Dispatch from Ukraine
No one teaches you what to do in a war. Rebbetzin Miriam Moskovitz shares what it’s like in Ukraine right now.
“They started bombing at 5 am,” Miriam Moskovitz explained over a crackling line from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, on Thursday, February 24, the day Russian troops entered Ukraine.
“We can’t go anywhere at the moment. On the highway to Kharkiv there is fighting going on. The border with Russia is only a 40-minute drive away; the other border (with Poland, to the west of Ukraine) is a good 15 or 16 hour drive.”
Building a Community in Ukraine
Miriam and her husband Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz have called Kharkiv home for over 30 years. Moshe is originally from Caracas, Venezuela, and Miriam is from Sydney, Australia. They were sent to Ukraine by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, in 1990 to help rebuild Jewish life in the area. At the time, approximately half a million Jews lived in Ukraine. After long decades of Communist rule, when Jewish life was brutally repressed, Jews were eager to begin practicing their religion again and were eager to learn more.
As Russia amassed troops at Ukraine’s borders, few people believed that Russia would actually invade.
The Moskovitzes were among the very first Chabad-Lubavitch families to move to the former Soviet Union after its dissolution. They arrived with their eight-month-old son and found a warm and welcoming community of Jews. “When I came here that first Rosh Hashana with a shofar, people had never seen one before,” Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz explained to Aish.com while fighting raged outside his home. The Ukrainian Jews he and Miriam encountered had long risked their lives and livelihoods to celebrate Passover, but other Jewish holidays and customs were often more difficult to observe.
Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moskovitz
That began to change when the Moskovitzes set up a shul (synagogue) in Kharkiv. Jews began attending on Shabbat at first. “Little by little they came, and things started to get bigger,” Rabbi Moskovitz recalls.
In 1992, they opened the Ohr Avner Jewish Day School, which today educates over 400 students. The Moskovitz’s family grew along with the Jewish community institutions they were building in Kharkiv. They had eleven more children there, and oldest son is now married with four children and serves as a rabbi in Kharkiv as well.
A Tense Situation
For the past few weeks, as Russia amassed troops at Ukraine’s borders, few people believed that Russia would actually invade. “Nobody believed it was really going to start a war,” explains Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz; “people continued their lives as usual.” Many Ukrainian Jews have moved to Israel over the years. “Israel is in the back of the mind of every person,” Rabbi Moskovitz notes; “they know they can go there if the political situation deteriorates.” But few Jews left in recent weeks: “They thought that Russia would not attack.”
A dance at the wedding of their children last month in Kharkiv.
In fact, while Russian troops amassed, the Moskovitzes were consumed with thoughts of their daughter Bracha’s wedding, which took place in Kharkiv’s Choral Synagogue on January 26, 2022. Bracha’s new husband Mendy is Israeli, but Bracha wanted to get married in the city where she was born and grew up. Some guests expressed unease at traveling to Ukraine while Russia was seemingly threatening war – and some of their wedding entertainers nearly canceled – but the wedding took place with 500 guests. The Moskovitzes rented out an indoor soccer stadium for the party. Even Kharkiv’s mayor Igor Terekhov attended the beautiful event.
The mood in Ukraine changed abruptly on Thursday, February 24 when Russian forces attacked Ukraine on numerous fronts. The relentless shelling woke Miriam and her family at 5 AM. Her son picked up his children and rushed to Miriam and Moshe’s house which has a basement. They thought they would be safer there from the shelling. “All day we’ve been in the basement,” Miriam explained as fighting raged outside of Kharkiv.
“Yesterday we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of our school,” Miriam recalled. The very next day, as Russian forces streamed into Ukraine, a message went out that school was canceled. “Yesterday, I was having a party and celebration in school. I would never have dreamed that today we’d be in shelters”
“They are shelling all day long a few kilometers away…. They’re trying to get into Kharkiv. The army is putting up a very strong fight,” Miriam explained over our crackling phone connection from her basement.
Sheltering in the Synagogue
Thursday morning, as shells were exploding just outside of town, Rabbi Moskovitz went to shul, expecting to find it deserted as congregants stayed home sheltering in place. He thought he would pick up his tefillin and say the morning service at home. Instead, he was surprised to see about 30 people in the building, and he stayed to be with his congregants. One older shul member asked Rabbi Moskovitz what he was doing in the shul instead of remaining safely at home. Rabbi Moskovitz replied that he was exactly where he wanted to be at that moment, in his shul, with his congregation.
