Crowded together in downtown’s Liberty Avenue Park, Pittsburghers delivered speeches, joined in song and hoisted signs signaling support for Ukraine, as the Eastern European country continued defending itself against a Russian invasion.
The Feb. 27 rally was organized by teenagers Andrew Romanchik, Kateryna Petrylo and Hrystyna Petrylo.
The teens told the Chronicle they felt compelled to act following Russia’s declaration of war three days earlier.
“Right after everything happened, we wanted to get together as a community and be together,” Hrystyna Petrylo said.
As a lead-up to Sunday’s event, Hrystyna Petrylo reached out to groups throughout the city, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, to garner support. The teenagers then identified a spot to hold their demonstration — Liberty Avenue Park.
“It's in the center of the city. It's in the heart of Pittsburgh. Everyone knows this building. Everyone knows that building. Everyone knows the subway system. We are in the center,” Romanchik, 16, said.
The teens’ efforts paid off as about 300 people — according to City of Pittsburgh Police estimates — shouted, sang and prayed on behalf of Ukraine.
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said he was impressed by the young adults’ ability to bring so many diverse people together.
“It shows you that when we stand up we stand together,” Gainey told the Chronicle. “I'm very proud of this and very emotional because you are seeing people from all over the world here.”
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald echoed praise for the young organizers, saying, “It gives you a lot of hope for the future.” Older adults, or those aware of European history, recognize the terror that comes along with “domination by dictators who go over and take sovereign nations over,” he added.
As attendees shouted, “Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava! (“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”), sang the Ukrainian national anthem, and hoisted signs reading “Save Ukraine Stop Russian Aggression,” “Hands off Ukraine” and “Resist the Aggressor,” Baruch (who asked that his last name be withheld) stood several feet from Fitzgerald.
Baruch, a former resident of Russia, waved both American and Israeli flags, and said the connection between Jews and Ukraine runs deep.
Pittsburgher Sam Wasserman elaborated on that bond by describing a conversation he had one day earlier with a friend in Ukraine who organizes activities for Jewish students there.
“She believes in what her country's doing and what [President Volodymyr] Zelensky is doing and fighting for freedom,” Wasserman said.
Alexandra Boyko, who attended Sunday’s event, said she’s spoken with family members in Ukraine whenever they’re available.
“They need more help,” Boyko said. “They need more support. Praying is not enough.”
Since fighting began on Feb. 24, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has partnered with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Jewish Agency for Israel and World ORT to provide humanitarian aid to the estimated 200,000 Jews living in Ukraine.
Along with those efforts, Pittsburgh’s Federation and its partners are “also tracking potential vulnerabilities that may emerge within Russia’s Jewish community,” Federation’s president and CEO, Jeffrey Finkelstein wrote in an email.
Squirrel Hill resident Steve Irwin, who attended Sunday’s demonstration, said Pittsburgh’s Jews have a history of helping those under duress in Eastern Europe.
“When I was a teenager, I used to march for Soviet Jews,” Irwin said. “I used to wear a bracelet of people who were prisoners of conscience. It took so much to get them out. We can't go back. We can't go back to what it was before.”
Nearly a half-century has passed since American Jews took to the streets on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Irwin said he wishes Pittsburghers understood that the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is “much closer to home than people think.”
Though Romanchik is too young to remember protests and marches from the 1970s and ’80s, he said that today’s youth maintain a deep connection to their “homeland,” as evidenced by the shouts and songs ringing through downtown Pittsburgh on Sunday.
“Luckily here in America, we're able to be free about our culture — it's one of our liberties, to express our culture, to express our thoughts,” Romanchik said. “I'm glad that this [demonstration] can happen in America. We can be a voice for Ukraine here.
“But regardless of the fact that we are in America, we will not forget about our country, our culture, our heritage. It means so much to us.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.