust survivors, the images emerging from Ukraine with the elderly, families, and young children fleeing for their lives conjures up pictures of my parents and what happened to them during the Shoah,” Kaplinski told the SA Jewish Report.
“This has motivated me to continue doing the best I can to help our fellow Jews on the ground. The scale and impact of this tragedy is devastating. I have colleagues and friends who are working day and night putting their lives on the line to help our clients, and my heart goes out to them.”
Before the invasion, he worked with communities in Odesa, Kyiv, and Lviv. “Bear in mind that within these communities live some of the poorest Jews in the world – many of them living on a pension of just $2 [R30] a day,” he says. “Our work focused on providing our clients – many of whom are home bound – with lifesaving essentials such food and medicine, winter relief, and homecare. Our assistance also provides human connection and emotional support through our Heseds – social service centres across the former Soviet Union that offer clients social contacts, cultural events, holiday celebrations, and clubs including choirs and traditional dancing.
“What the COVID-19 pandemic had not already had an impact on in terms of in-person gatherings, the invasion transformed overnight,” Kaplinsky says.
“People are now sheltering in place and living through curfews, air raids, and sirens at all hours. So for the Jews we serve, we have adapted our online programmes and local hotlines created during COVID-19 to offer remote care and support.
“We also launched new hotlines in Moldova and Israel staffed by Russian-speaking volunteers to deliver remote care and maintain human connection with these clients and the wider Jewish community. These focus on our neediest clients and also on evacuation services. One of the highlights of these responses is a smart-phone programme for the elderly which offers psychosocial support, Shabbat, and community programming to give reprieve during this crisis.”
He continues to do what he can. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the care, concern, and generosity of Jewish communities and countries worldwide who have rallied to the cause. Jewish global solidarity fills my heart with pride.
“I’m continually amazed by my extraordinary colleagues who have remained in the field, in the thick of things, providing support for the Jews of Ukraine through this unimaginable time. They are absolute heroes.”
Asked if the Jewish community of Ukraine will survive this onslaught, Kaplinski says, “It’s hard to make a prediction during the fog of war, but my guess is that it will take a number of years to recover.”
This moment, he says, says a lot about the Jewish nation and our responsibility to each other. “The care and concern, the support of Jews worldwide around Ukraine, is heartwarming and inspiring. At JDC, we say kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh (all Jews are responsible for each other). The Hebrew word areivim actually means “guarantee”. We therefore have the equivalent of a binding guarantee to get involved and help.”
He says growing up in South African Jewish community has been a defining factor in choosing to do the work he does now. “I’m eternally grateful to have grown up and to have been nurtured in a strong, cohesive, Zionist community which wrapped its arms around me and helped to sustain me and develop my values. In many ways, everything I’ve done in my personal and previous professional life has prepared me for working at the JDC. With my parents and their families’ lives disrupted and fractured by the Shoah, I’m working to restore what was lost, to help build Jewish life and save Jewish lives.”
To the South African Jewish community, he says, “We like to say, ‘Wherever Jews are in need, the JDC is there.’ The South African Jewish community has punched way above its weight on all levels: community, philanthropy, leadership, education, welfare, and serving the needs of the larger community. You proudly join the JDC in the above mantra. Please continue your magnificent efforts to continue to support our fellow brethren in need. Please continue to be supportive of the Jews of Ukraine, and influence those who haven’t yet stepped up to do so. For more information on our efforts and how you can help, check out: jdc.org/Ukraine-response.”