How Chabad’s form of Jewish Geography saves lives
Based on an article by Dovid Margolin | Chabad.org
On a Saturday afternoon 11 months into the crisis, Jan. 14, 2023, a 36-year-old Jewish woman named Olga Usova and her friend Irina Solomatenko, 38, were walking along a wide boulevard not far from the center of Dnipro, Ukraine. On their left flowed the Dnipro River, on their right loomed a huge, Soviet-era apartment block. The two young mothers had just passed the building when, at around 3:30 p.m., a massive Kh-22 supersonic missile slammed into the nine-story apartment complex. When the smoke cleared, 45 civilians were dead, including six children.
Usova, on the sidewalk, was killed instantly by flying shrapnel. Her friend was taken to the hospital, where she succumbed to her wounds a few hours later. The young women, both dentists, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, driving home a reality Ukrainians have known since Feb. 24, 2022: until the fighting ends, no place in Ukraine is ever truly safe.
“We didn’t find out about Olga until a few days later,” explains Miriam Moskovitz, co-director with her husband, Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, of Chabad-Lubavitch of Kharkov. “She didn’t live in that building, so authorities had a hard time identifying her.”
Usova, originally from Donetsk, fled the city with her family back in 2014. They went first to Dnipro before Usova found work as a dentist in Kharkov, where she met Moskovitz. A few years later Usova enrolled her now-10-year-old son Zoreslava at FJC’s Or Avner Jewish Day School. When all-out crisis came to Kharkov at the end of February, the family headed back to Dnipro, from which the boy continued to attend his Kharkov Jewish school’s classes online.
“Zoreslava’s living with his grandmother now in Dnipro,” says Moskovitz. “It’s just such a tragic, horrible story.”
Naturally, Moskovitz connected Usova’s family with Dnipro’s robust Jewish community. In fact, the missile that killed her landed only about a 12-minute drive from Chabad of Dnipro’s 20-story Menorah Center, the largest Jewish community center in the world, around which the city’s Jewish life revolves. Since the beginning of the crisis, the Menorah Center has also doubled as a nerve center for refugee and humanitarian aid in east Ukraine, a literal beacon of light for both Jews and non-Jews fleeing the fighting or simply in need of help. In the month since Usova’s death, Dnipro’s Jewish community has stepped in to assist the family.
That the Usova family connected with and was aided by different parts of Chabad’s Jewish infrastructure in Ukraine is not surprising. Beginning in 1990, when the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, sent his first permanent representatives to Ukraine (at the time still the Soviet Union), Chabad and the FJC have built Ukraine’s expansive network of synagogues, Jewish educational programs and social services organizations across 32 major cities, serving hundreds more small towns and villages. Chabad rabbis and their wives are often the only Jewish communal address in an entire region. If, or rather when, a Jew in one part of Ukraine needs assistance in another, Chabad’s close-knit network has always been quick to respond.
Chabad’s unique form of Jewish Geography has long successfully connected Jewish locals, travelers, businesspeople and students with Jewish resources and aid across far-flung corners of the earth. It is even more conspicuous in the former Soviet Union, where Chabad is the primary address for Jewish life. But if what distinguished this vast network in Ukraine before the crisis was its singularity and ubiquitousness, what has set it apart since has been its consequence. Never in modern times has a Jewish communal infrastructure been tested more, nor been found more effective, than in the current Ukraine crisis.
From Kharkov on the northeastern border to decimated Mariupol on the Azov Sea; from Dnipro in the east through the capital of Kiev, down to Odessa, and out west to Zhitomir and Uzhgorod, Chabad Jewish communal infrastructure has served as a lifeline for tens of thousands of Ukrainians suffering through a heretofore unimaginable catastrophe.
With the help of Jewish Relief Network Ukraine (JRNU), FJC and Chabad’s crisis-time unified effort for funding and providing humanitarian work in Ukraine, 35,000 people were evacuated from the country during the first months of the crisis, with another 30,000 internally displaced being cared for. As the crisis enters its second year, about 50,000 people in Ukraine are being provided assistance each month by JRNU.
In all, 192 Chabad emissary couples continue to serve the estimated 200-300,000 Jews who remain in Ukraine with their religious, educational and social service needs.
