KIEV – The ankle-deep mud sucks at my boots as I slog through it, ducking under the cement mixer’s chute just before it begins disgorging its cargo into a ditch dug into the frozen Ukrainian soil. As a worker with a shovel begins smoothing the concrete, Rabbi Moshe Azman, the leader of one of Kiev’s two Chabad hassidic communities stands above him, thanking God and tossing in a symbolic spadeful of cement.
As the foundations for what will be a residential building are filled, I turn and look at the temporary wooden housing already erected here at Anatevka, a refugee resettlement compound established by Azman just outside the Ukrainian capital’s city limits.
According to the Jewish Agency, approximately 2,500 Jewish internally displaced persons from the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk – now self-styled as people’s republics by the Russian backed separatists in control there – have settled in the Kiev area. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee estimates that it is providing aid to around 2,800 of the displaced across the country.
Around 11,000 Jews lived in Donetsk, the center of the current insurgency, prior to the outbreak of hostilities two years ago, but after two years of grueling conflict, just over 2,000 remain.
According to Azman, around 100 refugees currently live in temporary housing in the compound – which he sees as a modern-day revision of the classic Jewish shtetl – with around half of them having found work in the city, which could account for the small number of people in attendance during my visit.
Many more are waiting for space to open up, he says, complaining that funding has been the primary issue slowing down construction.
Heavy rains in the days before I arrived had turned Anatevka’s unpaved roads into a sea of muck, out of which the temporary dormitory that houses the refugees looms like an island, as they wait for more permanent accommodations.
Like most of the refugees in Anatevka, Elena Yaremchenko is from Luhansk, from where she fled with her husband, Sergey, “amidst explosions,” during some of the worst of the fighting.
Facilitated by city rabbi Shalom Gopin, the couple made their way to a Chabadrun transit center in Zhitomir before being transferred to a IDP camp in the town of Shpola.
It was from there that the Yaremchenkos were sent to Kiev, along with other Luhansk natives displaced by the war.
Given the situation, she says that she is “satisfied,” especially because her husband has been employed by the local community to help construct the compound, which also includes a new school building to serve Kiev’s Jewish community.
Sitting on a stool in the hallway of the wooden barracks, alongside some 10 other women and children, she looks at me and says that being resettled in Anatevka has given her a sense of “security and a feeling that there will be a tomorrow.”
“It’s kind of like a kibbutz, a Ukrainian kibbutz,” says Svetlana, another former Luhansk resident who now works for Azman coordinating refugee services.
“It was a different life in Luhansk. They had friends and a house and everything. Here it’s different. They live as a group that does everything together, it’s completely different,” she says, standing across from their dormitory’s communal kitchen, in which two women are bustling around.
With a full-time job helping other displaced people and a rented apartment in Kiev that she shares with her six-year-old daughter, Svetlana says that she does not like to be called a refugee, recalling how she helped Azman find and develop the plot of land on which Anatevka is now being built.
Not everybody agrees with Azman’s approach, however, with most of those belonging to the capital’s Donetsk expatriate community finding living quarters around the city instead of putting their names down for a spot in the new town.
The rabbi of Donetsk, Pinchas Vishedski, wrote in an email late last year following announcement of Anatevka’s dedication, “My personal opinion is that we left the shtetl, and that the shtetl is part of the Jewish nation’s past, today Jews don’t live in the shtetl and they don’t live in Anatevka.”
He continued, “Anatevka symbolizes the wandering of the Jews... I don’t think that people need this service, and I think it’s more important to help people in places where they can have a future. People need hope, the hope is to rebuild one’s life.”
Sitting with me in his office in the back of Kiev’s recently established Donetsk community center- cum-synagogue, Vishedski reiterated his skepticism regarding the project and its viability.
His community members are “normal people with cars and livelihoods – upper middle class” who lost everything, including the clothes on their backs. “They want to raise their children in a normal place. You can’t tell them to live in a refugee camp. They want to be in the city where there is a good education for their kids.
“I don’t judge and [in fact I] honor anyone who acts for refugees,” Vishedski explains. As one himself, he sees refugees as less of a problem to be solved than as people to be put back on their feet, and he knows that “If I don’t want to live there no one wants to.”
According to Vishedski, around 200 families in Kiev look to him for assistance and are regularly involved with his center, run out of a small, sky-blue stone building, only blocks away from the synagogue of Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich.
“I want a day to come when they don’t need my help,” says Vishedski. But, in the meantime, he organizes regular aid in the form of rent money, food packages and clothing.
“It’s very hard to find work. People turn to us and we worry for them. For the majority of families, it continues to be a struggle. The economy isn’t good, businesses are closing and don’t want to hire people. People don’t know what they will do tomorrow.”
Much of the funding for the rehabilitation for his community comes from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, he says, referring to a Jerusalem-based charitable organization that raises money largely from Christian donors in the United States and which has become heavily involved in issues relating to Ukrainian Jewry.
While rabbis in Ukraine do not normally involve themselves with aliya, he says he has been promoting that option among members of his community, thousands of whom have immigrated to Israel over the past two years.
“We, my family and I, are living without certainly. I can’t say that we have found our place and will live in the future in Kiev. I don’t know what will be tomorrow,” just that “I don’t have the privilege” of giving up on the community, Vishedski laments.
Sitting across a table from the rabbi at the back of the synagogue following a Torah lecture later that evening, Alexander Gordon, a middle aged businessman from Donetsk, says that he is now looking for work.
He says that while he was able to cushion the move with his savings, “people who don’t have money are having a very hard time living in Kiev,” which is extremely expensive.
“It’s very hard for many people. It’s impossible to say how difficult, but we have no choice,” he says.
Pavel Zaranken, another refugee, chimes in to the murmured agreement of the other 10 men seated around the table and says, “We have no plans for the future. We are finding way to live without making plans.” •