They gathered by the dozens inside Mill Hill Synagogue in London on Nov. 13, spurred by reports that people in Ukraine are facing the choice between heating or food this winter. Their numbers were dwarfed by the mounds and mounds of large garbage bags filled with coats, hats, blankets, warm sweaters and all kinds of winter-weather gear.

It’s a scene that’s been taking place around the city.

London’s Jewish community has been coming together for the past two weeks to donate, collect, sort and pack the gear with one goal in mind: to ensure that the people in Ukraine can find a way to stay warm during a brutal winter amid the ongoing war.

A recent survey of 600 members of Jewish communities in Ukraine shows that three out of four people foresee having to choose between heating and food amid power shortages and rising costs. Around 68% think they won’t be able to withstand the costs of keeping their home from freezing. More than half doubt that they have enough warm clothes.

“The overwhelming response of the community has been unbelievable and really heartwarming,” said Rabbi Sandor Milun, managing director of GIFT, Give It Forward Today. The Jewish-run charity, which encourages people to become life-long givers by donating time, energy and expertise, organized the two-week winter-gear drive in London in coordination with Chabad-Lubavitch of the UK, the Orthodox Union in North America and Chabad’s JRNU (Jewish Relief Network Ukraine).

Aid to Be Distributed in Ukraine

Volunteers and donors bring clothing to the Mill Hill synagogue in London.
Volunteers and donors bring clothing to the Mill Hill synagogue in London.

Donation drop boxes were set up in Chabad Houses, Jewish day schools, area synagogues and elsewhere. The clothing will be distributed through Chabad’s emissaries in Ukraine, who have coordinated food and medicine deliveries since the beginning of the war, and recently, have undertaken a nationwide effort to supply electric generators, provide insulation, repair broken windows, and provide other aid in advance of the brutal winter.

All told, some 30 tons of winter goods are being sent to Uman, Ukraine, for distribution around the country coordinated by the JRNU.

“It’s incredible to see the unbelievable impact that the Chabad shluchim (‘emissaries’) have made, many of them staying and being the last port of call in Ukraine,” said Milun. “Their mesirus nefesh [‘self-sacrifice’] is incredible, and it’s really heartwarming to know they haven’t left their communities. They’ve been helping their communities and making sure that they are being taken care of” physically and spiritually.

Zevy Wolman, a board member at the Orthodox Union, which is working with JNRU and GIFT to help the people of Ukraine, agreed.

“If you look at what Chabad is doing, almost everyone who was helping when things were good are gone, but the Chabad shluchim are inside Ukraine right now, living under fire. We are not there on the ground,” said Wolman, “but the least we can do is take care of them and make sure they have what they need to take care of their communities.”

Volunteers from GIFT display some of the 30 tons of clothing that will be disbributed through Chabad centers in Ukraine.
Volunteers from GIFT display some of the 30 tons of clothing that will be disbributed through Chabad centers in Ukraine.

Entire Communities in the Dark

“There are entire communities living in the dark, with no heat and no power,” said Wolman. “We are literally trying to keep people from freezing to death.”

“We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” he continued. “Every dollar we get in is going right out. People are in their homes, in the dark, in the cold with no running water. It is an acute situation, and every dollar we get is crucial.”

According to Wolman, the OU has focused its efforts on raising funds to purchase generators as they were the “No. 1” priority. The generators, which only power a small area, cost between $10,000 to $25,000 each. So far, he said, the OU has raised enough funds to purchase generators for 16 communities, and the goal is to have them in place by December.

The OU has also sourced clothing from Turkey that it intends to purchase for residents in Ukraine. “We are hoping to get that for upward of 5,000 people to start. We hope to have that in the next week or two,” said Wolman.

In addition to the donated goods, GIFT also received financial donations, using them to purchase other much-needed items, including even more blankets, flashlights and batteries.

The need for these items is dire because of attacks on Ukraine’s electrical grids and infrastructure. Fundraising challenges exist because donors have been asked to give financially to help Ukraine before—particularly in the early days of the war when millions in aid was raised—even though the winter presents its own set of challenges.

Wolman noted that he was inspired by remarks made by former Israeli Knesset member, Jewish Agency head, and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who said in the early days of the war that “as a child in Ukraine, having the word ‘Jew’ in your passport was a sign that you weren’t equal to others. But during the war, the word indicated there are people outside of the country who care and want to help you.”

Donations to help the Jews of Ukraine can be made at the JRNU web site here.