“When my wife, Esther, and I came to Zhitomir in 1994 it was a desert, spiritually and materially,” says Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, director of Chabad of Zhitomir. “There was almost no food—I don’t mean kosher, I mean any food. People ate potatoes and eggs. The water that came out of the sink was black. Jewish life was in an even worse state.”
Zhitomir was and remains a small city, and the Wilhelms went there because it sat in the heart of the large and historically Jewish western region of Ukraine, from which they could reach out to dozens of smaller, historically Jewish towns. In the years since, they’ve guided the establishment of permanent Chabad Jewish centers in many of these towns, and Chabad of the Small Communities, directed by Rabbi Nachum Tamarin, works directly with towns not otherwise served. In Zhitomir, over time, the Wilhelms built a Jewish school, soup kitchen, community center and an entire educational campus, the Alumim Center for the Advancement and Welfare of Jewish Children in Western Ukraine, in a nearby suburb. They’d just finished the ambitious reconstruction of Zhitomir’s synagogue when the crisis began.
“What grew here in Zhitomir and throughout Ukraine in the last 30 years is a miracle,” says Wilhelm. “But at the end of the day we did not come here because it was a beautiful place. We came to help, to build a better world, and to do our part to bring Moshiach. Why did this have to happen, this blood and suffering? I don’t know—but the goal remains the same.”
Feb. 24, 2022, 5:07 a.m.: It begins
Despite the growing tensions, through late February 2022 few people in Ukraine believed there would be an actual crisis. It was only a day or two before that most Ukrainian civilians began stocking up on non-perishables and essentials like batteries. Then the unthinkable happened: just before 4:00 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 24. An hour later, at 5:07 a.m., missiles and long-range artillery started raining down on Ukraine. First they hit Kiev and Kharkov, before expanding to targets throughout the country.
“The explosions woke us up at 5 a.m.,” says Devorah Leah Levenharts, co-director, with her husband Rabbi Moti Levenharts, of Chabad’s Simcha community on Kiev’s Left Bank. “That’s how I knew the crisis started. The sirens started going off an hour later, but we already knew.”
Ninety miles west, in Zhitomir, Wilhelm was awakened by the ring of his phone. His wife was trying to board a flight from Belgium back home to Ukraine when she was told at the gate that the flight was canceled due to a crisis. “She calls me, ‘it started,’ and then I hear bombs outside,” remembers Wilhelm.
The next call he got was even worse. Alumim, FJC’s home to some 100 orphans and children from severely disadvantaged backgrounds, was located on a bucolic and peaceful campus in a suburb. Unfortunately, it was also situated near a Ukrainian air base that was now being targeted with ferocity. “The children were screaming,” Wilhelm says. “I knew we had to get them out of there immediately. There was no way we could allow them to see or hear this terrible crisis.”
Today, Wilhelm is himself not quite sure how he managed to get buses, but he did, and already on the crisis’s first afternoon the children of Alumim and their caretakers were heading to a safer location deep in the Carpathian Mountains, where they remained over Shabbat. Joined later by more Zhitomir Jewish community members, and led by Chabad staff, the group headed into Romania. Ten days later, on March 6, they landed in Israel, where they were greeted by then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Nowadays, a portion of the six Chabad couples who served the Zhitomir area before the crisis are together with the childrens’ home and many of Zhitomir’s Jews in Ashkelon, Israel, while the other half remain in Zhitomir, where many Jews continue to sit tight. Wilhelm splits his time between Ashkelon and Zhitomir. “It’s a smaller number of Jews in Zhitomir now, but active—alive,” he says. “That’s the most vital thing.”
It used to be a hop and skip between Israel and Ukraine, a bit more to the United States. Now, when nothing about Ukraine is simple any more, the trip takes many more hours through either Romania, Moldova or Poland. “Every time I come back to Ukraine I stop to visit one of my colleagues on the way,” Wilhelm notes. For example, if he enters through Poland he visits Rabbi Mendel Gottlib of Chabad of Lviv, in western Ukraine; if via Romania, then Rabbi Mendy Glitzenstein in Chernovtsy, and so on. “It’s inspiring to see the work that these young rabbis are doing, alone, throughout the country,” he says. “Seeing their energy gives me energy.”
