International Fellowship of Christians and Jews helps Ukrainian families prepare for a new school year in the middle of a war zone

August 31, 2022

JERUSALEM A new school year will start in Ukraine on September 1, but it has never been as challenging as it is now – with an ongoing Russian military invasion in Ukraine.

The ORT Ukraine Jewish Educational Network that operates 7 Jewish elementary, middle, and high schools all over the country faces the same risks as the rest of the country. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (The Fellowship) supports ORT Ukraine and has since the very beginning of the war. They provide emergency assistance to help keep the schools in operation, but they also answer the urgent needs of the children and their families in war zones. For example, back in February, The Fellowship played an important role in helping to evacuate children, and their families, from war zones, and helping them settle somewhere safe.

According to the Ukraine Education Ministry, as of now some 2,300 Ukrainian educational institutions have suffered damage and 286 of them were completely destroyed due to intense fighting and shelling. As of early August, only 30% of Ukrainian schools were ready for face-to-face learning. Offline forms of education will be implemented only in those educational institutions that meet all security requirements.  Mila Finkelshtein, the CEO of ORT Ukraine says that over 3,700 kids started the 2021-2022 academic year in the ORT Ukraine educational system for all ages in Kyiv, Odesa, and Zaporozhzhya, The two Jewish schools in Odesa and Zaporozhzhia will not be able to open their doors for children. In Odesa there is no shelter nearby, and in Zaporozhzhia all of the schools are closed for safety reasons – nearly 70 percent of the Zaporozhzhia region is occupied by the Russian forces.

As for the rest, their basements are being prepared to become bomb shelters. The Ministry of Emergency Situations will examine every single one of them before giving an official permission to open it and accept children. The Ministry will ensure that the school has proper shelters where children and teachers could hide in case of emergency. Each should be supplied with a generator, flashlights, medicine, blankets, food and water.

“Everything is relative,” Finkelshtein says when it comes to determining if a school is safe. “These are not real shelters, there is not a single school with a normal bomb shelter. What we have is fortified school basements that are recognized as shelters by the state. It’s unreal to build normal shelters in such a short period of time. As a mother, I can tell you what we have is only imaginary security.”

According to Finkelshtein, she is still not sure whether ORT schools with proper shelters will be permitted by the Ukrainian government to start a face-to-face academic year. Also, according to Finkelshtein, roughly one out of three kids studying in the ORT Ukraine system is a refugee or a displaced person. Six and a half million Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes and flee, and the majority of them are still waiting in other countries for the war to end.

Finkelshtein says that they are working hard to make their schools as safe as possible. She invited a retired military officer to study the school infrastructure and recommend evacuation and safety measures. This week he will start to train the school staff to act immediately, should a siren alert them of a potential attack and how to find the nearest hideout and how best to get the children there.

Thanks to financial support from The Fellowship and its supporters, most of whom are Christian every child in ORT has an emergency backpack filled with all the necessities, like food, drinks, and medicine.

Mila Finkelshtein’s own daughter Alexandra is 14 years old, and she will start a new academic year as a sophomore in a Kyiv ORT school. But for now, she doesn’t know whether she will be able to attend school in person, or online. Alexandra reflected on what it’s like to be separated from so many classmates as a result of the war.

“Because of the war all of my best friends from my class are scattered all over the world – in Poland, Germany, Great Britain, USA and Canada,” says Alexandra. “But we try to keep in touch. We have our WhatsApp group. All the students miss the school and they would love to return.”