Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman always knew that working with the Jewish people was his life’s mission, though primarily assisting in spiritual endeavors as a communal rabbi seeking to bring Jews back to their tradition. He never imagined this would turn into the physical – saving the lives of thousands of Jews and others in war-torn Ukraine.
He accompanied Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on his recent trip to Ukraine, and said the Kaddish prayer at Babyn Yar (Babi Yar), where some 33,771 Jews were murdered on September 29-30, 1941.
During a visit to Israel prior to Cohen’s trip, Rabbi Azman, 56, a member of Chabad and rabbi of the Brotzky Synagogue in Kyiv, met with members of the new government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing the hope that there would be more support for his work and the larger Ukrainian war effort.
An outspoken opponent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and leader in humanitarian aid efforts in Ukraine, Azman has spent the past year raising awareness about the crisis in Ukraine, as well as strengthening Israel-Ukraine relations.
He spoke with The Jerusalem Report about his work to save Ukrainian Jewry during the year since the Russian invasion. He argued that it is in Israel’s best interest to help Ukraine in its war against Russia and Iran.
“Russia and Iran are together, and Russia is using Iranian drones. This can be some sort of preparation to use against Israel one day. So it is a danger to Israel and the rest of the free world.”Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman
“Russia and Iran are together, and Russia is using Iranian drones,” he said. “This can be some sort of preparation to use against Israel one day. So it is a danger to Israel and the rest of the free world.”
The life and work of Ukraine's chief rabbi
Born in then-Leningrad in the Soviet Union, Azman spent the first 20 years of his life living and learning behind the Iron Curtain. He learned Torah, studying in underground yeshivot under rabbis who had sat in Stalin’s prison cells. As the USSR crumbled and the Jews were eager to leave, he was able to make aliyah in 1987 as a refusenik.
In Israel, he continued his studies until he was called to action in 1995 to save the Brodsky Synagogue, one of the largest synagogues in Kyiv and a previously central point of Jewish life in the country. The synagogue had been closed in 1926 by the Soviets and subsequently became a popular theatre. Rabbi Azman arrived to restore it to its past glory as a place for Kyiv’s Jews to congregate.
The synagogue was reopened in 2000, and a year later Azman was appointed chief rabbi of Kyiv. Five years later, he was appointed chief rabbi of Ukraine.
It was in Kyiv where Azman found himself on the eve of the war. As Russia was sending troops and bombarding Ukrainian cities, Azman was staying put, refusing to leave the country and abandon his congregants.
In particular, he was in stationed in Anatevka, a small village on the outskirts of Kyiv. A primarily Jewish city, it was there that the base for his humanitarian efforts came to be. Azman said, “There were bombardments every night – rockets and helicopters all morning and evening…We couldn’t leave – all the highways and roads were attacked.”
The main focus at the onset of the war was to evacuate every Jew that wanted to leave the country. It is in this work that Azman was able to relocate over 40,000 Jews, likely saving many of their lives.
However, there was trouble with this, as Ukraine enacted a law forbidding men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country so they could join the fight. Also, many senior citizens did not want to leave, as they were comfortable in their ways and not wanting to be refugees. This led to many families being ripped apart, as some left and some remained.
The work had its difficulties, particularly in finding transportation to take people out of the country. The army had confiscated all the buses at the beginning of the war for their purposes, so Azman had to personally take out loans to begin funding his operations. All of this has been paid back.
He lamented that “The international aid organization did not really help,” but he greatly appreciated the humanitarian work that Israel provided, such as sending 500 paramedic bags. Despite this, success in his mission has been abundant. According to Azman, “Everyone who wanted to go has, for the most part, left.”
As this work concluded, his focus shifted. How could he best support those Jews who chose to remain in Ukraine? This became the second aspect of his endeavor.
Alongside the government, money was set aside to bring equipment such as water systems to Odessa. Azman frequently visited the frontlines and provided humanitarian aid.
Today, food, clothing and medicine are being delivered to elderly Jews in the country. And recently, generators have been added to the mix. Ukraine is notoriously cold in the winter, and with critical infrastructure destroyed, many people have become at risk of freezing to death. Azman is ensuring that does not happen. However, he stressed that help is still needed.
The third part of his work is with hospitals. Azman said that in the summer, temperatures reached 35 degrees Celsius, which was extremely dangerous for those who were wounded. To alleviate that situation, Azman worked to bring air conditioners to 16 hospitals around Ukraine, thereby saving many lives.
His work has extended to Israel. Given that approximately 22,000 refugees have come to the Jewish state, Azman and his team have worked to ensure that their transition into Israeli life is as seamless as possible. This includes guiding them through the process of opening a bank account, engaging with the Interior Ministry and other difficulties involved with navigating Israeli bureaucracy.
Asked why he does all of this, considering that he could just settle back in Israel, Azman responded, “For me, it is a big privilege. It is not a question of why. I know to do it.” He continued, “We are in this work to change it…. We have a mitzvah that if you see someone in danger, you have to save them. You have to try. And I try to do more every day.”
Azman’s message to the Jewish people is that this conflict is one that we cannot ignore, saying that, “We were in the Holocaust. We see now that people come to kill entire nations. And I know the tragedy firsthand, not just from the news.”
He spoke of a 92-year-old women refugee he assisted. She was first a refugee in 1941, having just escaped death at the hands of the Nazis at Babi Yar. Now she had to run away for the second time in her life, this time from the Russians. She ended up in Germany, where she died a few weeks later. Despite this, Azman can see the impact he is having on people’s lives, and the tragedy occurring in Europe today.
“In Megillat Esther, when Mordechai sent Esther, she did not know the purpose. She came to be a queen because God wanted it. God gave me an opportunity to be in a special place at a special time, to save thousands of people. Being a rabbi is one thing, but saving these lives is something else.”Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman
Azman concluded with the following: “In Megillat Esther, when Mordechai sent Esther, she did not know the purpose. She came to be a queen because God wanted it. God gave me an opportunity to be in a special place at a special time, to save thousands of people. Being a rabbi is one thing, but saving these lives is something else.”
The work Rabbi Azman and those alongside him are doing is making an immense impact on the lives of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. And until the war ends, they have no intention of giving up. ■