Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting hardships for Jewish families resonated across Canada over the weekend, as rabbis heard about a Shabbat spent sheltering in basements and bunkers while the sounds of fighting were in the air outside.
Rabbi Eli Mandel, the vice-principal of TanenbaumCHAT high school in Toronto, lived in Ukraine for two four-year stints, with the most recent ending in 2004. Most of that time was spent in Kyiv. He still has many friends in the region, although the majority fled that city on the morning of Feb. 28. Now, they are trying to leave the country.
In an announcement to students, Rabbi Mandel shared a story he heard from one of them.
It was “the scariest as well as the most special Shabbat in my lifetime,” this friend said. “Thirty families all hunkered down in the basement of the shul in Kyiv experiencing unity, solidarity, hope, and prayer all the while that explosions were heard in the distance.”
People ended up in synagogue basements for practical reasons, as they offer more safety and security compared to the apartment buildings that dominate big Ukrainian cities. Many opened their doors to all—not just their own members.
“But also, in times of peril, people come together and try to get support from each other,” Rabbi Mandel said. “And then, as far as Shabbat goes, Shabbat was Shabbat whether the Russians were attacking or not attacking.
“So, synagogues operated as synagogues do, but underground—literally, physically under the ground, if they had a basement—and tried to replicate a normal Shabbat in that atmosphere.”
When it comes to Rabbi Mandel’s role as an educator, he considers it important to teach students about what’s happening, both in the world at large and in affected communities. He made two announcements about the conflict on Monday, and plans to keep updating students. The school will also be undertaking initiatives to support the Jewish community in Ukraine, including helping the UJA with fundraising, and writing letters.
Rabbi Mandel said his Ukrainian friends are moved by the support they are receiving from fellow Jews on the other side of the world.
“[The conflict] will pass and we’ll forget all of the difficulties,” one of Rabbi Mandel’s friends texted him. “But the feeling of brotherhood, of unity, of support and help will remain with us.”
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The stressful situation is also being felt at Winnipeg’s Gray Academy of Jewish Education, where the principal, Lori Binder, says guidance counsellors have made themselves available to staff or students who need them.
According to Binder, there are “handfuls” of staff and students at the day school who either come from Ukraine, or have grandparents or other relatives in the country.
The principal sent out an internal note with some resources for staff, including prayers for peace, and links to the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s emergency fundraising campaign.
“My goal was to acknowledge that when we are coming to work, we have heavy hearts,” Binder said, adding that they want to provide a “safe space” to students and staff who may be dealing with the anxiety of having loved ones in the conflict.
Rabbi Yoseph Zaltzman, founder of the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario (JRCC) has been hearing from his fellow Chabad rabbis since the Russian invasion began Feb. 23. Both he and his wife have several family members living in all parts of Ukraine.
“They spent Shabbos in the basement, they stayed over Shabbos in the train station, in the subway. They’re lacking food, even in cities where they have the money but the stores are empty.”
Many of the Chabad rabbis have American passports, and could leave, but they are remaining to help their communities.
“That’s the approach of Chabad,” Rabbi Zaltzman said. “You don’t leave a Jew in danger.”
One rabbi has a list of Jews living outside the city in small, isolated communities, who are looking for food or help to move to a larger, safer town. These names are linked to 166 different locations, and amount to about 1,500 families.
Another rabbi was fortunate enough to find “a few thousand pounds” of kasha, which he distributed to people in need.
Although opinions about Russian politics may vary, now is not the time to discuss them, Rabbi Zaltzman said.
“As a rabbi, my advice is if we see suffering, we have to help the people and that’s where we should put our energy.”
Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman, the CEO of the JRCC—and Rabbi Yoseph Zaltzman’s son—has the same philosophy. The centre serves Russian-speaking Jews who came to Canada from any former Soviet Union country, which means community members hail from or have family remaining in both Ukraine and Russia.
And, from what he can tell, everyone is united by one thing: they don’t want to see Jewish people in harm’s way.
When it comes to potential tensions within the community at large—or even within individual families—due to conflicting views on the conflict, the rabbi said it’s not our opinions that matter right now. Instead, we should be focusing on how to help those who are currently in danger.
“The world leaders… they’re the ones that have tough decisions to make right now. They need to have the bones and guts to do it. No one’s asking us these questions. We don’t have a button on nuclear weapons and we don’t have warships that we can send out,” he said.
“So, what can we do? To sit around the dinner table and talk about how this guy’s bad and this guy’s this and that, and then feel good… that doesn’t achieve anything.”
For this Rabbi Zaltzman, one of the best ways to help is by supporting the 200-odd Chabad rabbis who are remaining in Ukraine despite having foreign passports that could take them somewhere safe. The group he calls “the core of the local Jewish community,” are so dedicated to their duties that even the Foreign Ministry of Israel was telling Israelis in Ukraine to go to the local Chabads.
(The JRCC has also set up its own donations page.)
Shortly after the start of the Russian invasion, Jewish Federations of North America—which includes Canada—launched a fundraising appeal to help the estimated 200,000 Jews in Ukraine. Over the weekend, the North American goal was increased from $16 million to $20 million (U.S.).
UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has raised $750,000 since the appeal was launched late last week. And over $25,000 was raised in Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, as the organization founded in 1922 to help those escaping from pogroms in Eastern Europe, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) is ready to help Ukrainians resettle in Canada, whenever they arrive.
The immigrant aid group says the focus must be on the immediate needs of people who are still in Ukraine—and those who have fled to neighbouring countries.
“I look at this as triage. We’ve got to make sure people have food, and they have medical supplies and they have access to water. Money should go to humanitarian efforts right now,” said JIAS executive director Elise Herzig.
The agency is getting calls from its clients about how to help family members in Ukraine, but it has not logged the number received.
“Right now, the government and everyone is focused on the crisis rather than thinking about resettlement,” she said. “But that doesn’t help the people who have family members there.”
JIAS cannot advise people whether they should leave Ukraine or what path they should take, Herzig said. It is too early to say how many immigrants will arrive in Canada, or when.
And yet, JIAS is preparing for the eventual arrival of refugees. The agency has already dedicated a staff member to helping people trying to bring family members to Canada, while evaluating whether it has enough staff who speak the necessary languages, and looking at what materials might need to be translated and readying volunteers.
The priority is helping families in crisis, Herzig said. “I’ve had a number of phone calls asking to give money to JIAS and I’m saying give money to humanitarian groups and UJA and the fund that they have set up, because that is what is needed today.
“If I need money for refugees, I’ll ask you for that tomorrow.”
(With files from Ellin Bessner)