7:40 Bus from Odessa to Berlin
The crisis came to Rabbi Avraham and Chaya Wolff, directors of Chabad of Odessa and Southern Ukraine, like it did for so many others: the sound of missiles hitting their beloved hometown of Odessa.
“The most important thing during those first minutes of the crisis was not to lose your head,” explains Wolff, who also serves as chief rabbi of the storied Black Sea port city. “We have 1,000 children of all ages in our educational institutions. There are seniors who need our help. We knew we had to act immediately; there was no room for panic.”
The next hours he fielded a barrage of phone calls and texts, as Jewish community members reached out for help. Fear had arrived to historically-joyous Odessa.
“The explosions I heard that morning were like nothing I ever heard in Israel or anywhere,” recalls Igor Shatkhin, a native Odessan Jew who serves as director of development at FJC’s Mishpacha Orphanage and children’s home. “I got into my car to fill up some gas, and I couldn’t even move off my street; everyone was going for gas, to fill up on necessities.” Odessa is only an hour from the Moldovan border, so even in those early hours many had already made the decision to head west for safety.
Chabad of Odessa’s first convoy of buses, carrying 120 children and staff from Mishpacha and community members, left an hour after the 6 a.m. curfew lifted on the morning of March 2, 2022. Sheina Rudenko, 26, pregnant and traveling with her 3-year-old son and 13-year-old brother, was on one of the buses.
“The worst thing about it was how unclear everything was,” she says. “After the first explosions, which were aimed at military targets, Odessa seemed quiet. But we also understood that everything might change very quickly.” Together with her husband, Rudenko made the decision that she would leave with the community. Born and bred in Odessa, Rudenko had been a part of Chabad’s community since her mother registered her in the preschool as a two-year-old. She didn’t quite know where they were heading, but she knew she was with family.
The journey to Berlin would ultimately take 52-hours, a trek that included hours of waiting at each border crossing; a nourishing meal, toys and candies for the children at Chabad of Moldova in Chisinau; and then on through Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “Everyone helped each other on the road,” she says. “But of course, it was frightening.” When they finally arrived in the German capital, they were warmly greeted by Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal and the staff of Chabad of Berlin.
“There was a big, hot meal set up for us at the Chabad center and tons of volunteers making us feel comfortable,” recalls Rudenko, adding that Chabad of Berlin then put them up in hotel rooms in the center of the city. A few days later the group was joined by a second convoy of another 140 women and children from Odessa led by the Wolffs. In the case of about 40 children for whom no relatives could be found, the rabbi and Chaya signed as legal guardians.
On March 7 the two groups were welcomed to Berlin by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But by then the trip, and of course the crisis, had taken its toll on Rudenko. A wisdom tooth, a fever—all of it compounded by her pregnancy. Once again Chabad of Berlin was there for her, sending a Russian-speaking doctor to care for her in her hotel room.
In the Spring of 2022, the Wolffs rented an entire hotel in Berlin, and today about 300 Odessan Jewish community members live there. They have their own preschool, Shabbat services and Torah classes for people of all ages. A Little Odessa in the heart of Germany.
In August Rudenko gave birth to a little girl, Ettel Esther. Happily, her husband was allowed to come to Berlin around the birth, though he’s now back in Odessa helping the Jewish community. Does she ever stop to consider the situation that she and her fellow Ukrainians are in? “Of course,” she says. “Dammit, it’s the 21st century! What’s going on here?!?” She just prays that it’s all over soon.
Back home, in Odessa, life goes on. It’s one of the least damaged of the big cities. The city has “only” seen one missile strike on a civilian site, in which 14 people were killed, but otherwise it’s been relatively quiet for months.
Wolff says Chabad of Odessa has spent millions of dollars between evacuations, the satellite community in Berlin and continuing all the work in Odessa. This includes building bomb shelters for the city’s FJC Or Avner Jewish Day School and the synagogue, the campuses of which all have generators to power them as Ukraine’s power grid continues to come under attack. (JRNU has delivered more than 150 large generators to Ukraine to help mitigate the electricity shortage the entire country has been dealing with through the difficult winter months.) Indeed, the prohibitively high cost of maintaining Mishpacha in Germany means it may very well soon be headed back to Odessa.
