Once Ukraine’s kosher food basket, Donetsk now reliant on food packages

By Sam Sokol | The Jerusalem Post 

Every day Jews wait on line outside of the Beth Menachem synagogue in Donetsk, waiting for food packages and hot meals. Gone are the days when this industrial city was the primary producer of kosher comestibles in Ukraine, exporting its products to Jewish communities throughout the country.

Over the last year and a half, the city has become dependent on humanitarian aid provided by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, with the Kashrut Committee of Ukraine (KCU) – the rabbinic certification agency based there – having moved to safer environs.

While more than 10,000 Jews made Donetsk their home in late 2013, only around one quarter of that number remains, the rest having fled the civil war and the Russian-backed insurgents who last year made the city their capital.

Among those who left was Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the Israeli-born Chabad hassid who has served as the city’s rabbi for two decades. Last July, during the initial stages of his city’s rebellion against Kiev, Vishedski was defiant, proclaiming that he would not leave.

“I have a responsibility to the people who remain here, no matter how hard or dangerous,” he told The Jerusalem Post at the time.

By the end of August, however, Vishedski had fled to Kiev, leading an exodus of around 200 community members.

“There were such heavy explosions that I couldn’t take it. You couldn’t think. You’re head was falling off,” he told the Post several months later, recalling an inability to sleep and an increasing number of congregants fleeing the fighting.

“I understood that if I want to remain a normal person… I had no choice but to leave. If I remained there, I wouldn’t be good for the Jews of Donetsk but the opposite.”

Products all over the country bore Vishedski’s name, including prepackaged airline meals distributed on Ukraine International Airlines.

Since becoming a refugee himself, Vishedski, who founded the KCU shortly after the fall of communism, has been working to coordinate aid to his scattered flock throughout Ukraine and to reestablish his kashrut organization, forging ties with new producers now that it is impossible to work with his old partners in Donetsk.

Several of Vishedski’s 15 kashrut inspectors left Donetsk last summer, looking to move the kosher meat business to safer climes, while those supervising daily production remained, until forced out by fighting this January.

As a result, said Vishedski, kosher milk was unavailable for two months until new partnerships with producers could be worked out.

“Whenever it was up to us, we did everything we could to advise to keep prices down,” he said, admitting that general food prices have risen significantly amid the economic downturn accompanying the civil war.

Even in areas not under rebel control, rising prices have made it difficult to for people to feed themselves, Mariupol Rabbi Mendel Cohen told the Post in March, citing some 600 families receiving food packages in his community alone.

While he said that he has since managed to ramp up production of locally produced kosher foodstuffs through partnerships with factories in Ukrainian-held territory – which “wasn’t simple” – Vishedski says that there is still no Ukrainian kosher cheese for sale.

While many non-Jews, including vegetarians, Muslims and people who perceive such fare as generally more healthy than the alternatives have created a large market for kosher food in the United States, making kosher certification a big business, Vishedski said that in Ukraine it’s “far from being a business [but] more of an ideological matter.”

“Jews need kosher food,” he explained, adding that while the Kollel Chabad charitable organization provides funding for his work, additional donors are always needed.

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