Jews of Ukraine will spread the light of Hanukkah despite the war with Russia

The war with Russia has led to the departure of 50,000 Jews from Ukraine, as well as the deaths and injuries of hundreds of Jewish community members.

 The Hanukkah kits distributed to children across Ukraine. (photo credit: Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine)
The Hanukkah kits distributed to children across Ukraine.
(photo credit: Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine)

A huge public Hanukkah is lit every year in Maidan Square, the central square in the heart of Kyiv. Some thought that the ritual wouldn’t take place this Hanukkah because of the war with Russia. But despite the Russian bombings of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko decided that he would continue the tradition. The first lighting took place on Sunday at nightfall.

“In light of the upheaval prevailing in the Ukrainian capital following the Russian bombings of strategic infrastructure facilities, the lighting of the menorah will stand out even more and symbolize more than anything that light overcomes darkness,” Rabbi Meir Stambler, Chabad emissary and chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine (FJCU), told The Jerusalem Post.

In addition to Klitschko, senior participants included ambassadors from the US, Greece, the UK and Germany.

The Post has learned that Klitschko insisted on continuing the tradition. He said he would not let the Russians disturb the annual tradition, adding that Hanukkah symbolizes “the victory of light over darkness.”

“We applaud Mr. Klitschko for his great assistance and support, as well as the ambassadors of the countries that will take part in this exciting lighting,” said Rabbi Raphael Rothman, who as vice chairman of the FJCU is responsible for government relations. “We are sure that both then, during the Second Temple, and today, a miracle will occur to us, as in the Hanukkah story. The few will defeat the many and the powerful. Hanukkah is proof that our spirit cannot be broken.”

 The Hanukkah kits distributed to children across Ukraine. (credit: Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine) The Hanukkah kits distributed to children across Ukraine. (credit: Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine)

The war with Russia has led to the departure of 50,000 Jews from Ukraine. The war also caused the deaths and injuries of hundreds of Jewish community members, the FJCU said.

“Every year for the past five years we have distributed 35,000 kits to 35,000 Jewish households across the country, and this year we realized that we must increase the light and override the darkness. We must reach as many Jewish homes as possible and bring them the light and joy of Hanukkah.”

The Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine CEO Alina Teplitsky

Because of the complicated situation, which also has become even more difficult since many areas do not have electricity, preparations for Hanukkah celebrations across the country began before Rosh Hashanah.

The FJCU rented a huge warehouse and logistics distribution center in the city of Dnipro to store the relevant materials for Hanukkah, including 47,000 kits containing Hanukkah candles and hanukkiot, a booklet explaining the significance of the holiday, a coloring book for children, Hanukkah games for children, snacks and sweets.

“Every year for the past five years we have distributed 35,000 kits to 35,000 Jewish households across the country, and this year we realized that we must increase the light and override the darkness,” FJCU CEO Alina Teplitsky said. “We must reach as many Jewish homes as possible and bring them the light and joy of Hanukkah.”

Ksenia Levinsky from Dnieper, who received a kit, said: “Hanukkah is a holiday of hope. The kits we received will add light and festivity to our home, which we lack so much at the present time, especially in light of the power outages due to the attacks on energy facilities across Ukraine. The Hanukkah candles will remind us that miracles do happen.”

Chabad of Kremenchuk

Rabbi Shlomo Salomon, Chabad emissary and rabbi of the city Kremenchuk, said: “We don’t know what will happen to us next week during Hanukkah since we may be under shelling again. The question is, Will we have light and electricity? With God’s help, we intend to stay here at any cost, to keep the light and hope grow.”

Despite a cruise missile hitting a mall in Kremenchuk a few months ago, the number of local Jews has actually increased, he said, “because of Jews who until now kept their religion under wraps and now want to unite with their brothers” and also because “of Jews who immigrated to Kremenchuk from cities and towns in the east, from places occupied by the Russians.”

Rabbi Dov Axelrod, of Cherkassy in the center of Ukraine, said he would make every effort to have Hanukkah celebrated this year “with more light” than in previous years.

“People are in confusion and in the dark because of the damage to the electricity facilities,” he said. “We are here to stay, despite the difficulty and suffering.”

Axelrod said he expects to make home visits to as many families as possible.

“We will also have some beautiful parties at the Chabad Houses, and with God’s help, we will light Hanukkah candles in central places as we have done over the last decades,” he said.

Tens of thousands of Jews affected by the war in Ukraine will also be able to celebrate Hanukkah with activities and celebrations, thanks to dozens of initiatives the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) is supporting.

“Hanukkah is a holiday of hope. The kits we received will add light and festivity to our home, which we lack so much at the present time, especially in light of the power outages due to the attacks on energy facilities across Ukraine. The Hanukkah candles will remind us that miracles do happen.”

Ksenia Levinsky from Dnieper

“Hanukkah symbolizes the Jewish people’s defeat over darkness and forces of destruction, and this message is so relevant today for our brothers and sisters impacted by the war in Ukraine,” JFNA president and CEO Eric Fingerhut said. “It is our duty and privilege to bring the light of Hanukkah to Jewish people in Ukraine and neighboring countries, working with our partner organizations so that they can celebrate this joyous holiday during such difficult circumstances.”

Because of initiatives the JFNA is sponsoring, refugees who fled Ukraine and found safe havens in Poland and Barcelona will celebrate Hanukkah together with Jewish volunteers from the US and Canada. The activity is part of the JFNA’s volunteer hub, which launched last March and has since placed 100 Russian-speaking volunteers supporting refugees.

Volunteer Dr. Yuri Vedenyapin is a musician and professor of Yiddish at McGill University in Montreal. He will travel with Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, bringing music, song and the light of Hanukkah each night of the eight-day holiday to refugees in Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, Gdansk and other cities.

The refugees will also be joined by Polish Jews living in these cities. On the second night of Hanukkah, Vedenyapin will perform at the Presidential Palace at a special Hanukkah ceremony for refugees hosted by President Andrzej Duda.

In addition, mother-daughter volunteers Rabbi Ilana and Daniella Baird from California will lead educational programming on Hanukkah for refugees in Barcelona. They will be working alongside the Jewish community’s progressive Comunidad Judia Bet Shalom, which has also been supported by the JFNA’s emergency campaign.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, JFNA’s core partner, is providing scores of online and in-person Hanukkah events across Ukraine, including hanukkiah lightings, concerts, cooking classes, cultural salons and holiday quizzes. They will be attended by tens of thousands of Jews, including the elderly and internally displaced persons. This is in addition to the JDC’s continued delivery of humanitarian aid.

Chabad’s umbrella relief network, the Jewish Relief Network Ukraine, is distributing more than 40,000 Hanukkah boxes filled with holiday supplies and treats to Jews throughout Ukraine with JFNA support, enabling them to light the hanukkiah and bring joy into their own homes and places of residence.