The Festival of Lights… in darkness
By Steve Lipman
Special to the TJP
After Russia invaded and occupied the Crimea area of Ukraine in 2014, and heavily damaged the region’s electrical power system, there were reports that members of the local Jewish community used up their supply of Hanukkah candles, before Hanukkah, because they needed a source of light.
In the days before Hanukkah this month, a few men and women from two Conservative institutions in Israel will travel to the small Jewish community in Czernivtsi, Ukraine — the country again a victim of a Russian military attack — with a supply of needed items: blankets, sweatshirts, menorahs and kippot.
And 300 boxes of Hanukkah candles.
Although electrical power in Czernivtsi is on-and-off — more off than on these days — the candles will probably last until Hanukkah begins on Dec. 18, said Lev Kleiman, the leader of the city’s Conservative community.
“One-hundred percent, yes. This year it’s really important” to have Hanukkah in Chernowitz — and Hanukkah candles, Kleiman said in a Zoom interview one recent afternoon, referring to the city by its old name, which many residents still use.
“We will hold onto the candles until Hanukkah,” he said, his words in Russian interpreted by Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, the Russian-born/Jerusalem-based “circuit rabbi” of the Conservative movement’s Schechter Institutes and executive director of its Midreshet Schechter Ukraine, who is to bring the holiday supplies to Czernivtsi.
Among a few “couriers” bringing needed items to Jewish communities in Ukraine, Rabbi Gritsevskaya has made several trips there in the last 10 months, at a not inconsiderable risk to herself. At the start of the war, she urged Jews in other cities to make their way to Czernivtsi.
“I can’t say I am not scared,” the rabbi wrote in a Facebook post at Purim time, when she returned to Ukraine. “When I think about many, many people whom I know and I talked to in the last two weeks who are real heroes, my own fears seem so insignificant.”
She spent Purim in Czernivtsi.
The city (population: 250,000), a cultural center and railroad hub, is now a melting pot of native Jews, and many from other parts of Ukraine.
Czernivtsi, which served as a place of refuge for thousands of displaced people from elsewhere in parts of the USSR threatened by the Nazi army during World War II, is again attracting refugees from throughout the country, from places, especially in the east, where the Russian attacks are more severe and living conditions are more difficult.
In addition, earlier in the current war, Kleiman turned his synagogue into a refugee center for some of the millions of Ukrainians people fleeing their homeland, and the city was the gathering site for worldwide faith leaders who denounced violence and expressed solidarity with the embattled Ukrainians.
Located on the Prut River, Czernivtsi (known at one time as “Jerusalem upon the Prut” for the strength of its Jewish community) is 25 miles north of the Romanian border in southwest Ukraine, home of one of the country’s most active Conservative communities. The city’s Jewish population before the war began 10 months ago was estimated at 2,000, including many Holocaust survivors.
And today, following widespread post-invasion migration?
Maybe the number is bigger, maybe it’s smaller. “No one knows,” Kleiman said; “many left, but many came.” No one is counting. While, as in other Ukrainian cities, many Jews — especially women and senior citizens and children, everyone except draft-age males — have migrated, uncounted other ones have come to a venue of relative safety, either renting apartments or staying in ones under the auspices of the Jewish community.
Most of the Jews in Czernivtsi now are those exempt from military service, Kleiman said; others stayed in order to be with their husbands-fathers who joined the Ukrainian army after the war began, or to care for their aged parents.
Despite signs of war — rifle-carrying soldiers and policemen on the streets, empty shelves in stores because of shortages, people hurrying to safety when they hear sirens — Jewish life there has continued, according to Kleiman; the most active organizations there are Chabad, the JDC-supported Hesed Shoshana Welfare Center and Kleiman’s Kehillat Aviv Synagogue (his official title is coordinator), which sponsors daily Jewish activities.
The synagogue — located near the Chabad center, with which it cooperates on relief activities — is housed in a small, two-story building that contains an office, a kitchen and a large multi-function hall.
Kleiman said Hanukkah in 2022 will be more important in Czernivtsi than in past years; it’s a natural time to come together, and to assert Jewish survival.
As during the current war.
Electricity in Czernivtsi flows only a few hours each day; at night, no streetlights. On the Festival of Lights, when much of the country is without lights, or heat, electrical power or water — thanks to incessant Russian bombing of Ukraine’s infrastructure, and to government-imposed restrictions designed to conserve the little available resources — on a holiday that grew out of a war, the Maccabees’ against the Greek-Syrian Hellenists; on a celebration of military victory against massive odds … the message of Hanukkah has particular contemporary resonance, Kleiman said. “There are a lot of parallels.”
A holiday of lights sans lights? “We’ve never done it before,” he said, adding that the Jews in his city understand the holiday’s symbolism. Some will come to the synagogue for a communal candle-lighting, Kleiman said. Others will light their candles at home, in their windows.
Like other residents of Czernivtsi, Kleiman’s office and apartment are subject to periodic electricity blackouts, often announced in advance. “With G-d’s help we will soon have a generator” — and 24/7 lights and heat in the synagogue, he said.
Until then, he and the other residents of Czernivtsi will shiver. The temperature in the city was 29 degrees Fahrenheit during the interview; a light snow was falling.
