KIEV – Dozens of Jewish refugees from the war in Donbass celebrated the second night of Hanukka on Sunday evening at a festive event in Kiev hosted by Chabad and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ).
This was the third year that a portion of the once-large and thriving Jewish community of Donbass celebrated the festival of lights in the Ukrainian capital, to which many refugees fled following the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in early 2014.
The community, which for years was led by Chabad Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, is now scattered across the country and throughout the world. There was a large Jewish community center in Donbass that was used for a variety of activities, including holiday celebrations.
They do not have such a facility in Kiev. So on Sunday they rented a hall at the Khreschatyk Hotel for the event that included candle-lighting, a musical performance, food and speeches of hope for a bright new year.
Vishedski transferred to Kiev in September 2014 and since then has worked to support and rebuild the fractured community with the support of IFCJ founder and president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
Together, they work to help those who want to make aliya (emigrate to Israel), as well as support those who moved to other parts of Ukraine, where many are struggling in the face of harsh economic circumstances.
“This marks two years since the launch of our aliya project,” Vishedski said. He noted that while they encourage aliya, as they see Israel as a good place for refugees to start new lives, they are also there for those who wish to pick up the pieces of their lives in Ukraine.
“The Donesk Jewish community was one of biggest, most active and successful ones in Ukraine, and when it was destroyed, it was an awful heartbreak,” Vishedski told The Jerusalem Post, referring to the Donbass capital. He emphasized the importance of preserving that community even after it has been physically disbanded.
After the war broke out, IFCJ and Chabad opened a refugee center in western Ukraine to aid those who had been displaced in their absorption around the country. With the financial backing of the IFCJ, the center helped the refugees acclimatize, helping them with rent, food and clothes.
“The economic situation here is very difficult, so Ukraine does not have the capability to absorb the refugees,” Vishedski said. Many refugees still receive financial aid of this type today, he said.
Vishedski repeatedly praised Eckstein and described him as an “angel” to Jewish refugees in Ukraine. “In the name of thousands from Donbass, we don’t have the words to say thank you to him,” he said.
“We are eternally grateful to him.”
Addressing the gathering, community member Shaul Melamed said: “It is a miracle we can gather here for the third year, and I’m happy this community is growing not only from Ukraine, but also from Russia and Belarus.”
Melamed moved with his family from Donetsk to Kiev at the outbreak of the war. They live with the hope of one day being able to return to their hometown. Melamed is a programmer who, in contrast with others, has managed to continue providing a stable life for his family. “We haven’t been hurt so much,” he said. “We live a normal life, only that instead of living our own apartment, we now live in a rented one.”
Although the community has been divided, Melamed feels its spirit has survived.
“We found within us strength we did not know we had, both individually and as a community,” he said.
Yaakov Potichanov still lives in Donesk, where his mother and his business remain. He divides his time between his home and Kiev, where he is trying to build up his business.
While his 22-year-old son moved to Israel well before the war broke out, Potichanov doesn’t seem himself following in the near future.
“Life in Donetsk goes on, especially Jewish life,” he said, noting the active community surrounding the synagogue.
However, the war critically damaged his business and a curfew is in place every night at 11:00. In the center of Donetsk, though, he does not feel unsafe, as hostilities are concentrated mainly on the outskirts of the city.
As a Jew, he said, he feels safer in Donetsk than in Kiev. While he walks comfortably wearing a kippa in the streets of the former, he has experienced antisemitic verbal abuse in the latter. “It’s not serious, but it makes me feel uncomfortable and it does exist,” he said.
Jewish Ukrainian MP Evgeni Geller is also originally from Donetsk and remains an active member and supporter of the Donbass Jewish community in Kiev.
“There were complications. It wasn’t easy to move here,” he said. But thanks to Vishedski, “they continued doing what they were doing.”