“I don’t wish this on anybody,” says Rabbi Wolff, who after shepherding a group to Berlin back in March returned immediately to Odessa, where he has been based ever since. “But I am thankful that G‑d gave us the remarkable responsibility, and the strength, to help people.”
From Hell to Kiev via Zaporozhizhia and Dnipro
If you want to hear a hair-raising story, speak to someone from Mariupol—anyone. Once a quiet industrial port city marked by smokestacks and seagulls, Mariupol was turned into a place of death and horror. Just ask Yevgeny (Avraham) Chernousov.
Chernousov left Mariupol towards the end of Passover, on April 21, 2022, after two months of apocalyptic crisis. “I remember turning to my wife and telling her this was the first time in years that I wouldn’t have matzah and wine on Passover,” he says from the relative safety of Kiev.
He can count how many times he very nearly lost his life. Once, he was at home in his apartment when artillery fire hit nearby, blowing the glass door of his porch into smithereens. Chernousov had just joined his wife in the next room when their living room was splayed with thousands of shards of glass and shrapnel, one particularly large piece ricocheting off the Rosh Hashanah calendar on the wall and embedding itself in the ceiling.
Over those two months in Mariupol, Chernousov helped hastily bury more than one of the myriad dead, including his father-in-law, who’d been killed by a projectile. “It was all pieces,” he says matter-of-factly. “When we got there the neighbors were collecting him by the colors of the suit he’d been wearing.” Later, they were able to rebury him near his mother-in-law in an actual cemetery, an outcome thousands of Mariupolites were denied.
On another occasion, Chernousov witnessed a nearby apartment building burn down amidst the fighting. When the conflagration had subsided he and some neighbors entered. There, on the first floor, he saw something he’ll never forget: a couch burned to its core. On its protruding metal springs sat the form of a small-to-medium sized male, a pile of black ash in the form of a human being. “If you so much as touched him he’d have sprinkled into dust,” he says.
In mid-April Chernousov was finally able to make it to a store where he managed to grab some internet connection. He opened his phone to find more than 1,000 messages, most of them from people connected with the Jewish community. Chernousov made contact with Rabbi Mendel Cohen, director of Chabad of Mariupol, who during those months worked tirelessly to evacuate his flock to safety. Chernousov had earlier sent relatives out with his car, and Cohen told him someone from the synagogue would arrive to pick him up. The next day, the car packed with people and spare belongings, they left.
The long road out was not free of fighting, and they had to be careful to avoid mines as they drove. After days of tense travel they finally reached the Jewish center in the city of Zaporozhizhia. There he was greeted by a son of Rabbi Nachum and Dina Ehrentreu, directors of Chabad of Zaporozhizhia.
“He offered me to put on tefillin right there. I started crying,” recalls Chernousov. “I looked at him, and he understood everything.” The Ehrentreu boy gifted Chernousov with a kippah and siddur (prayerbook), the group ate a hot meal, and off they went to Dnipro, the next stop on their trek.
Dnipro, which until 2016 was known as Dnepropetrovsk, has been the Jewish capital of Ukraine since Rabbi Shmuel and Chana Kaminezki were sent there by the Rebbe in 1990 to establish Chabad in the city. It was a city the Rebbe knew well. Dnipro was where he celebrated his bar mitzvah and came of age, and where his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, served as chief rabbi. In 1939, after working in the position with great personal self-sacrifice for more than two decades, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was arrested by the Soviet secret police, passing away in government-imposed exile in distant Kazakhstan five years later.
Over the past 30 years, the Kaminezkis and the team of Chabad emissaries serving the city have built one of the most dynamic Jewish communities in the world, all crowned by the massive, marble-lined Menorah Jewish Community Center. When crisis came, Jewish Dnipro responded with gusto, taking in thousands of refugees from throughout the east of the country, feeding and housing them, providing for their medical needs, and orchestrating buses and trains to further safety. Similar to the way Odessa’s Jews have found a home in Berlin, a large contingent from Dnipro was sent to Vienna, where they’ve been taken in by Chabad of Vienna.
