Reporter's notebook: Ukraine rabbi tries to hold a dispersed community together

Those working to aid displaced Jews recount personal exoduses

A CHILD whose family fled from Donetsk (photo credit: NADIYA GONCHARUK)
A CHILD whose family fled from Donetsk
(photo credit: NADIYA GONCHARUK)
KIEV – Walking up to Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue on Monday morning, I ran into Yaakov Virin again. The former editor of Donetsk’s Jewish newspaper, Yaakov is currently an internally displaced person, having made a circuit of Ukraine looking for sanctuary as his city crumbles.
I first met Yaakov at his office in Donetsk’s Jewish community center in April, during the early stages of the pro-Russian insurgency that has decimated the city, sending around half of that city’s residents fleeing for safety.
Yaakov spent time in a Jewish refugee center at a converted summer camp in Zhitomir before joining his wife, Rachel, and 13-year-old daughter, Miriam, in Dnepropetrovsk, where he was taken in by the local community and where we would again meet in September.
His hegira is emblematic of the sojourns of the Jews of Donetsk, Luhansk, and other cities engulfed in the Ukrainian crisis. Catching up with the former newspaperman on Tuesday, he tells me that he is happy to finally make his way to Kiev, where community Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski has set up shop and is attempting to rebuild something approaching a united community out of those who have made their way to the Ukrainian capital.
I have been in touch with Vishedski, a stocky Chabad hassid with a gray-flecked black beard who came to Ukraine from Israel to help rebuild its Jewish community following the fall of the Soviet Union, since first meeting him in his office above Donetsk’s synagogue in April.
He greets me warmly as I meet him in the luxurious lobby of the Gulliver Center, an upscale shopping and office complex a short walk from Kiev’s Maidan Square, the site of the popular uprising that led to the current war, and we take the elevator up to his twelfth floor office.
A large space, with floorto- ceiling windows and a commanding view of the surrounding downtown district, the office was provided him free of charge by a wealthy congregant looking to aid the rebuilding of the community.
Several men and women sit at desks, typing and making phone calls in an effort to feed, house, and support Jews spread across the country.
“I can’t leave, because I have a responsibility to the people who remain here and no matter how hard or dangerous. I remain to discharge my obligation to these people and to heaven,” he told me in July.
Things have since changed.
By the end of August, Vishedski had fled Donetsk, leading some 200 Jews to the port city of Mariupol. At the beginning of the summer, the rabbi sent his children to attend camp in Detroit, where he has a married daughter.
His wife accompanied them.
As the security situation worsened and the city came under increased bombardment, the rabbi decided that he had to leave.
“There were such heavy explosions that I couldn’t take it. You couldn’t think. You’re head was falling off,” he said, recalling an inability to sleep and an increasing number of congregants fleeing the fighting.
“I understood that if I want to remain a normal person… I had no choice but to leave. If I remained there, I wouldn’t be good for the Jews of Donetsk but the opposite.”
Bringing with him some 200 people, Vishedski made his way to the city of Mariupol, only to flee to Kiev in September as the rebels came within shelling distance of the Jews’ new refuge.
Out of a prewar population estimated at between 10,000-11,000 Jews, Vishedski believes as many as 3,000 may remain behind, many of them either elderly or without the wherewithal to leave. His days are now spent caring for both those in Donetsk, sending in regular supplies and arranging the logistics of feeding the scattered members of his community.
Many Jews from Donetsk have no income with which to pay rent or fill their refrigerators, community director Nadiya Goncharuk, who coordinates aid efforts, told me. Just returned from a tour of cities containing Jewish refugees from Donetsk, she said community members are spread over a large geographic area. Smaller cities are cheaper, I am told, but many locals still exploit the refugees. Staying in Mariupol prior to her arrival in Kiev, she had to pay $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a country where the average monthly salary is equivalent to only several hundred Euros.
She recalled one family whose husband had not been paid in months, one in which the children play on top of bags packed for flight at a moment’s notice, and one whose fridge was starkly empty.
“When I see these people, I want to give everything that I have,” she said.
Goncharuk, Vishedski and others in their office work to coordinate monetary aid to the far-flung displaced persons to cover their rent and food bills, while sending twice-weekly shipments of foodstuffs with a hired driver to sustain those left behind in Donetsk.
Around 250 people come daily to the Donetsk synagogue for hot meals and the Jewish community center and schools remain open under Rabbi Aryeh Shvartz, who Vishedsku appointed to maintain the communal infrastructure for those left behind.
Eight children still attend the kindergarten, while an additional 20 go to classes at the Jewish school, Vishedski said, explaining that it is important to “strengthen the community” and provide whatever continuity is possible.
Vishedski put together services to enable his congregants to pray together on the High Holy Days, but they have no synagogue of their own.
There is little time for cultural events given the immense amount of work required just to feed and clothe the refugees, but weekly Torah classes do take place and several communal holiday events are being planned for Hanukka.
According to Vishedski’s cousin, Yehoshua, many people are waiting to return to Donetsk, but they have no idea when that may be.
“We are waiting for a better time,” he said.