“Rabbi Moshe, We Knew You Will Return!”



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    “Rabbi Moshe, We Knew You Will Return!”

    Over three months ago, Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moskowitz and family with thousands more fled a bombarded Charkov with nothing but one suitcase, but their hearts never left. Now they’re back to help rebuild a community they already rebuilt thirty years ago when the Rebbe sent them there • By Beis Moshaich magazine • Full story

    Mendy Dickstein, Beis Moshiach

    War in Ukraine began four months ago with the first, main targets the two large and central cities of Kiev and Charkov in south-eastern Ukraine. The rocket fire and Russian artillery were aimed at beautiful Charkov, the second largest city in Ukraine. It was struck again and again by missiles, bombs and rockets.

    The Rebbe’s shluchim, Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz and his family, together with ten other shluchim families remained in the city. Not only that, but they started a massive humanitarian effort to help the Jews of the city. Some needed food, others need medication, while others sought a safe place to shelter. As the shelling increased, so did the need to help. While residents of the bombarded city scrounged around the city for food and other basic items, many Jews went to the big shul which was a shelter for them. The shluchim also provided buses that began to evacuate those who wanted to get to safer parts of Ukraine while some tried to cross the border.

    R’ Moskowitz and his wife announced that they were staying. In a conversation with R’ Moskowitz at that time, he said, “Today, Tuesday, was the most difficult day since the start of the war. The Russians started bombarding citizens who live in ordinary apartment buildings. Wherever you went there was the smell of smoke, fire and building collapses near our house. The situation is dreadful.

    “We are working on two planes simultaneously. First, we ask those who can help and open humanitarian lines to extricate people from our community out of besieged Charkov for Lvov, a border city. Until now, there was a minimal danger of anyone being hit but now they are directly targeting civilian buildings and the situation has become deadly in a way that it has not been since the start of the war.”

    Indeed, in the early days of the fighting, a missile made a direct hit on a house next to the Moskowitz house. The windows and doors flew out. The danger of war was closer than ever and many Jewish families took their personal belongings and began a long journey with vans and buses toward the border with Moldova.

    This is when the shluchim had to leave, against their will. The danger was closer and more threatening than ever. Mrs. Moskowitz shares the feelings she had at the time:

    “It says you are not allowed to cry on Shabbos but it happened to me a few times that Shabbos. We had to leave. There was nonstop bombing. A missile landed on our Jewish school. The danger to our lives was increasing greatly.

    “We packed 32 years of shlichus into three suitcases and left in a group on a dangerous trip that took several days until we reached Kishinev, the capital of Moldova.

    “All our lives we are used to giving and hosting and now we had to receive and be hosted. Our thoughts wandered to our shul which we left in great sorrow. This building survived the communists, was turned into a sports center, and over decades we turned it into the heart of our community. We can’t stop wondering what’s happening there now, what will happen in the future?”

    RETURNING TO PUSHKINSKAYA 12

    The future arrived! R’ Moskowitz was able to return to his city and place of shlichus once the level of danger in Charkov diminished significantly. The Russians moved away from the area and the city was secure.

    R’ Moskowitz and his family were thrilled to return. There was no one happier than he to return to the big shul, to the Jews who waited for him under the massive roof decorated with beautiful domes, to the office where he ran activities all these years. As though he hadn’t had to get away from the area against his will.

    “12 Pushkinskaya Street,” wrote Mrs. Moskowitz, “the shul of Charkov. Jews stood there on line to give him a long hug, to put on tefillin, to talk, and there is so much to talk about and to tell. People who have been living for three months in the shelter of our shul came up, overcome, to say thank you for saving them.”

    Although there are endless tasks that he needs to do to attempt to rebuild the community, to make contact with hundreds of people from the community who remained in the city and throughout Ukraine, he found a few minutes to tell Beis Moshiach about the war and his mind-boggling return to the war-torn city.

    What made you return to Charkov?

    “Ever since we left the city, I constantly felt – and I said this to everyone – that I was waiting for the first opportunity to return to Charkov. Our shlichus is in the city, ‘our’ Jews are in Charkov. I went around with that feeling for the last four months and the feelings were difficult to bear.

