In February, while Russian tanks were massing at Ukraine’s northeastern border, another significant event was taking place in Kyiv, some 500 km away in the nation’s capital. Kyiv’s only Conservative congregation was about to celebrate its first Shabbat in its newly purchased home.
The religious organizations, Schechter Institutes and Masorti Olami had spent more than a year coordinating the purchase and renovation of an historic, 100-year-old building that could big enough to house the whole community. The congregation’s new beginnings in downtown Kyiv were a hopeful sign. Jewish life, which had all but been extinguished during the 70 years of Soviet rule, was beginning to flourish again in Ukraine.
Two weeks later, however, that optimism vanished. Russia had invaded and major cities were being bombed. A 40-mile-long convoy of Russian tanks and trucks was trying to make its way to Kyiv. Rabbi Reuven Stamov and his congregation were now discussing escape plans and Midreshet Schechter Ukraine (Midreshet Ukraine), which administers educational programs in the country, was in crisis planning.
Schechter president Rabbi David Golinkin said three of the four cities that house Masorti synagogues are now under bombardment by the Russian military. Kharkov, 40 km from the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine has been hit the hardest, but Odessa and Kyiv have also experienced round-the-clock shelling. The fourth synagogue, located in Chernowitz, 40 km from the Romanian border, lies outside of most of the conflict for now. It’s become a way station for those looking to escape the country.
Once the Conservative organization realized there would be a shortage of affordable accommodation in the city, it got busy looking for ways to help. It rented apartments and secured hotel rooms, offering them free to anyone who didn’t have a place to stay, whether or not they are a member of one of the Masorti synagogues, and no matter their religious affiliation.
Midreshet Ukraine director Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, who is coordinating relief efforts, said the number of refugees turning up at the Chernowitz synagogue has ballooned in recent weeks.
“We’ve never counted the amount of people that are moving through our community, but at this point, it’s more than 1,000,” she said. Schechter and Masorti Olami are also covering the cost of transportation across the border and airfare to Berlin, Budapest and Israel, where there are Conservative congregations that have offered resettlement assistance.
The organizations estimate that they are spending at least US $25,000 a week to cover the costs of food, accommodation and essentials like medicines for refugees in Ukraine and abroad, during resettlement. Rabbi Golinkin said that the flood of donations from Jewish communities around the world has been heartening, but also essential to operating costs.
“There are some 200,000 Jews in Ukraine. I would imagine most of them are no longer in the home they were living in three weeks ago,” Rabbi Golinkin said, “Even if the war ends tomorrow, what are we going to do with all of these people who have been displaced?”
One of the synagogues raising funds for the emergency appeal is Congregation Beth Israel, in Vancouver. To date, the synagogue has raised about $7,000 toward the refugee fund.
“The Schechter Institutes in Jerusalem have had a very strong relationship with Congregation Beth Israel for a number of years,” Rabbi Jonathan Infeld said.
Schechter has provided learning opportunities for the members of the synagogue, as well as coordinating and running two trips to Israel, he said.
“Today they are highly involved in the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving lives. They are expending exorbitant amounts of money on this at the moment. And that is exactly why we feel it is our duty and our obligation to do everything we can to help them.”
One of the casualties of the war in Ukraine has been a fully functioning banking system, a problem that has left staff and congregants in Kyiv, Odessa and Kharkov without access to funds for food and transportation. Rabbi Golinkin said with a little creative brainstorming, Schechter was able to transfer a small amount of money onto private credit cards for individuals.
Schechter estimates that about $5,000 a week goes to families who are still in besieged cities and aren’t able to leave because of health problems or care-giving responsibilities.
This past Purim, Rabbi Gritsevskaya and the dean of Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, flew in from Jerusalem bearing kosher meat and life-saving medications for the Jewish community in Chernowitz. Rabbi Gritsevskaya said the Purim celebration offered both a heartening and a sobering glimpse of what Ukrainians have endured.
“On one hand, it was incredible that Jewish life can go on, notwithstanding the circumstances, notwithstanding the pain,” she said.
But it was also clear that many who are seeking shelter are carrying traumatic scars. “People have [had] a lot of terrifying experiences. Even though the place seems safe, when you’re haunted by [a war], it’s different.”