Debbie Kardon first learned about CJP’s deep connection to Dnipro, Ukraine, through her teenage daughter’s participation in the project, so when the job of executive director of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry became available, Kardon was intrigued. That was late 2019, and it was a critical juncture for the organization: The founding director had been in the role for more than four decades, and the organization’s board was faced with the choice to close shop or hire a new executive director to rejuvenate Action.

With Kardon’s social work experience and her commitment to Boston’s Jewish community, the board deemed her to be the person to bring Action into the 21st century. During her transition to the position, she worked closely with the outgoing executive director and went on a CJP trip to Dnipro. Almost as soon as Kardon started at Action, in 2020, the pandemic shut down the world. Under those difficult and unprecedented circumstances, she continued to guide Action in fulfilling its mission to aid and support the Jews of Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.

Kardon recently spoke to JewishBoston about Action’s transformation from a grassroots organization to an agency with the goal of providing ongoing aid to Ukraine and its Jews.

Debbie Kardon
Debbie Kardon (Courtesy photo)

How has Action evolved since it was founded in 1975?

Action was founded as part of the grassroots Soviet Jewry movement. They created Action because they wanted to do things differently than the traditional organizations around the Refusenik movement. Action was one of 36 Action Councils across North America involved in the movement under the Union Council of Soviet Jewry. This network of grassroots organizations was able to do things differently than traditional organizations—for example, they organized a march on Washington, D.C.

One of the things that is amazing about the work I’m doing now is that as I talk to people, friends and colleagues, so many of them say to me their introduction to social action was in connection to Judaism and being a Jewish professional because of the Soviet Jewry Movement. My first protest was the Freedom Sunday in Washington, D.C., in 1987. I remember wearing a bracelet with a Refusenik’s name on it.

What happened after the fall of the Soviet Union?

Many of the Action Councils across the country closed. Most of them were run by volunteers, and they considered their work done; Boston was different. Many federations were being paired with cities across Ukraine to help rebuild Jewish life, and Boston was paired with Dnipro. Action pivoted at that point to help rebuild Jewish life. We began to support vulnerable elderly Jews and adult Jews with disabilities in several communities in Ukraine and Russia.

How did Action’s work in the 1990s differ from that of larger, more traditional organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee?

The JDC is an amazing organization and they provide a system and structure throughout Ukraine and other places around the globe to distribute aid. But the JDC has guidelines and they give a certain amount of support; sometimes people need a bit more help. So, we have a community coordinator on the ground and volunteers that identify the neediest. Before the war, we supported people with food baskets and sometimes we provided money to do home repairs and pay for extra medical support. We also sent over clothing and medicine.

One of our priorities, which aligns with our values and philosophy, is we can’t support people in Ukraine without mobilizing support here. Another part of our mission is to provide cultural and educational opportunities for people to learn about the Soviet Jewry movement. We want to continue to support and be involved in the Jewish history of Eastern Europe and specifically Ukraine.

How has the current situation in Ukraine impacted your work?

We quickly organized when the Russians invaded Ukraine. Three of the communities we have been assisting are under Russian occupation and we started sending aid in a more robust way. And the aid we send keeps changing. In Mariupol, one of our largest communities, most of our elderly had to be suddenly evacuated. This is where our partnership with other organizations come into play. We’re not an organization with the resources to do evacuations, but we were able to get in touch with our coordinator for Mariupol to make the evacuation happen.

What has been happening in Ukraine?

People have been leaving with almost nothing and are shell-shocked. Initially, they didn’t know what they would need, so we sent stipends for things like shoes or glasses. We had copies made of their official paperwork. When the supply chain became an issue, we sent food into our communities. Now the issues are heat and light, so we’re sending heaters, lamps, hand warmers and thermal underwear. We had a recent request for reflective bands because of the power outages. Flashlights and USB lights for headlamps were also on the list so people could find their way in the dark. We just sent over 250 heated vests. The aid that we’re sending speaks to the changing needs.

Is there anything else you would like to add to our conversation?

A lot of needs we address are met by word of mouth. Somebody tells somebody that they know who has a foundation or somebody tells friends, and they may have a fundraising event at their temples. The day schools in the Boston area have come together to do clothing drives and collect money. At one point, there was a need for adult incontinence supplies, and somebody did a drive on the North Shore that collected three tons of those supplies for us to ship. I think our volunteers are an important part of the story; many times, we’re just the conduit. We also have a network of boots on the ground that are reporting revolving needs to us in real time. All this activity speaks to the origin of Action as a grassroots organization that mobilizes people to meet a need. It’s been humbling to be a part of this work.