    “Last week, the news was that Ukrainian forces had managed to repel the Russians from Charkov toward the Russian border and there was (relative) quiet in the city. I decided it was a good opportunity and I had to return to my place of shlichus. After writing to the Rebbe and asking for his bracha, and after consulting with my mashpia, I went back.

    “The way home wasn’t as simple as I was used to. I flew from Tel Aviv to Kishinev and from there I drove to Charkov. The trip from Eretz Yisrael took more than 24 hours.”

    How did you feel after you had to leave?

    “I really cannot describe my feelings. The feeling of returning to the place that the Rebbe connected your neshama is uplifting. The world is used to talking about the mesirus nefesh of being on shlichus. To me, mesirus nefesh is when I’m not in my place of shlichus. Real, normal life is when you are fulfilling the purpose for which your neshama came down to the world.

    “I can tell you that the community was also ecstatic. It’s hard for me to describe the joy that came back to their eyes when they saw me back in my familiar place. The tearful hugs and kisses that we got from them expressed what was in their hearts. I feel that I’ve come to say a deep thank you to those Jews who remained here, kept the shul open throughout all those months and provided food for people; that is something that ordinary words cannot express.

    “There was a Jew from Charkov who waited for me on the way from Moldova just to get a warm, loving hug. Someone else came, with mesirus nefesh, from Kiev to Charkov just to be able to put tefillin on with us. Maybe these are ‘small’ things, but they are huge in terms of testimony to the place the Rebbe holds in the hearts of those here in the community.”

    Have you already resumed all your activities?

    “There is a lot to do. Of course, we’re back to our activities. This morning at the shul there was a large prayer service. We are trying to help the Jews who are here who did not leave yet. In the meantime, we have a big kehilla and many Jews are still here.”

    And it’s safer now?

    “I examine the situation anew every day and hope that I can remain and do as much as possible as long as the situation does not deteriorate. Every day that I’m here I say a big thank you to Hashem for the privilege of being a shliach in my place of shlichus and being able to continue carrying out the Rebbe’s activities in the place where I was sent by the Rebbe.”

    32 YEARS OF OUTREACH

    The Moskowitz family arrived in Charkov in the summer of 5750/1990 when the Rebbe was sending shluchim to the Soviet Union of that era (when it was starting to come apart). Three families were sent behind the Iron Curtain, the Lazars to Moscow, Kaminetzkys to Dnepropetrovsk, and the Moskowitzs to Charkov.

    The Ukrainian government gave back the big shul to the Jewish community and there was an urgent need for a leader and rav to consolidate the community around the shul. Thus began the rebuilding of the community after 70 years of communism.

    That was the start of 32 flourishing years. This is where their children were born, where they built their home, until they were an inseparable part of the city.

    Now, R’ Moskowitz looks back with satisfaction over decades of toil and he excitedly talks about dozens of baalei teshuva who became Chassidishe yungerleit, who are shluchim all over the former Soviet Union. They went through the entire system of schools in Charkov. “The Rebbe’s bracha and the fact that we are here with the Rebbe’s koach, is felt in every step we take,” says R’ Moskowitz.

    Before the war began, there were eight shluchim families in Charkov who ran the community and educational institutions.

    He cannot forget the moment the war began:

    “The war broke out on 23 Adar I, on a Thursday. A few minutes before five in the morning, a few frightened mekuravim called us and said that the bombing had begun in Charkov and Kiev. Charkov is just 40 minutes drive from the border with Russia. No wonder that the Russians designated it from the beginning as a key target for bombardment and conquest. From the first day, Charkov absorbed dozens of barrages of missiles and bombs from the air daily.”

    There was speculation that it was only threats and that war would not break out.

    “True. Nobody actually believed that there would be a war. The threats made by Putin both veiled and openly about the possibility of war with Ukraine were not regarded as actual threats but as a negotiating tactic.

    “I remember that one day before the war began, on Wednesday, we held a big event at the school in which we celebrated 30 years since we opened the school and began Jewish studies in Charkov. It was joyous; everyone came wearing Shabbos clothes. There was no hint at what would happen in less than 12 hours.

