‘My heart is painful’—South Jersey Ukrainian Jews react

Yelena and her husband Arcadiy Tkachuk.

Yelena and her husband Arcadiy Tkachuk.

As Russian forces continued their invasion of Ukraine, South Jersey Jews with ties there have been helplessly bracing themselves for what’s to come.

“It’s devastating,” said Floriya Tkachuk-Mattioli, who was born in Zhytomyr, roughly two hours away from Kyiv, the capital city. “I wish I could bring somebody here, and house them or take a family and put them up somewhere but the means of that are hard.”

Tkachuk-Mattioli, a nurse practitioner at Penn Medicine, immigrated to Cherry Hill in 1991, when she was seven years old. She remembers the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred nearby, as men with Geiger counters determined that she had high levels of radiation in her body and needed medical treatment. At that time, the Soviet Union was dissolving, and her parents wanted to come to America to give her and her brother Gene a better life. “Despite the fact that I left so long ago, and I was a child, it’s really super painful because you feel helpless.”

Floriya Tkachuk-Mattioli with her brother Gene visiting Kyiv.

Floriya Tkachuk-Mattioli with her brother Gene visiting Kyiv.

Floriya’s mother, Yelena Tkachuk, who immigrated here when she was 39, told the Voice that she’s in regular contact with several friends in Zhytomyr and Vinnytsia, but that most of them are unable to leave. “My friends, they are already old. They are not able to move any places. I don’t know how this happen. My heart is painful. I’m heartbroken this moment.”

A former medical assistant at the Jewish Geriatric Home in Cherry Hill and then at Lions Gate in Voorhees, Tkachuk has also taught piano lessons at the Katz JCC for many years. “I’m not political. Only love and kindness can help save this war,” she said. “If I can change something, I know I will do it. Give blood, give money, give my house to prevent this situation. I will do everything.”

Born in Kyiv, Anna Shnayder left Ukraine in 1990 when she was 15 to come to the United States. For over 20 years the Marlton local has worked in the non-profit sector. With some friends and former classmates still living in Ukraine, she tries to check up on them as often as she can. “The feeling of being hopeless is the worst of all. I don’t have the words to explain it. It goes back to why? I don’t understand why.”

While she feels helpless, Shnayder also said that she’s been bowled over by support from the community, from people who’ve reached out, texted, and emailed her kind words. “I think everyone is struggling with what they can do to help. And that means a lot.”

For Dinie Mangel, the conflict overseas hits close to home because her sister, Chana Kaminezki, has lived in Dnipro, a city on the river in central Ukraine, for over 30 years. Kaminezki and her husband Shmuel Kaminezki, the chief rabbi of the city, help run the Menorah Center, one of the largest Jewish cultural centers in the world.

Unlike bigger cities like Kyiv or Kharkiv, where buildings are being razed nonstop, Dnipro has not fallen to Russian forces as of the time this article was written, though other acute challenges exist. “They’re dealing with food shortages and medical supply shortages,” she said. “Imagine somebody on dialysis and they can’t get to a hospital because the road is closed.”

To shelter hundreds of people without access to a bomb shelter, the unheated parking garage on the lowest level of the Menorah Center has turned into a makeshift home. Air raid sirens are going off for the first time since World War II.

Arranging transport for those who wish to escape and are exempt from the military draft is not just “a matter of money,” Mangel said. It requires a level of cunning.

Over one million Ukrainians have fled their homes thus far, fueling a full-blown humanitarian crisis. The UN estimates that more than 10 million people may end up fleeing their homes if the violence continues. “The people who do survive, they essentially have to start from nothing,” Tkachuk-Mattioli said. “They don’t have the means to rebuild.”

Dinie Mangel, one of the founders of the Chabad here in Southern New Jersey with her husband Rabbi Mendy Mangel, said that her sister, who has nine children, is trying her best to hold it together. “She’s like the matriarch, so everything has to be with a smile. Inside she’s completely torn apart.”

In response to news that the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was damaged in a missile attack on the nearby radio tower, Tkachuk-Mattioli said it’s like reliving a nightmare.

Mangel said that it should’ve been held sacred and kept off limits. “They’ve also hit hospitals and schools. That’s not military, that’s civilian. It’s horrible. ”

No leader is perfect, Tkachuk-Mattioli noted, but she said that Ukrainian President Zelensky has been an “amazing example to the Ukrainian people.”

“A president usually kind of sits in the background, and he was offered transportation to be in a safe place and delegate from afar, but he chose not to. I don’t know if any other president would gear up and say that they are going to fight with the country. ”

Donating goods like diapers, hygiene items and medical supplies to local humanitarian causes go a long way, Shnayder said. She highlighted the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center and the United Ukrainian American Relief Committee as two of the various organizations lending support right now to Ukrainians displaced by the war.

It’s important, Mangel emphasized, to turn that feeling of helplessness into action. “As a Jewish people, look how far we’ve come. And it’s not because we feel helpless, it’s because we know there’s a brighter future.”

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