Two Years of Crisis for Ukraine and Its Jews

Blending the new normal of crisis with the surreal in Israel

By Uziel Scheiner | Based on an article by Chabad.org

On the evening of Oct. 6, 2023, as the globe blissfully rotated, an 8,000-lb. Iskander missile tore through the Kharkiv skyline and slammed into the city center, devastating everything within its range. The explosion shattered the windows in nearly every building within a three block radius, including those of Chabad-Lubavitch of Kharkiv’s soaring Choral Synagogue.

The following day, Oct. 7, 2023, Palestinian terrorists from Gaza stormed into Israel, unleashing a multi-hour killing, raping, torturing and kidnapping spree which they filmed and proudly broadcast to the world in all its vivid, horrific detail.

People of good conscience were shocked by the event, none more so than the global Jewish community. After the Palestinians launched the war, Israel immediately mobilized, and weeks later entered Gaza. War had come to the Holy Land.

For the Jews of Ukraine, the war in Israel was at once startling and frightening, but also wearily familiar.

A little more than a year and a half earlier, the crisis in Ukraine began, trapping the Jewish community of Ukraine in Europe’s most significant armed conflict since World War II. Since February 2022, Ukraine’s Jews—like their countrymen—have found themselves under frequent aerial bombardment and vacillating military campaigns that have killed and injured civilians, damaged and even destroyed whole cities, and suspended their lives in flux.

On the second anniversary of the crisis in Ukraine, the country remains embroiled in a struggle that shows no signs of abatement.

The story of the 250,000 Jews of Ukraine is one of fear, upheaval and uncertainty of if their lives and community can ever again look like it did prior to Feb. 24, 2022. But their story is also one of hope and bravery; selfless leadership in the face of overwhelming crisis; an unbreakable bond with fellow Jews experiencing a war in Israel; and a reinvigorated connection to Judaism, which only intensified when confronted with endless suffering.

Local residents assited in distributing food and vital supplies to those hit hardest by the conditions. Photo: Chabad-Lubavitch of Kharkiv

The Sderot of Ukraine

Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moskovitz moved to the city of Kharkiv, Soviet Ukraine, as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in the summer of 1990. At the time, the city was part of a rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union. Among the many changes sweeping across the Soviet Union was the return of synagogues confiscated by the Communist government decades earlier, and Kharkiv’s domed Choral Synagogue, which had been closed for religious worship for 67 years, was finally returned to the Jewish community. The synagogue their base, the Moskovitzs set about revitalizing Jewish life and practice in a place where it had been banned for over seven decades.

A year later, the Soviet Union fell and Ukraine became an independent country. For the next 32 years, the Moskovitzs diligently served as spiritual leaders in Kharkiv, attending to the needs of the Jewish community as well as the wider public in what was always a difficult part of the globe. And then the crisis broke out.

“Everyone watching the news saw this coming,” says Miriam Moskovitz. “But we were not worried. No one here thought it was actually coming. It just seemed far-fetched.” Just one day before the crisis, Chabad of Kharkiv held a large celebration in honor of the 30th anniversary of its Ohr Avner Jewish day school.

The next day, Feb. 24, 2022, the bombs began to fall. “The first feeling was one of shock,” Moskovitz recalls. “You have sirens blaring with missiles falling all around and then we have tanks rolling through our city.” A deep fear struck the whole Kharkiv community, which hunkered in basements and prayed the bombs falling from the sky wouldn’t strike their homes.

“The early days were terrifying. Kharkiv is like the Sderot of Ukraine,” she says, referring to the southern Israeli city that has suffered from more than 10,000 Kassam rockets fired from nearby Gaza since 2001 and was likewise attacked on Oct. 7. “We have 15 seconds to reach shelter from when the sirens go off—if they go off at all.”

But for the Moskovitzs, the early grip of personal fear gave way to a new feeling—the sense of responsibility for their community.

“Our mindset shifted to the community,” Moskovitz said. “When I think back to the early days I don’t remember fear, just the constant question of ‘what can we do’ to help those who were relying on us.”

Kharkiv’s Jewish community needed everything, and Chabad was there to provide food, medicine, shelter and arrange routes for evacuation. In the first months of the crisis, evacuees from more dangerous parts of Ukraine who were ordered to leave their homes for their safety began pouring into Kharkiv and arriving at Chabad’s doorstep. When Ukrainian soldiers showed up at their doors with evacuation orders and asked the Jewish residents where they would like to go, they responded with one word: synagogue.

