May 14, 2024
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Jewish Leaders From Ukraine Describe Terror and Suffering

“If you want to know what it was like at the time of the Second World War, you can see it right now here,” said Rabbi Mendel Kohen.

That assessment came from Rabbi Kohen during a March 8 virtual program hosted by the Orthodox Union as he sat in a shelter on the border between Moldova and Ukraine, where he fled to be with other Jewish residents of the besieged city of Mariupol.

“Unfortunately, the Russians are playing psychological war with the people of Mariupol because they cannot take the city,” said Rabbi Kohen, by announcing three times the opening of safe corridors to let the elderly, women and children out and then shutting them. The streets are strewn with dead bodies.

People who managed to flee did so with only their passports and a small amount of clothes, waiting for two or three days on lines, said Rabbi Kohen, the Chabad emissary in that city.

He told those watching the March 8 program: “I am in a community that suffers. I don’t want to cry when I’m talking to you guys.” He added his thoughts were with those he had worked with over the last 17 years.

“The Jews of our community sit in shelters with no food, no water, no medicine, no phone, no Internet. They cannot go out. The shops are empty. I see the pictures of the kids, the Jews of my community. These are people with whom I celebrated Purim, Pesach and I’m thinking, ‘Are they alive? The kindergartners, where are they now?’ ”

Rabbi Kohen said he gets phone calls “day and night” from those outside Ukraine asking if parents, siblings or grandparents are alive or hurt, but he has no answers.

“We need your help,” he pleaded. “We need most of all the world to speak about it. Share with the world to let the people, the women and children, out.”

OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Moshe Hauer said the organization has raised $1.8 million, which he called “tzedaka of the highest order,” as of March 18, earmarked for food and other lifesaving measures. He expressed the hope it would positively impact the lives of both the Jewish community and others.

“Everyone should be helped and we should be partners in all of this,” said Rabbi Heuer. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘We are not helping people because they are Jews. We are helping people because we are Jews.”

He added the OU had forged partnerships on the ground to help Ukraine’s approximately 200,000 Jews.

Tzvi Sperber, the founding director of JRoots, which facilitates Jewish journeys to Eastern Europe for younger generations of Jews, spoke from a refugee center in Poland where many hundreds lay on cots in what was weeks ago a supermarket.

“We thought with the lessons we learned from the Shoah we couldn’t sit, and we started to mobilize as quickly as we could,” he explained, by taking over a building in Krakow that now houses more than 100 people, and a hotel, providing shelter and kosher food and helping Jews and non-Jews alike.

He said buses have been sent to Lvov with generators, purchased from as far away as Germany and distant sections of Poland, and they are attempting to purchase buses to go into Kharkiv and Odessa to rescue people.

“Baruch Hashem, we are now having people starting their journeys to other communities.” Sperber said help is coming from all over and that a man from Amsterdam had just been there with three buses to pick up Jews. “We’re doing what we can to get people to safety and help them move on to various different places.”

Rabbi Hauer noted that an OU mission had been slated to have a siyum for Seder Moed with Sperber in the yeshiva of Rabbi Meir Shapiro in Lublin, Poland. Instead the yeshiva is now being used to house refugees.

Rabbi Rafael Kruskal, CEO of Tikva Children’s Home in Odessa, spoke from Romania, where 700 people, including 270 children, were evacuated—one of the few communities that had managed to keep everyone together. He said he hoped to have 1,000 people in hotels by Shabbat.

“Now is the time for rebuilding and seeing what we can do to keep the community together, growing and thriving,” said Rabbi Kruskal, including resuming classes for school children.

The “huge” operation is ongoing, with buses being sent from Odessa to Moldova, transporting “anyone who calls,” with costs running into tens of thousands of dollars daily to fund buses, hotels and other basics for people who left with nothing but the clothes on their back.

Rabbi Kruskal added: “Just thinking about kindergarteners running for their lives. It’s so dreadful. People are seeing decades of Yiddishkeit that was rebuilt after communism was torn down. We are getting calls from all over the world asking, ‘Can you take our family member?’”

Also brought over was an ambulance to transport someone with a broken leg, a small child and woman who had just given birth, along with two doctors and two nurses and psychological staff who know the traumatized children, said the rabbi. “One of the most important things for us is to bring some sort of semblance of normalcy into their lives by starting lessons,” he said.

Rabbi Moshe and Rebbetzin Miriam Moskovitz, the Chabad emissaries in Kharkiv who have been in Ukraine since 1990, said now they “were constantly taking Jews out.”

“Kharkiv is constantly being bombed,” said Rabbi Moskovitz. “We were able to stay in Khirkov the first six days of the war and evacuate Jews out of the city, out of the synagogue, at the same time helping people who cannot go and helping Jews who don’t know where to be during the bombing.”

He said they were trying to bring in food and medicine “with God’s help and all the Yidden all over the world.”

Rabbi Moskovitz said a couple was forced to flee to Dnipro to escape the carnage but remain in close contact with the community still there. He added that it was known throughout the city the synagogue was providing help and was making it available to any resident in need, whether Jewish or not.

Rebbetzin Moskovitz said the couple was currently trying to make funeral arrangements from afar for a Jewish woman killed that day. Additionally, they were having drivers bring food to those who cannot leave their homes, such as elderly people trapped on upper floors of apartment buildings. She said the city has a 6 p.m. curfew, but people who make it to the shul are taken out during the next day to safety.

“We knew we had to get out when the bombing was targeting not anything at all,” she said. “Our school was bombed. Homes are being bombed. We’re basically dealing with a major crisis.”

Of the city’s 1.5 million residents, 600,000 have already fled, said the rebbetzin, “and our job as Yidden is to save as many lives as possible.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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