Despite the global pandemic, the Synagogue-on-wheels, or Mitzvah Mobile, returns to the streets of Ukraine to introduce thousands of Jews to the rich heritage of Jewish tradition, culture and values. This time they travel not only for the outreach and education, but also for the support of the most vulnerable members of the Jewish communities with humanitarian relief packages.
For the eighth time since 2017, when the first expedition in Ukraine took place, 12 young enthusiastic rabbis set out on a six-week journey across a hundred remote Ukrainian settlements, which do not have a synagogue or an established Jewish community. The rabbis prepare to answer questions, give lectures and to connect the unaffiliated Jews to their roots. “Our service is our friendship” is this year’s motto.
Mitzvah Tanks first appeared in 1974 on the streets of Manhattan, New York City. They were created to remind Jewish immigrants in the US about their own tradition and culture.
As Ukraine struggles with the devastating economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, Mitzvah Mobiles keep on rolling throughout the country, distributing food packages provided by the FJC’s Taste of Life humanitarian aid project. So far, the parcels were handed out in Balta and Belgorod-Dnestrovsky, Odessa Oblast. According to Rabbi Mendel Wolf, one of the founders of the Mitzvah Mobile initiative in Ukraine, the packages contain basic, ‘very fundamental’ products such as grains, pasta, cereals, sugar and more.
“Most of the Jews in these small towns and villages are underprivileged and live in extremely straitened circumstances. It is our job to take care of the physical aspect of their wellbeing, as well as of the spiritual. Helping with money, helping with food — this mission is no less important than spreading the ideas of Judaism,” said Rabbi Wolf.
“Therefore, we are very grateful to the Taste of Life and the FJC for their assistance and partnership, and for the opportunity to participate in their large-scale humanitarian projects, where we can be the ambassadors of kindness and prosperity for the Jewish families in its simplest, basic sense. We are very happy about that.”
“Funny enough,” he mentioned light-heartedly, “there were times when Taste of Life packages helped us to establish new connections with the local Jews”. A couple years ago, while in Tokmak city, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, the expedition met with a group of elderly Jewish women and distributed the food packages. “That year, the parcels were particularly heavy: bottles of cooking oil, milk, juice boxes… Each bag was at least ten kilos,” remarked Rabbi Wolf. One of the women could not carry it home and called her grandson to come and help her. When asked by the rabbis, the woman told them she was waiting for her daughter’s son. “And that was how we met another Jew that day! We talked to him, showed him how to put on tefillin, took his phone number and now are still in touch with him. And this is the person who only came because we were giving out these food packages and they were heavy!” he exclaimed with laughter.
The Mitzva Mobile initiators also noted that their meetings and events serve an additional purpose: after their visit, people who live in a town or village with no synagogue or Jewish community no longer feel like they’re alone and abandoned. Instead, they obtain a sense of belonging to the Jewish nation and a certainty of receiving help in difficult times.
The young rabbis will continue to visit remote Ukrainian settlements, share a word of Torah, affix mezuzah and build new connections until the end of summer.
Photos provided by the Mitzvah Mobile expedition in Ukraine.
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