Viktoriya Torchinsky-Field grew up in Soviet-era Ukraine — the Ukraine of Jewish quotas at universities, the Ukraine where Jews couldn’t practice in public, the Ukraine where her father felt compelled to hide their Jewish identity from his daughter until she told him about how she and her friends left a Jewish girl out of an activity.
So in 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell, she married a Ukrainian guy who was on his way to the United States and left the Soviet Union forever.
More than three decades later, though, Torchinsky-Field is going back, in spirit, to her native country. As Russia attempts to reassert control over its neighbor in a war, Torchinsky-Field is doing her small part to help her former neighbors.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, the Center City resident got together with some local friends to start the Philadelphia-Ukraine Rapid Response. The organization works with nonprofits to raise money for Ukrainians who want to stay in their homes.
As Torchinsky-Field explained, Ukraine is a nation of more than 44 million people, and while 4 million are now refugees, the rest remain in the country; while other organizations focus on helping the displaced, the Philadelphia resident figured she could do the most good by helping those trying to stay.
“We narrowed the mission,” she said.
Torchinsky-Field understands well how to execute a narrow mission. During the Soviet Union’s glasnost, or openness, and perestroika, or reconstruction, period in the late 1980s, the Ukrainian teen developed a dream: get to the United States.
Under the communist regime, she didn’t think she’d be able go to a professional school. Torchinsky-Field was on an associate’s track for a teacher’s degree because she felt like she couldn’t aim higher.
“For all intents and purposes, I did go through the immigration process on my own,” Torchinsky-Field said.
When she got to the U.S., she started pursuing a law degree. Today, Torchinsky-Field is a corporate lawyer. Her parents even joined her in the United States four years after her immigration.
While the Ukraine native got out, many of her friends stayed.
After Russia invaded, she wanted to book a plane ticket to Poland to aid refugees. But then she started talking to other former members of the Soviet Jewish diaspora in Facebook groups organized around humanitarian efforts. Her compatriots told her, frankly, it would be selfish to go back.
Another body in Poland is another body to shelter, another mouth to feed, they said. Torchinsky-Field realized they were right, so she took a step back to consider what else she could do.
One day, she took a walk with friends and figured it out. An organization that would help other American Jews, and Americans in general, dealing with the same conflict.
They want to do something, but they don’t want to be a burden, either. They also aren’t quite sure who to contact.
Torchinsky-Field’s organization could tell them who to contact.
“We’re a connector,” she said. “The way for people to understand what their money is doing.”
The Philadelphia-Ukraine Rapid Response is not partnering with a roster full of nonprofits; Torchinsky-Field wants to keep the number of partners small to target the aid.
One partner is the Ukrainian-American Coordinating Council, the only U.S. nonprofit to source military-grade protective gear like helmets and vests. Another is Global Surgical, which sends surgeons and medical personnel into war zones to provide care. And the last two partners, Nova Ukraine and World Central Kitchen, focus on providing food.
When Torchinsky-Field came to the U.S., it was HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit that helps refugees, that paid for her ticket and connected her with a Jewish community. All these years later, Torchinsky-Field is a board observer for HIAS PA, and she listened in on a call after this war broke out.
HIAS PA leaders said they wanted to help both Jewish and non-Jewish refugees, and Torchinsky-Field’s organization is taking the same approach to people still in Ukraine.
“There’s no state-sponsored discrimination anymore,” Torchinsky-Field said of Jews in Ukraine. “So we’re helping everyone who’s in trouble.”
On March 23, she held a webinar with 140 people to spread the word about her organization’s mission.
Karina Sutnik, a friend of Torchinsky-Field’s and a partner in this effort, said the corporate lawyer is very convincing.
“She’s remarkable at how she rallied people,” Sutnik said.
To figure out how you can help, visit UkraineResponse.org. JE