Residents took upon themselves extra mitzvahs in honor of those suffering in Israel. Photo: Chabad-Lubavitch of Kharkiv

Hundreds of people showed up to the synagogue and slept in its basement for months. To deal with the growing influx of evacuees, the Moskowitzs began arranging housing for the incoming Jews in nearby apartment complexes, all while keeping a steady supply of food, supplies and medicine coming to Chabad for distribution.

Tending to the community requires innovating new methods to make sure the Kharkiv’s Jews were safe. Since the crisis began, Chabad has mapped a database of Jews in the city and when a bomb falls, they check the location of impact and see which community members lived in the area, quickly making contact with them to make sure they’re OK. This rapid response mechanism allows Chabad to supply a family whose power and gas were wiped out with portable heaters and repair the homes of families whose windows were wiped out by incoming missiles.

The past two years have allowed Chabad in Kharkiv and around the country to innovate in ways they never dreamed or desired.

As the crisis dragged on, the world’s attention, and interest, began to wane. Rabbi Nachum Ehrentreu, who together with his wife, Dina, co-directs Chabad of Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, describes how difficult it was for the residents of Ukraine to watch the world move on while missiles still rained on their homes. “In the beginning, everyone was sending messages of support and praying for us; now, it’s more out of mind. It’s very hard for the people here.”

As time passed, however, the attitude in Ukraine changed for the residents as well. Two years force one to continue daily life as much as possible, even with missiles flying overhead. Chabad in Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv, but also Kyiv, Odessa and Zhytomir are now tasked with running a dual operation: putting together the normal functions of Jewish communal life, like bar and bat mitzvahs, brit milahs and Mega-Challah bakes, all while attending to the needs of a community.

Chabad centers and FJC’s Jewish relief network (JRNU) activities throughout Ukraine, have gone back to providing the basic services of a Jewish institution, albeit with some changes. Kharkiv’ Jewish day school is back up and running—just now it’s held in the synagogue’s basement. The rabbi and rebbetzin are still visiting community members—now they make sure they have heat and water in addition to Shabbat candles. The Passover seder is still going forward, but now it’s being done in an “express” fashion so that everyone can be home by curfew.

One surprising development amid the stress has been a newfound desire to connect with Judaism on the part of countless Ukrainian Jews. Both the Moskovitzs in Kharkiv and the Ehrentreus in Zaporizhzhia marvel at the number of Jews who have “come out of the woodwork,” spurred by crisis all around them to connect to their heritage. The Moskowitzs have a full list of adults and children who have scheduled to have their brit milahs. The Ehrentreus have put up hundreds of mezuzahs on the doorposts of homes throughout Zaporizhzhia, as people turn to G‑d’s protection from the bombs that land around them. When people line up for food packages outside Chabad of Kharkiv, a second line forms with men who wish to put on tefillin.

Rabbi Ehrentreu speaks of the 800 Jewish families that he’s met since the crisis started.

“People are craving to come closer to G‑d now,” says Ehrentreu. “We are meeting so many people who previously identified as atheists, who now stream to the synagogue in search of coming closer to G‑d.”

While the crisis has impacted much local infrastructure, Chabad activities have largely remained operational. Photo: Chabad-Lubavitch of Kharkiv

Brothers and Sisters Under Attack

When Israel was attacked on Oct. 7, the Jewish community of Ukraine, notwithstanding its own circumstances, turned their concern and prayers outward, toward the Holy Land. On the morning of Simchat Torah, when the Jews gathered in the synagogue which had just had its windows blown out the day before, the thoughts of everyone in the room were not the chaos burning outside, but the fate of their brothers and sisters in Israel.

“Everyone’s worry was with what was happening in Israel,” Miriam Moskovitz says. “We had almost been hit the day before, but Israel was all we could think about.”

A vigil and prayer service was held in the synagogue, and billboards went up in Kharkiv in support of the Land of Israel. The Jewish community in Ukraine can relate to the situation in Israel in a way that few else can. They know what it’s like to run for shelter as incoming missiles fly; they know what it’s like to send off their husbands, brothers and fathers. And yet, despite their own crisis, the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian Jews are with Israel.

Always Growing

Two years have left the Ukrainian Jewish community indelibly changed. What results is a strange blend of everyday life combined with the surreal demands of being part of a nation in crisis.

Remarkably, there are even signs of growth budding in Ukraine’s Jewish community. Zaporizhzhia will soon be home to a new mikvah, which is currently under construction and set to be opened before Passover, along with a kosher kitchen for the community and visitors. These signs of life are symbolic for the entire beleaguered country.

“I had a non-Jewish resident come over to me,” Ehrentreu relates. “He told me, ‘I see that you are building.’ If Chabad is building, he knows this will be over soon, and everything will be OK.”

 

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