    “That morning, the gates of gehinom opened. During the first week of war we remained in Charkov for the purpose of being with our community and helping however we could. We saw the missiles falling on the center of the city, not far from the shul, near our house. Russian tanks circulated through the city armed with large cannons with the threat of firing projectiles at various objectives. Despite the fear, we hoped it would be a matter of a few days and they would arrive at a compromise or ceasefire. We planned on remaining until this agreement took place.

    “All the families of shluchim remained in the hopes that things would calm down soon. However, a week later we saw that this was literally life-threatening. The Russians began intentionally bombing civilian targets with an aim to kill. We quickly realized that we had no real possibility of helping the community for we ourselves had to remain in the shelter.

    “On Wednesday, a week after the war began, we each had to take suitcases with our most necessary items and we drove to Dnepropetrovsk which is far from the front lines and then continued to Kishinev.”

    How did you feel?

    “Very badly! We went from shluchim who are constantly working to give, to refugees with no clarity as to when we would return to our city, if at all. And if we did, what the mosdos and houses would look like.

    “In Kishinev, we spent the first Shabbos as refugees. I’d like to offer high praise for the shluchim in Moldova who hosted us warmly. It was a special Shabbos. Although we were refugees who ran for our lives, the warmth with which we were welcomed truly revived us.

    “I’ll tell you a little (but big) incident that will provide some background to the mixed feelings we had that Shabbos. We farbrenged throughout Shabbos. In the middle of the farbrengen, we began to sing, ‘V’Somachta B’Chagecha.’ There was a Jewish journalist from the Jerusalem Post who asked why we were singing this song about joy and holidays when we were uprooted from our homes and our normal lives. ‘You left everything and compressed your entire life into one suitcase and you are war refugees. What’s the joy about?’

    “One of the shluchim from Charkov told him the story about the boy who wanted an apple and when his father did not want to give one to him he said the bracha ‘borei peri ha’eitz’ out loud so his father had no choice but to give him an apple so it wouldn’t be a bracha for nothing. ‘The same is true for us,’ said the shliach. ‘We sing and pray that we have simcha. True, we left our place of shlichus and there doesn’t seem to be reason to rejoice but we are confident that our shlichus does not end until the coming of Moshiach and, with G-d’s help, we’ll go back there.’

    “By the way, on our way from Charkov to Dnepropetrovsk we said the Tefillas Ha’derech with great kavana. When we said the words, ‘and bring us back in peace,’ we had tears in our eyes. We recalled what the Rebbe said about shlichus and how a shliach is always ‘intending to return’ and our intent was to return at the earliest opportunity to those dear Jews who remained in Charkov.”

    During your three months of exile, you continued helping Jews leave Charkov. How did you do that?

    “Since we arrived in Charkov, I’ve explained to whoever asks that my role is to be the last Jew in Charkov, the one who ‘will shut the light in the shul.’ If Jews want help moving to Eretz Yisrael or anywhere else in the world, our job is to gladly help. We have no particular goal to build a Jewish community in Charkov but to provide what the Jews still living there need. This goal continued, full force, even when we were absent from the city.

    “We made it clear to all that there was nothing to stay for in Charkov; everything had to be done to flee the bombarded city. It was truly life-threatening to be there. The fact that I returned now is because I know that there are Jews here who need our help. As for the others, it’s even a mitzva to leave.

    “Boruch Hashem, we were able to help many Jews escape the city. It’s not simple since there are strict restrictions on males ages 18-60 leaving Ukraine. We did our best to help and saw lots of siyata d’shmaya.”

    THE CHARKOV I LEFT AND THE CHARKOV I RETURNED TO

    During Shabbos parshas Vayakhel, at the end of Adar I, the Russians began massive bombardment of Charkov. Mrs. Moskowitz relates:

    “On Friday night we were in shul with dozens of other men, women and children who were living in the basement of the shul since the outbreak of hostilities. It’s their shelter. After kiddush, we began singing, ‘Nyet Nyet Nikavo,’ and the we sang ‘Hinei Ma Tov U’Ma Na’im …’ There was applause for the cooks who are sleeping in the shul and feeding everyone 24/7, from the refugees from Donetsk who came here with their children, to the old man who is afraid to live alone on the fifth floor and joined us.

    “Shabbos morning we blessed the new month of Adar II and together, said the bracha, ‘May the One who did miracles for our ancestors.’ I was moved and tears came to my eyes. We are so in need of miracles.”

