Chabad’s Ukraine Mission



    Name*
    Email*
    Message

    Chabad’s Ukraine Mission

    Since the Russian invasion, this flourishing Jewish community has been upended, but it hasn’t disappeared. The communal structure built to nurture Jewish life in Ukraine pivoted into an effort to save its Jews, together with other innocent civilians, from the destruction wreaked by the war Full Story

    Dovid Margolin/Wall Street Journal

    History has been a battleground between Russia and Ukraine for years, and the story of the Jews has been part of that fight. This can be heard today in Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric about “de-Nazification” or Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s exhortations, amid Russian bombing, to remember Babyn Yar’s murdered Jews. But the past is more than a backdrop for geopolitical maneuvering.

    The founding of the Hasidic movement by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) in what is today western Ukraine revolutionized Jewish life. And Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson—the Rebbe, or the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—was born in Ukraine 120 years ago and later helped spark Judaism’s post-Holocaust religious revival.

    The Rebbe was born in Mykolaiv on April 18, 1902, to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Chana Schneerson. His maternal forefathers had been the city’s chief rabbis since 1854. During a 1905 pogrom, his mother hid in a cellar with other women, whose children’s terrified screams risked attracting the anti-Semitic marauders outside. Years later, she would recall her 3-year-old son soothing the other children.

    In 1908 Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was elected chief rabbi of what is now Dnipro. There the future Rebbe celebrated his bar mitzvah while helping his parents care for Jewish World War I refugees forcibly expelled from the Russian Empire’s western provinces. But Czarist persecution paled in comparison with the destruction of Jewish religious and communal life under communism.

    The Soviets closed synagogues and yeshivas, forcing rabbis out of their positions. The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim paid a heavy price to resist this oppression—with many sent to the gulags or executed. The Rebbe’s father played a key role in the resistance, openly urging Jews to remain steadfast in their faith. He was arrested by the secret police in 1939, tortured and exiled to Kazakhstan.

    The Rebbe later wrote that “those who withstood and survived the horrific torrent of intimidation” had something in common: “They had internalized Hasidic teachings, and the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice that they evoke, through proper education.” For decades the Rebbe’s work to strengthen Jewish life and learning behind the Iron Curtain was clandestine, and he maintained an underground educational and aid network stretching throughout the Soviet Union.

    A new era began as the Soviet Union was falling apart. In 1990 the Rebbe began sending permanent emissary couples to resuscitate Jewish life in Ukraine. A year later, Ukraine’s KGB issued a public admission that it had framed and tortured the Rebbe’s father, causing his death in 1944.

    Even with the Soviets gone, it wasn’t easy to be a proud and visible Jew in Ukraine. But this changed over the ensuing decades: 192 Chabad husband-and-wife teams put down roots in 32 cities throughout the country, building synagogues, schools and social-service centers. Giant Hanukkah menorahs illuminating public squares signaled that the days of hiding one’s Jewishness were over. While the Schneerson name had been reviled, the new Ukraine embraced it. In 2016, Mykolaiv and Dnipro renamed streets for the Rebbe.

    Since the Russian invasion, this flourishing Jewish community has been upended, but it hasn’t disappeared. The communal structure built to nurture Jewish life in Ukraine pivoted into an effort to save its Jews, together with other innocent civilians, from the destruction wreaked by the war.

    Across the country Chabad has been distributing food and medications and turning synagogue basements into bomb shelters. Dnipro’s 20-story Chabad center has become a frenetic base of humanitarian aid for refugees, both Jewish and not, as they are helped out of the country. Chabads of battle-scarred places like Mariupol and Sumy continue to evacuate people to safety. The organization has helped more than 35,000 people escape and will continue doing so as long as there are people in need.

    On March 2 Avraham Wolff, Odessa’s chief rabbi and Chabad representative, sent some 120 children and staff from his community’s children’s home to Berlin. Once they arrived, Rabbi Wolff and his wife followed with another 140 women and children. After settling them in, the rabbi drove back to Odessa alone. At the Palanca border crossing, he was the only one heading into Ukraine.

    “Everything I absorbed from the Rebbe’s Torah teachings and example during my 52 years—how nothing is more important or dear to God than helping someone materially or spiritually—was for these last weeks,” Rabbi Wolff told me recently.

    The Rebbe taught that true education should charge us with a sense of responsibility to our fellow man and to God. It is no accident that today these values are being put into action by the Jewish communities he revived and inspired. Nor that this great modern Jewish sage was born 120 years ago in Ukraine—a country that, in working to overcome its past, has emerged as an example of moral courage and fortitude for the world.

    163

    Tags: ,

    Add Comment

    *Only proper comments will be allowed

    Related Posts:

    Chabad’s Ukraine Mission



      Name*
      Email*
      Message