Jews Throughout Ukraine Warmed by the Glow of Chanukah

The Jewish Communities and Chabad-Lubavitch bring the ‘Festival of Lights’ to a beleaguered nation

Nearly a decade ago, Maya left her home in Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine, amid the then-growing conflict in the region and moved nearly 900 miles cross-country to Uzhgorod along the Slovakian border, where she became an active member of the Jewish community. On Sunday, as the crisis impacts nearly every aspect of life around the nation including her own, Maya joined hundreds of Jews in Uzhgorod to celebrate Chanukah.

“I wasn’t surprised that at this difficult time the Jewish community joined together, and we spent such a nice time together,” said Maya after watching a live theater performance of the Chanukah story and attending a menorah-lighting by Chabad-Lubavitch of Uzhgorod. “I enjoyed the play. The actors, who are Ukrainian, spoke about Chanukah, and they greeted us with ‘Happy Chanukah.’ ”

“The best thing I saw was how so many people who have come from different parts of Ukraine since the crisis began have become a part of the Uzhgorod Jewish community,” she told Chabad.org. Most of the refugees are being sustained thanks to the work of Chabad emissaries and the ongoing assistance of the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU), FJC’s boots-on-the-ground humanitarian network. Holding back tears, she added: “I want to say thank you to Jewish people around the world for their help and their support. It’s difficult to say this.”

Throughout Ukraine, a network of hundreds of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and volunteers are working to ensure that beleaguered residents are able to celebrate the “Festival of Lights.” More than 40,000 Chanukah boxes filled with holiday supplies and special treats are being distributed to Jews in every city and village throughout Ukraine, says Rabbi Shlomi Peles, who heads JRNU. The kits include a menorah, candles, dreidels, a Chanukah book for children, chocolate gelt, a Swiss chocolate bar and more.

The Chabad emissaries are joined in Ukraine by a group of 25 rabbinical students from Israel and the United States. The students are helping ensure that as many Jews as possible get a visitor on Chanukah and can celebrate during the eight-day festival.

Hundreds of Jewish residents and refugees gathered for the menorah lighting in Uzhgorod, along the Slovakian border in the nation’s west.

The Light of Menorah in an Underground Subway Shelter

As a result, all across Ukraine, menorahs were lit and Jews gathered to celebrate Chanukah, even under electricity blackouts and security considerations. Some of those menorahs were lit in city squares, though many without the usual fanfare and celebration, and some were lit in unusual places due to the ongoing conflict.

That was the case in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

In the early days of the conflict, the local subway stations served as emergency shelters. On Sunday afternoon, people gathered in those same tunnels to watch a menorah-lighting for the first night of Chanukah.

“I can’t believe the candles are being lit here in the same subway station where I lived for three months with my family,” said Natali, a young woman who stopped to take a photo of herself with the lit menorah.

At the Chabad Choral Synagogue, there was another menorah-lighting along with a community Chanukah party attended by some 500 people, including young families.

With their city blacked out, Jews of Nikolayev, Ukraine, gather for a Chanukah celebration at their rabbi’s home.

“We couldn’t believe it! Just Friday, there were 10 rockets and no electricity in the city, and the subway was out, and Sunday we had a packed crowd,” said Miriam Moskovitz, who with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, has been leading Chabad of Kharkov. “It just shows the real resilience and determination to keep on going, no matter what.”

Two of the children in attendance were Artur and Katya, who came with their mother, grandfather and some musical instruments. As Miriam Moskovitz recounted, his mother came up to her and said, “Artur hasn’t been able to perform for the past 10 months. Could he please play?”

And, of course, he did so, playing the recorder and flute for the audience while his sister performed on the violin.

In addition to the impromptu concert by the two youngsters, there were also scheduled performances, including a children’s choir, along with crafts, food, friendship and mitzvot as several of the elderly men in attendance even put on tefillin for the first time.

At the Chanukah party in the Grand Choral Synagogue in Kharkov, there was an impromptu performance by Artur, who said that he hadn’t been able to perform in the past ten months.

“This is the first time in months that I see my girls with a smile on their faces,” said Mila, who brought her two daughters to the Chanukah celebration. “From the chocolate doughnuts to winning the game of dreidel and making their very own candles, they enjoyed it all. But best of all was seeing their friends in person, as school has been online for months.”

“Thank you for bringing light into our hearts and our whole city,” she told the Chabad emissaries.

In Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a menorah-lighting and Chanukah party were held inside the auditorium at a Jewish school. The event included a musical performance, crafts and treats for the children, and plenty of holiday food.

Devorah Leah Levenharts of Chabad’s Simcha School in Kiev said “we don’t have electricity now and we don’t have heating, and since this morning we were also without phone connection and without Internet. Still, this is our brightest Chanukah.”

Artur’s sister Katya played the violin for the 500 in attendance.
Children at the Chanukah party at the Simcha School in Kiev.
A Chanukah gathering at the Simcha School in Kiev.
The Nikolayev public menorah lighting took place in real darkness.

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