Three decades ago, when Liba Bukalov emigrated from Ukraine, she spoke of the anti-Semitism that caused her to flee for a better life in New York. Raised in a household that prized mathematics, she became an award-winning public school math teacher who co-authored two textbooks, is a four-time recipient of the Math for America Master Teacher fellowship and is a volunteer at the nonprofit Tutoring Without Borders.
It was in this latter role that she reconnected with Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February 2022. Having worked with teachers and students in Ukraine prior to the war, she introduced them to the Mathematical Association of America, asking if she could organize the American Mathematics Competition in Ukraine, since that nation’s local and regional competitions had been canceled. Speaking the language and having connections in the country, Bukalov became the competition’s American liaison to Ukraine.
“I saw pictures of teachers in Ukraine teaching remotely in bomb shelters and I wanted to help them,” Bukalov said. “When half of Vinnitsa was bombed, I wanted to do something.” There were memories of anti-Semitism in her birthplace, but also a proud culture.
“My Ukrainian language and literature teacher was the kindest person. I could sit for hours and listen to her speak Ukrainian. It is very melodic.” Although math was and remains Bukalov’s favorite subject, she spent many hours learning Ukrainian poetry, music, and dance. These are the things that define a nation, which Russia does not regard as a separate entity, but rather as wayward cousins.
Bukalov’s effort began as a Telegram chat group for math teachers across Ukraine, using the popular social media app. It then collaborated with the Kiev State University and the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, in which teachers shared their lessons, modeled on the model of Math for America.
The experience of training Ukrainian math teachers and students in American methods and participating in western competitions mirrors the military and political direction of the country, which has leaned towards western democracies to assert its independence from Russia.
“Like my grandfather, I always wanted to be a math teacher. He was brilliant. Yiddish was his first language and then Ukrainian. He learned Russian during the war when he was evacuated to the east, which is how he survived,” she said. “After returning home, he graduated from Vinnitsa Teachers College. He trained teachers, lectured in a local teacher college, wrote articles, and presented at conferences.”
An Orthodox Jew, Bukalov met her husband Rabbi Boruch Akiva through a shadchan. “He also teaches math; it brought us together.” Born in Moscow to an educated family, his story of observance and immigration is also noteworthy. He emigrated when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and soon after arriving, he devoted many years to learning Torah full-time. He teaches math at Yeshiva Ohavei Torah in Riverdale.
Having built their bayis ne’eman in Queens where they raised their four children, the Bukalovs want the same for Ukrainian refugees who arrived in New York after the invasion.
“I have a student who landed in New Jersey and later moved to a Bronx address. He is studying for the specialized high school exam. He is from Mariupol, and his father was killed in a bombing.”
Earlier this month, Bukalov was recognized by Math for America with its Muller Award for Professional Influence in Education, a $20,000 prize given for her two decades at Bayside High School, her books, articles, and volunteering virtually to rebuild mathematics in Ukrainian schools.
“I met a teacher on Zoom who was giving lessons while her shelter was being bombed. My phone is full of such videos and photos. You can only cry when you see them.”
Since the invasion, many Russian-speaking Jews in America have distanced themselves from Russia, identifying more with its former possessions, such as Ukraine, Belarus, the nations of the Caucasus, and the Central Asian states. Bukalov grew up with Russian as her first language, but she identifies with Ukraine following the Russian bombing of numerous schools, theaters, and hospitals, among other violations of international norms.
As Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive intensifies, Russian President Vladimir Putin remains committed towards reviving the Russian Empire, claiming that Ukrainians and Belarusians are not real nations. Last week, he also asserted that Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelenskyy is not a Jew.
“I have a lot of Jewish friends,” Putin told an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg. “They say that Zelenskyy is not Jewish, that he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.” He then spoke of Russia’s role in the Holocaust as a liberator, in contrast to the pro-Nazi Ukrainians.
Former Israeli minister Natan Sharansky, who was born in Donetsk, condemned Putin’s remark, praising Zelenskyy’s leadership.
“Zelenskyy unites the Ukrainian people against barbaric aggression, and we Jews can be proud that a representative of our people plays a historic and significant role in uniting the whole world for the sake of protecting our future,” he said in a statement.
By Sergey Kadinsky