In synagogue bunkers and refugee convoys, Ukrainian Jews seek safety amid worsening war
Jews pray in the basement of a synagogue in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 28, 2022.
Photo: Courtesy of Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch

By Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Fleeing Odessa with 300 Jewish orphans, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht was terrified that Russian bombs would hit his convoy’s three buses.

Twice during the 27-hour trip from the city in Ukraine’s south to the Carpathian Mountains in its western part, the drivers hired by Baksht’s group, Tikva, had to stop and the children needed to leave the bus quickly due to sirens.

“Now it’s calm and safe,” said Baksht, whose 15 counselors and 300 children traveled during Shabbat to reach the Carpathian Mountains on Saturday evening.

Now, at the facility where the orphans are staying, Baksht and his team are beginning to tackle another threat to the children’s wellbeing: the feeling of instability.

“The main tool we have against anxiety is routine,” Baksht told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by phone Tuesday. “I’m talking about morning gymnastics, brushing teeth, breakfast. Study time. Walk around the compound. Each day at the exact same time. That’s what keeps the fear away.”

Tamping down fear and preserving any sense of normalcy is growing increasingly difficult as Russian troops step up their assault on Ukraine since launching an invasion Feb. 25. The assaults have targeted many cities across the country, which is roughly the size of Texas and home to 44 million people.

Now, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, including many thousands of Jews, have become refugees or internally displaced in the last week.

The Jews who have remained in cities are increasingly elderly aid recipients without connections abroad, including in Israel, where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have moved in the last three decades.

“I’m completely alone here in Zaporizhzhia,” said Svetlana Feinburd, a 61-year-old widow who has multiple sclerosis. She joined a virtual Shabbat celebration Friday afternoon, the first wartime version of a weekly event that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, has organized during the COVID-19 pandemic to relieve isolation among the Jews it helps in Ukraine.

“The sirens were sounding, explosions are busting, windows are cracking, and we are singing the Lecha Dodi,” Feinburd said, referring to the Hebrew liturgical song marking the beginning of Shabbat.

That was on the second day of the war, and conditions have deteriorated since. Now, Ukrainians are more likely to be seeking refuge underground or in structures seen as likely to withstand damage, including some of the country’s most storied synagogues.

The synagogue of Zaporizhzhia, a newly renovated building that, unusually for a building of its size in the impoverished city, has a spacious, clean basement was transformed into a bomb shelter for members of the Jewish community and anyone else interested in sheltering there, the community wrote on its Facebook page.

The Choral Synagogue in Kharkiv, a historic structure now home to a Chabad Orthodox community, has taken in Jews and non-Jews alike and is organizing food and other supplies for a potentially long stay. Fighting has been fierce in the city, where Ukrainian forces initially repelled Russian troops.

In Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, at least one former synagogue, the Chadashim shul, which sometimes serves as a place of gathering for Jewish community events, is ready to serve as a shelter for refugees from the east, Haaretz reported.

The Kyiv Jewish Center, a Chabad synagogue, is housing people who sought shelter there, Rabbi Jonathan Markovich told the Times of Israel from his location just outside the country, where he said he fled after getting a warning from Ukrainian security forces.

Also in Kyiv, where rockets fell near the Babyn Yar Holocaust museum Tuesday, Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny filmed himself sheltering in the basement of a large building.

“It’s a difficult time, I’m very emotional,” Dukhovny, the chief Reform rabbi of Ukraine, said, fighting back tears. “But I know that you’re with us and we know that always good is overtaking evil. Love from the basement in Kyiv,” he said.

Moshe Azman, another chief rabbi of Ukraine, on Tuesday delivered an angry message to Russian Jews and non-Jews, warning them that unless they speak out against the invasion they are complicit in war crimes.

“I have been silent for a long time but I cannot be silent anymore,” said Azman, hugging a Torah scroll in the synagogue of Anatevka, the residential compound he set up in 2014 for refugees from the previous invasion by Russia into Ukraine.

A native of Saint Petersburg in Russia, he shouted, “Never in my worst dreams did I imagine that I would be seeking to shelter my people from rockets from Russia, the place where my friends are.”

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