    During the three months that the Moskowitz family was in Eretz Yisrael, they were in daily contact with the Jews of Charkov as well as with all the refugees who arrived in Eretz Yisrael or went to other countries in Europe.

    “Although we left Charkov, the shul there remained active the entire time. Many Jews who don’t have shelter in their building, stay in the basement of the shul. The cooks continued to cook food for the more than 100 people for whom the shul became their home. We ensured that hot food was sent to Jews throughout the city which made a great kiddush Hashem. By the way, gentiles were also helped with our services and they are very grateful for the help they got from the Jews. It’s something that doesn’t exist elsewhere.”

    What did Charkov look like when you returned?

    “There aren’t many cars going toward Charkov now. All along the way you see destruction, especially near Kiev. There are fewer people on the streets of Charkov. A fifth of the city’s buildings were destroyed in the bombardments.

    “And yet, despite seeing the devastation, it’s good to see that people are back out on the street, even if not as many as previously. The Chabad House is already operating and the Jewish community is very active.”

    Do you know how many Jews remained from the community? Do you know of any injured or killed?

    “We don’t know how many were hurt. We know that many people lost all their possessions and homes. Many supporters of the community became homeless. Many left with one suitcase, went to Eretz Yisrael or are in safer places in Ukraine.

    “The thousands of Jews who remain here, each for their own reason, cry out for help. We are constantly helping them, but more than anything people want to see leadership. We are trying to help them in every way possible. I hope that I won’t need to flee Charkov again.”

    There was great media interest around you and your story. My impression is that you used that to spread Yiddishkeit and the Besuras HaGeula.

    “I constantly say that the Jewish people are one body and therefore, each Jew needs to add in Torah, tefilla and tzedaka anywhere in the world. These mitzvos affect the Jews in Ukraine too. Whenever I am asked how we can be helped, I explain that in addition to the material help, without which we cannot manage in this world, we need spiritual help. Since all of the Jewish people are one entity, when a Jew is stronger in Torah and mitzvos in one place in the world, it certainly affects and helps us too.

    “In every interview or article (and there were many), I mention what the Rebbe said that we are in the generation of Geula. This surprises people because the situation looks just the opposite. Although we don’t understand the situation and why we had to leave our place of shlichus, we have absolute trust in what the Rebbe said. With every world event such as this, I have no doubt that it is meant to ‘bring to Yemos HaMoshiach.’ I said this again and again and people are always receptive to it.”

    At the end of May, the president of Ukraine, Zelenskyy recently visited Charkov. This was his first visit to the battlefield since the outbreak of war. He toured the city and then met with local senior officials including the mayor of Charkov.

    According to the head of the regional state administration, Oleg Sinegubov,  about 31% of the territory of the Charkov region is occupied by Russian forces. The Ukrainians were able to regain control over 5% of the territory that the Russians captured. Sinegubov said that as long as heavy fire continues to fall on the area, it is hard to tell how mines will be removed in order to rebuild it and its infrastructure. Zelenskyy also discussed plans to renovate the city.

    “Charkov sustained terrible damage by the Russians,” reported the president at the end of his visit. “Apartment buildings that face east and north are blackened and partially destroyed. It was from there that the Russians operated their artillery and from where their fighter planes came.”

    What are your plans until the end of the war?

    “The plans for now are to get out as many Jews as possible to quieter areas outside of Ukraine. I have no idea what will be after the war, which Jews will come back and who will stay in their new locations, which mosdos will survive and which might close. We first need to wait for a big miracle that the war end. Then, we will restart our regular programming until the coming of Moshiach and even then. In the meantime, we thank Hashem ‘for our lives that are given into Your Hand and for our souls that are deposited with You.’ We are shluchim of the Rebbe and hope to be here as much as possible. ‘The poor of your city’ for me are the Jews of Charkov.

    “I must say that during our recent months of exile I was exposed to the love and unity among Chassidim, no matter the views of any of them. Chassidim from everywhere in the world call and ask about the situation and how they can help. It’s truly heartwarming. As the well known aphorism of the Tzemach Tzedek goes, ‘The unity among Chassidim will lead them to the Geula. We hope that this display of achdus will hasten the revelation of the Rebbe with the Geula shleima.”

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