Though no Russian missiles have fallen inside Czernivtsi itself, some have reached the outskirts, causing damage to the area’s infrastructure and utilities. Other parts of the country have not escaped the Russian onslaught; two months ago more than 4,000 Ukrainian towns, villages and cities had experienced outages, and 40% of the country’s grid was crippled.
The saturation-bombing of power stations is a major part of Vladimir Putin’s plan, while losing on the battlefield, to weaponize Ukraine’s weather to bully the country into submission as winter sets in. In this battle, Ukraine’s civilians are the targets, the victims, the front-line casualties.
With no oil or natural gas for heating, it will be a cold Hanukkah this month for the Jews of Czernivtsi, and for those who remain in Jewish communities in other parts of the country.
TV, radio to pass the time? Only when electricity is available. And internet and cellphone service are spotty.
These are boring days in southwest Ukraine.
Kleiman called the war a test of the people’s mettle, a spur to their growing national unity. As a form of solidarity, many have switched the language of their conversations from Russian — the lingua franca during the Soviet days — to Ukrainian.
Nobody in Czernivtsi’s Jewish community is starving, he said; kosher food is available at the synagogue, and volunteers bring supplies to people unable to travel.
Overall, the morale of the Jewish community is good, he said. Native-born members of the community “support each other”; some people from other parts of the country, separated from their families, with fewer personal connections, are “depressed,” he said.
But the Jews there are living on hope — that the war will end eventually, and they will be able to return to their homes, a lesson that Jewish history has taught. Where there is no physical light, Kleiman said, with an eye on Hanukkah, “we make our own (spiritual) light.”
Ukraine, until 1991 part of the Russia-dominated Soviet Union, has a poignant precedent within the country’s historical memory — the nearly-900-day-long siege of Leningrad (now known as Saint Petersburg) by the German Army and Finnish troops in 1941-44, which cost an estimated million Russian lives, civilian and military. Everyone in the former Soviet Union knows the story of suffering and sacrifice; it was a staple of the USSR’s history lessons, a morale-boosting lesson of coping with overwhelming, often-fatal odds.
While many citizens died, the country survived.
The precedent should not be an encouraging one for Putin — despite the massive human toll, Russia, as an ally of the United States and England, won World War II; the besieged Russians were resilient.
As the Ukrainians today are proving to be.
Though estimates about the size of Ukrainian Jewry vary widely, most put the number, before the war began, at at least 200,000, making the size of the country’s Jewish community among the largest ones in the world. Tens of thousands have subsequently made aliyah, and moved to Germany and Poland and other points west, but no one knows for sure how many Jews live in Ukraine now.
“The vast majority of Jews are still there and they probably are not going to leave,” according to Rabbi Motto Seligson, Chabad’s director of media relations.
Jewish life in Czernivtsi is based at Kleiman’s synagogue, Chabad and Hesed; as elsewhere in the former Soviet republics, there is no Jewish neighborhood per se, but many of the city’s Jews live near the downtown area, within walking distance of the synagogue; residents come to community events mostly by foot, or by car when gas is available, by taxi or by trolley — when electricity is available.
Coming to shul since the war began has become more difficult, less frequent.
Home in past years to such prominent Jews as actress Mila Kunis, the late Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and the late poet-translator Paul Celan (born Paul Antschel), the city has an honored place in the country’s history.
On the eve of World War II, some 45,000 Jews lived in the city, about a third of the total population; the collaborationist Romanian authorities, who ruled the area, established a ghetto in Czernowitz where 32,000 Jews, including many from the surrounding region, were interned; from there, they were shipped to concentration camps in the nearby Transnistria area, where 60% died.
A third of the city’s Jews survived the war.
The population grew to about 17,000 when widespread migration from the USSR began in the late 1980s. Like many cities in the former Soviet Union, Czernivtsi has experienced a modest Jewish revival since Communism fell and open expression of Judaism was allowed. The revival was spurred largely by the arrival of Chabad shluchim couples, and programs sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Though Chabad, an Orthodox movement, is the prime Jewish mover in Ukraine, there is also a growing non-Orthodox presence there.
The Israeli branch of the Conservative movement sent its first fulltime representatives to Ukraine a decade ago. The movement’s Jerusalem-based Masorti Olami organization sponsors a network of synagogues, schools, camps, youth groups and kashrut certification across Ukraine. A few decades ago Kleiman attended the Midreshet Yerushalayim day school in Czernivtsi and Camp Ramah Ukraine.
In addition, the Reform movement’s World Union for Progressive Judaism has established 10 congregations in the country; the movement estimates that 14,000 Ukrainian Jews identify as members.
Jews of every stripe now share common deprivations with fellow Ukrainians.
By the time Hanukkah arrives in late December, the daily temperature — if 2022 follows past meteorological patterns — will dip below freezing, and a few inches of snow will fall.
In the boxes of materials that Rabbi Gritsevskaya is to bring to Czernivtsi from Israel were some dreidels. Israeli-style dreidels, whose Hebrew letters stand for the words Nes gadol haya po — “A great miracle happened here.” On dreidels used in the Diaspora, the last word usually is sham, “there.”
The linguistic symbolism in a land under siege is clear, said Kleiman, who plans to explain the message to the members of the community taking home a dreidel.
“I understand — they will understand too,” he said. “I hope the miracle will also happen in Ukraine.”