With the hum of generators, Ukraine’s Jews defy the blackouts

When Kyiv’s Jewish community celebrated Chanukah this year, they had their own minor miracle to be thankful for — the wonder of light and electric power in a country plunged into darkness.

Ten months into the crisis, Ukraine has regressed a century or more in terms of basic infrastructure. Since the beginning of October,  cruise missiles and suicide drones have slammed into the country’s critical utility plants, knocking out electricity, heat, water, and Internet connection across much of the country.

“We only have electric power from the grid for a few hours a day, and even that is unpredictable,” says Rabbi Motty Lebenhartz, a senior Chabad emissary in Kyiv. “Without power, there are no phones, no hot water, and no light. After 5 p.m., the capital is dark, with no street lights and no traffic lights. To bake challah for Shabbat, you need to hope that there’s no interruption in power. And it’s well below freezing.”

Into that miserable murk came a beam of light in a bulky box — a generator. The diesel-fueled electric wonder was powerful, providing enough voltage for all the community’s needs, including a synagogue, school, and soup kitchen.

“We wanted to do a Chanukah concert to raise everyone’s spirits,” says Rabbi Lebenhartz, “but the musicians asked how we could guarantee electric power. With the help of the generators, we were able to have a beautiful event for 300 people, with no interruptions.”

Over the weeks since the synagogue in an eastern district of Kyiv started generating its own power, it has become a beacon of light even for Jews who were previously unconnected. Drawn by the opportunity to charge their phones, get some hot food, and connect to the Jewish community at a time of crisis, they’re coming in greater numbers than before.

The scene at the Lebenhartzes’ event has been repeated in community after community across the stricken country. As the lights have gone out across Ukraine, over 100 large generators — each enough to power major institutions — have come onstream to provide power as part of a multimillion-dollar Jewish relief effort.

Behind Operation Generator is an international supply chain. With Ukraine’s authorities desperately struggling, and aid donors scrambling to lay their hands on every generator possible, it’s exceedingly hard to get hold of the machines. Orders to suppliers in Europe, China, and Turkey are backed up for months.

Into the breach has stepped a pan-Jewish coalition ranging from Chabad to the OU, America’s Jewish Federations, and individual activists. As it became clear in the fall that there will be an attempt to freeze Ukraine into submission over the winter, the working group called in business and diplomatic contacts to secure the infrastructure needed to keep lights on for Ukraine’s freezing schoolchildren and elderly.

With Jewish community centers now warm, the effort has greased the wheels of intercommunal relations and given new meaning to the phrase “light unto the nations,” as many non-Jews come in for a dose of good cheer and some critical battery power.

Rabbi Lebenhartz, who needs a flashlight just to cross the street in the new normal of Kyiv, was lucky enough to get a generator for his community

Dark Matter

Satellite imagery gives an idea of just how dark Ukraine now is, after months of attacks on her energy grid. Nighttime images show the country as a giant black hole in the sea of light that is the rest of Europe.

Cell phone footage shot from the Lebenhartzes’ apartment window in Kyiv tells the same story.

“Look outside at one of Kyiv’s main roads,” says Rabbi Lebenhartz’s voiceover to the shaky camera footage of blackness relieved by a few headlights. “Even to cross the road you need a flashlight.”

It’s taken a while for Rabbi Motty and Devora Leah Lebenhartz — originally from Israel, and in Ukraine since 1998 — to get used to the new normal in Kyiv. Conflict came as an utter shock to them when it broke out, as it did with the rest of the population.

When the first missiles rained onto the capital, the couple joined the exodus, heading a group of 100 community members escaping what they thought was the certain fall of Kyiv. They fled through Kishinev to Romania and from there to Israel. But within a short time, the parents of seven were back to shepherd the community members who’d remained.

Exactly how many Jews are actually still in the country is hard to know, especially given that many are unconnected to the official communities. Distribution lists for Passover products are one indicator of formal Jewish commitment. Aid organizations, already preparing for the upcoming Passover distribution, count somewhere close to 35,000 individuals.

That significant Jewish population has been desperate for leadership, both rabbinic and communal, which has had to operate under emergency conditions.

“Each stage has presented challenges,” Mrs. Lebenhartz says, taking over the story. “At the beginning, there was no fuel in the country. We’d have to queue for hours to get a jerry can of petrol. At that stage, though, there was electricity, so Chabad got hold of an electric van for us to use for the community. Now, it’s the reverse — there’s fuel but no electricity.”

“I can measure the blackouts on my electric bill,” says Rabbi Lebenhartz. “For the months of November and December, costs were down by two-thirds — we only had electricity for a third of the regular time.”

Ukraine’s current utility supply system is a mix between the modern and primitive. On the one hand, a website search by address tells you when you will or won’t have power. On the other hand, that electricity supply — like in a third-world country — is erratic.

When there’s an attack, you might lose power the whole day. Kyiv recently went 36 hours without power, until it finally came back on in the middle of the night.

One way for this Jewish family in Vinnytsia to stay warm is to chop logs for heat. Will freezing weather cut out Ukraine this winter, or will common hardship breed solidarity and resistance?

