By Leenika Belfield-Martin and Alex Krutchik
Sonya Shpilyuk was 5 years old when she watched tanks roll through Moscow on her television during the fall of the Soviet Union. Now, nearly 30 years later, the Rockville resident comforts her own 5-year-old daughter as they watch tanks drive through the streets of Kiyv, Ukraine, where their relatives still live.
“She has a little bit of a sense of what war is,” Shpilyuk said about her daughter. “We went to a museum that showed some of the effects of war and it upset her. She asked us, ‘Is war going to come to us? Is war going to happen again?’”
Shpliyuk, her mother and her stepfather came to the United States in 1995. But many of her relatives, including her father, stayed behind. Since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, he has spent nights in a Kiyv metro station and then in a school on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Shpilyuk said.
“The hardest time for me is when it’s night time over there. That’s when attacks happen and that’s when I can’t reach them.”
In those hours, her father won’t text her because he doesn’t want light from his phone to be seen through the windows.
Jews in the Washington region have expressed outrage at Russia’s attack on its smaller neighbor. Ukraine has a blood-soaked Jewish history, which thousands of Jews were happy to leave behind. Yet the Russian attack has revealed a kinship, an identification with the underdog Ukrainians, its fledgling democracy and its Jewish president.
And it keeps Jews like Shpilyuk, with family in Ukraine, glued to their screens.
“In some ways it’s madness inducing,” she wrote this week. “Everyone is looking at their phone, doom scrolling for the next fact or update. But also I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that I don’t have to wait to hear news from home.”
Rabbi Susan Shankman’s family left Ukraine in the 1890s, when the area was part of the Russian Empire.
“I think there’s a real sense of connection to Ukraine,” said Shankman, of Washington Hebrew Congregation. “And when we look at what happened [during the Holocaust], I think that there’s a lot of concern about that piece of land in that area and the history that we as a Jewish community experienced.”
In her sermon last Shabbat, Shankman referred to the talmudic saying that “all Israel is responsible for one another. This is the idea that everyone is linked together, no matter where in the world they are, or whether they know the people there, and that everyone is part of a larger family,” she told the congregation.
“So I think that there is a sense of communal obligation in a positive way,” Shankman said. “This is our role, to be able to stand up for each other and to support each other in our hour of need. And this is certainly an hour of need.”
On Sunday, thousands of people took to the streets of Washington to demonstrate that communal obligation. They rallied for Ukraine and voiced their criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Carrying Ukrainian flags and banners that stretched the width of the street, the demonstrators walked from Farragut Square to Lafayette Square in front of the White House. There they chanted anti-war slogans and sang the Ukrainian national anthem.
Paul Voynalovitch, who was born in Ukraine and moved to the United States 30 years ago, was one of the demonstrators.
“Anybody – Ukrainian, Jewish or anybody – should be supporting the inevitable demise of Putin’s regime,” said Voynalovitch, who is Jewish and whose brother lives in Ukraine.
Like many, Voynalovitch expressed wonder and pride for Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Look at where Zelenskyy is now,” he said. “He is in the trenches defending his capital city with his troops. It’s incredible.”
Watching and reading about the unfolding events on a screen may make many Americans feel helpless. Rabbi Marc Israel of Congregation Tikvat Israel in Rockville said that Jews who wish to support Ukraine and its Jewish community can donate to a number of emergency funds that opened barely after the first shots were fired (see box).
“If Vladimir Putin can feel like he can barge into a country with impunity, I think that sets a very dangerous precedent,” Israel said.
Although Marianna Ashin of Bethesda left Ukraine in 1989, she said she relates to the fears of Ukrainians who are trying to escape the Russian invasion this week.
“I remember getting on the train, saying goodbye to my family and it was really heart-wrenching because you didn’t know when you were going to see each other again,” she recalled.
Like Sonya Shpliyuk, Ashin was reminded of her childhood experiences when she saw the frightened looks of people trying to flee the conflict.
“Watching the news footage and seeing the children really breaks my heart because I remember the fear,” she said.
To fight the fear, Ashin and her children began baking cookies and brownies — dozens of batches — which they began selling to support The Federation’s Ukraine Emergency Fund. Ashin said their baked goods raised “thousands of dollars.”
“Financial assistance is of the utmost importance right now. People walked away with virtually nothing,” Ashin said. “Right now, we can’t go to the warzone and do hands-on work. But what we can do is raise money to donate through organizations like The Federation who are helping those fleeing to Poland.”
“The number one thing people should do is not look away,” Shpliyuk said.