At the same time, Jewish life in the city has continued. Less than a month into the crisis, on the holiday of Purim, hundreds of Jews packed the city’s Golden Rose synagogue to hear the reading of the megillah and celebrate the redemption of the Jews of Persia as if no crisis was taking place just outside their doors.
Dnipro’s “Jewish Community Center, just like the Jews within it,” observed the Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer in an article in Sapir this past summer, “was the most optimistic place I’d been to in Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis.”
When Chernousov and his car reached Dnipro, the community put them up at the campgrounds they’d set up for internally displaced Ukrainians, caring for their every need. A month later, Chernousov headed to Kiev, where he quickly connected with the Simcha community on the Left Bank of the city. He’s been there ever since.
“Without the synagogue, without Rabbi Mendel [Cohen], I’d probably still be in Mariupol,” Chernousov says. “I know what I’m saying when I tell you he’s done so much for our Mariupol Jews during this crisis. These aren’t just words.”
Example for the World
Ukraine is a huge country, which means that every part feels the crisis differently than the other. In Rovno, a medium-sized city in western Ukraine, its rabbi reports it has been mostly quiet. Nevertheless, “many of our regular synagogue-goers have gone abroad,” explains Rabbi Schneor Schneersohn, director, with his wife Rachel, of Chabad in the historically Jewish city. Their places though have been filled by other Jews in the city reaching out for help and the sense of community they so badly need now.
“Everyday people are coming and going from Chabad,” says Schneersohn, noting they distribute 400 care packages a day. “So it’s the same workload as it was before the crisis, it’s just different people and a different kind of work.”
The heavy fighting the capital city of Kiev saw in the early months of the crisis has long subsided, says Devorah Leah Levenharts, but just when one thinks things might be back to normal the ever-present shadow of the crisis shows itself.
“We were able to plan a beautiful event marking [the Rebbe’s wife] Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s passing because a missile had just landed a few days earlier,” she explains. “One woman told me afterwards: ‘You gave me a new reason to live.’”
The daily sirens complicate the school day as well. Simcha School, directed by the Levenhartses, re-opened in the beginning of the school year, now with a reinforced bomb shelter. When the siren rings the children all have to head to the shelter, remaining there usually for about an hour. At times, if it goes off at the end of the school day, the children have to remain there long past school hours. Such is normal life in a crazy world.
Still, it’s better than what children must deal with farther east, in Kharkov, where schools, including FJC’s Or Avner, have been online since February 24. With rocket and long-range artillery attacks on the city having once again heated up, there’s no end in sight.
At night, when the streets of Kharkov are plunged into darkness due to blackout orders, Yevgenya Rudayeva can see the rockets from her ninth-floor window. “It’s frightful, you don’t know where they’ll land,” she says.
In Rudayeva’s capacity as an administrator at Chabad’s Choral synagogue, she helped coordinate the five or six buses evacuating people from the city each day in the early months of the crisis. Now, a bus still leaves from in front of the synagogue once or twice a week, utilized by Jews and non-Jews alike. She’s also directed distribution of medicine, food, heaters and whatever else Chabad can provide.
In January, an elderly Jew passed away in Kharkov. When Chabad found out they set out to arrange a Jewish burial, but immediately ran into a problem: he had no family members in Kharkov to claim his body. Rudayeva headed to the coroner’s office, but was initially denied her request that the man’s body be released to the care of the Jewish community. As she sat in the office, she kept getting calls. “When is my food package arriving today?” asked one person. Then another call, “Can the driver bringing my meal also bring my medicine?” Then another “Are there more blankets available, and perhaps another heater?”
The woman at the coroner’s office looked at Rudayeva with amazement. “If your synagogue is doing so much good for others, then I’m going to help you too… ,” she exclaimed, before promptly stamping the release papers. The next day, on a Friday morning a few hours before Shabbat, Yevgeny the son of Grigory was brought to Jewish burial in Kharkov.
When the crisis began a year ago, hardly anyone knew the Jews of Ukraine even existed, certainly not that they’d built a thriving Jewish life over the past three decades. A year later, these hardy Jews have shown they can do remarkable things. Indeed, the Jews of Ukraine have emerged as a shining example for the entire world.