“We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine,” were the bold words of Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky this past Shabbos in a recorded video where he stood alongside his leading ministers.
Before the Russian armed forces crossed into Ukraine before dawn last Wednesday, Kyiv was a prosperous capital city with a vibrant economy, culture, and 2.9 million residents. The Jewish community had a complete infrastructure of historic synagogues, schools, mikvah, and Hatzalah, that allowed for full religious observance. Thirty years of work done by the Karlin-Stolin, Chabad, and other religious and secular Jewish organizations was destroyed by missiles seeking to forcefully return Ukraine into the Russian orbit.
Who would have believed a decade ago that Zelensky, a former television host, comedian, and a Jew, would be elected president, and serve as the unexpected symbol of resistance against Russian aggression? The country where so much Jewish blood was shed over the centuries looks positively on its president, the Jewish community, and the State of Israel.
“The communities in Ukraine are extremely vibrant and it is sad to see what is happening to them,” said Rabbi Labish Becker, who is coordinating the relief effort for Agudath Israel of America. “We are raising money for extra security and to relocate people.” In partnership with Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel of the Conference of European Rabbis, funds collected by Agudah are paying for the security, relocation, and housing of Ukrainian Jews.
Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich serves as a Chief Rabbi in Ukraine, having settled in Kyiv in 1990 to facilitate kiruv and the rebuilding of a community that was ruined by two world wars, the Holocaust, communism, and anti-Semitism. In Brooklyn, fellow Karlin-Stoliner chasid Rabbi Yaakov Shteierman raises money for kiruv programs at the Beis Aharon-Yisrael school in Kyiv, and the Beis Aharon school in Pinsk, Belarus.
“We keep in touch every hour. Most of our community left a week and a half ago. There was difficulty getting out,” he said. “Lodging, food, and transportation costs money, and this is for hundreds of families.”
One of the families has four children. The mother, whose name is omitted for her safety, attended the yeshivah in Pinsk before settling in Kyiv. “It is interesting to see how we were all raised in Belarus, and after Pinsk, some of us made aliyah, others learned at Gateshead, Lakewood, immigrated to New York, and my friend married a man from Kyiv, where they raised their family,” my wife Keren said. “Now she is back in Pinsk, where it is relatively safer.”
Safer as there is no war on the streets, but Belarus is occupied by Russian troops. They were invited by pro-Russian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to prop up his regime on the eve of a rigged referendum this past Sunday that renounced the country’s non-nuclear status. We donated money to the Pinsk yeshivah, so that it could support this family, among others.
Rabbi David Warshaw, the president of the National Council of Young Israel, is coordinating his organization’s support for Ukrainian Jews. “We are carefully vetting groups on the ground, and it is not easy to coordinate. The donations that we’ve received are substantial.” At every Young Israel synagogue worldwide, T’hilim, the call for donations, and stories of men drafted into the military as their families flee, were shared from the pulpits.
The UJA-Federation of New York, the largest Jewish philanthropic organization in the state, released $3 million in emergency funding for Jews in Ukraine, to be distributed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency, and other grassroots partners in the country.
As many Jews flee their homes, the last to leave are the Chabad shluchim, as a matter of principle. “The biggest problems right now are securing food and supplies. I am in touch with the shaliach in Zhitomir, who is serving elderly Jews in shtetlach across northern and central Ukraine,” said Rabbi Blokh of the Chabad of Rego Park. He shared a photo from Rabbi Nochum Tamarin’s apartment, showing an explosion within a mile of his window. All shluchim in Ukraine have foreign passports, either from the United States or Israel, giving them the opportunity to leave. “They cast their lot with these communities; they are not seen as outsiders.”
Over the weekend, videos were shared of shluchim conducting Havdalah in bomb shelters and dancing with their congregants to boost morale. Rabbi Blokh noted that shluchim serve their communities and do not speak for governments in their respective countries. “The fabric of life is very fragile; nobody knows how many people will come back.”
Rabbi Blokh is also in contact with shluchim in Russia, who are not in physical danger but are affected by the economic impact of the war. “This is hard for Jews in Russia, as the shluchim are locally funded, and access to funds from abroad is cut off,” he said. Some of the most generous supporters of Chabad in Russia are the oligarchs allied with President Vladimir Putin whose bank accounts in the West have been frozen.
Across the United States, public landmarks were lit in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, with local examples that include the Empire State Building, the Kosciuszko Bridge, City Hall, and the New York State Capitol. Governor Kathy Hochul announced the State’s support for resettling Ukrainian refugees and divesting the state’s pension fund from Kremlin-linked companies. “We are going to be reviewing all state purchases, all of our investments,” she said on Sunday, “as well as investments with any company or institution that is on a list of Russian headquartered entities.”
Among American Jews, the invasion of Ukraine by an authoritarian superpower brought back memories of World War II and the Cold War, and offense at Putin’s claim that he is liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis.
“It is not democratic Ukraine that needs to be ‘denazified,’” wrote American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris. “It’s Russia led by a tyrant who’s been using Hitler’s 1938-1939 playbook to advance his ambitions.”
By Sergey Kadinsky