Stiff Upper Lip

The conditions demand a flexible, make-do-and-mend attitude to cope. When the power is on, for a few hours, appliances hum, emails go out, and food is cooked — even if it’s the middle of the night.

The Lebenhartzes’ youngest child — a boy of 11 — has had to adapt more than most. As one of the only religious children left in the area, his schooling comes now almost entirely through Chabad’s online school. The frequent power cuts played havoc with that schedule, though. But now that the generator and reserve batteries are keeping power going at the Lebenhartzes’, things are back to normal.

Having decided to stay on in Ukraine, the veteran emissaries have toiled to secure everything needed for the community to function. Under bombardment, schools need to have a bomb shelter. That has meant digging deep — financially and literally — to carve out a government-authorized space underground.

The lighting and purification systems for the bunker come, of course, via the new generator, enabling children to continue getting a Jewish education.

“People here are very tough, but the months of darkness have exacted a psychological cost,” says Mrs. Lebenhartz. “Still, we decided that we needed to show the community that the synagogue is never closed, whatever happens. It’s the spiritual and material center of the community, and being part of it allows Jews to have a connection to normality.”

Land of Generators

Five hundred kilometers west-southwest of Kyiv, Chernivtsi in western Ukraine feels like an island of tranquility. Known to Jewish posterity as Chernovitz, it’s a regional capital of the historically Jewish area of Bukovina. On the chassidish map, it’s home to Sadigura, a prominent Ruzhiner dynasty.

Moshe Krais, 61, a father of three and businessman who runs the original Sadigura kloiz, is a proud Ukrainian.

Moshe is fighting the good fight on the home front. “Chernivtsi itself hasn’t been targeted, thank G-d,”The loss of power stations all across the country means that power gets sent to Kyiv, and we only have normal electricity for two to three hours daily.”

Blackouts, he says, are managed, so that different parts of the city of a quarter million have power at different hours. At this stage, people no longer race to the shelters when a siren goes off, but lack of power is far more debilitating.

The Sadigura synagogue under Krais’s stewardship plays host to some 50 Jewish refugees from other more dangerous parts of Ukraine. Overall, the town’s Jewish population of some 800 has swelled thanks to the influx of refugees.

All these are mouths that must be fed — a difficult task under rolling outages. “Before the generators arrived,” Krais says, “we would be baking bread, and then the power would go, and it had to be thrown away.”

The generators have been a game-changer. For the Sadigura synagogue — smaller than Chernivtsi’s main shul — a 75 kilowatt plant, drinking eight liters of diesel an hour, is enough. It provides the equivalent of the power it would take to heat 20 apartments.

With subzero temperatures in the Ukrainian winter, fending off the cold is a real problem — and most people can’t sleep in the heated synagogue. So alpine-grade sleeping bags are in hot demand, as well as private generators and the reserve batteries — or “accumulators” — which can store power in between blackouts.

“Ukraine is now a country of generators,” says Moshe Krais. “Small ones are everywhere, on people’s balconies and in their yards. As you walk outside, you hear the ‘pop-pop-pop’ of the generators at work.”

“We identified energy security as the crucial next battle for Ukraine’s Jews.” Shlomo Peles (center left) assesses the needs at the command center of the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU) in Kyiv

Supply Chains

The warmth that now suffuses the synagogues of Kyiv and Chernivtsi has its roots in a global operation that has brought together multiple Jewish organizational players.

“At the end of the summer, we identified energy security as the crucial next battle for Ukraine’s Jews,” says Shlomo Chaim Peles, director of the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU), Chabad’s rescue and aid arm in the country. “Our people on the ground went from institution to institution in each city assessing what its power needs were, and then we set about importing the generators.”

Funding came partly via America’s Jewish Federations, under the JFNA umbrella.

An important partner in that effort was the OU. Zevy Wolman, who serves on the organization’s board, says that the OU got involved very early on in the crisis and at first focused on food supply worth millions of dollars for the beleaguered Jewish community.

“As we realized that the energy systems are at risk, we realized the need for blankets, coats, generators, and candles.

“I personally purchased 35 to 40 large generators for synagogues and schools plus the resting place of Rebbe Nachman at a cost of more than half a million dollars.

The OU’s involvement alongside Chabad and other private players, says Wolman, has been one of the most heartening aspects of Operation Generator.

For those on the ground in Ukraine, the human cost of the blackouts is something that will remain with them for a long time.

“I’ve been embarrassed to call the old people’s home to ask how the residents are doing,” reads one text from a rabbi of a Ukrainian community whose congregants faced the biting cold before the generators arrived.

“Some of these people are Holocaust survivors who have seen everything in their lives, and now — in their nineties — they are cold, and can’t be showered, or even receive a hot meal for two days.”

Ukrainians are still in for a long, hard winter.

But history shows that common hardship breeds solidarity and resistance. Moshe Krais in Chernivtsi says that will be the case with Ukraine as well.

“Not to hear sirens, or live in the dark — only people here can appreciate what a luxury that can be. But on the other hand, these conditions are waking up the Jewish soul — and bringing lots of people inside to the warmth.”

(Based on an article by Gedalia Guttentag | Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 945)

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