After morning services some people were fearful of leaving the shul. More Jews came and by evening about 50 Jews were sheltering in Kharkiv’s synagogue. The situation is dire in Kharkiv, Miriam explained. All the streetlights have been switched off. Miriam left her basement to visit the shul and saw a community that was terrified of the ongoing attack.
The shul in Kharkiv
Being with other Jews during the attacks seemed to feel safer for many. “Some people think if there is going to be an evacuation, they won’t be forgotten in shul,” Miriam notes. “We don’t have beds for all the tens of people who are going to be coming there, but we have warmth and light and food at the moment, and that’s what we’re offering everyone who’s over there.”
Many local Jews called the Moskovitzes for help and advice, and Miriam asked her 16-year-old daughter to man the phones, making lists of everyone who’s called who wants to be evacuated.
Before Shabbat, the Moskovitzes and the ten other Chabad rabbis who live in Kharkiv and their families had been planning to distribute hundreds of Shabbat boxes with challah and other necessities to local families.
She and her husband were considering having Shabbat meals in the shul. While shells exploded in the near distance, she was cooking for Shabbat, even though she wasn’t sure it would be possible to have meals together. “This is a very fluid experience. I have absolutely no experience: no one teaches you what to do in a war.”
Miriam usually gives a class Thursday nights, and last Thursday was no exception. “I decided that even though my head wasn’t so focused, let’s keep the class going.” On a typical night, about 30 women attend in person with another 15-20 on Zoom. The night of the invasion, the class took place entirely on Zoom, and attendance was high. Women tuned in not only from Kharkiv but also from elsewhere in Ukraine and even from Israel.
Children play musical instruments during the celebration of Hanukkah at the Kharkiv Choral Synagogue, in Kharkiv.
The women started with reciting Psalms in Hebrew and Russian. Then Miriam spoke about the weekly Torah portion which describes how the entire nation of Israel came together for a common purpose (building the first Tabernacle in the desert). Its theme of Jewish unity had never felt more apt. Miriam spoke about “the importance of uniting together and loving another Jew… I said it’s so amazing that we’re uniting together and all the Jews all over the world are praying for us.”
Just Before Shabbat
I checked in again with Miriam on Friday before Shabbat and the situation was even more tense. “People are calling us the whole time, asking should we leave,” she explained. With the Polish border a 15-hour drive away, she has been suggesting people to stay home and shelter in place.
“We had a quiet night,” on Thursday, but Friday brought a renewal of the fighting. “There were three rockets just now,” she said over the phone. All her grandchildren continued to shelter in Miriam’s basement, and she tried to lighten their spirits. It’s the month of Adar, and Jews are getting ready to celebrate Purim soon. “My grandkids are running around in Purim costumes…We’re trying to keep their spirits up.”
The Kharkiv Choral Synagogue
Rabbi Moskovitz got the shul ready for Shabbat. Fifty people had slept in the building. He made sure that there was Shabbat food in the shul and spent time speaking with people, trying to calm frayed nerves. “We’re hoping for a quiet Shabbos,” Miriam said.
She also had a request for people around the world. “We would appreciate everybody’s prayers. Since all Jews are responsible for one another, anyone who can do an extra good deed, or light Shabbos candles, or for men putting on tefillin – this can help build up our strength.”
When Shabbat was over, I texted Miriam again. It was the middle of the night in Kharkiv and I didn’t expect a reply: I just wanted her to know that I was thinking of her and hoped she was safe. At 4 AM Ukrainian time, Miriam sent me a long text. Here it is. May she and everyone in Ukraine be safe and secure and have peace soon.
It says that you're not supposed to cry on Shabbat, I failed that three times this Shabbat.
The first time, was on Friday night when we managed to get to the synagogue. After the prayers we went downstairs for a Kiddush, filled with people who were brave enough to come, and the many people who have been living in the synagogue since the war started. After Kiddush we started singing "Nyet nyet nikovo", a Russian melody that there is no one that we should fear besides Hashem alone.
The second time, I wasn't able to hold it in, was Shabbat morning, when we blessed the new month of Adar, saying "Mi sheasa nisim l'avoseynu – Who did miracles for our Fathers'', I again felt the tears in my eyes. We also need miracles...
The third time was after the prayers, we have a beautiful tradition in our where the President of our community, Alexander Kaganovsky, gives blessings to people who have birthdays and special events in the community. Today, he asked everyone to be quiet, and said: "Reb Moishe, I want to tell you in the name of everyone in our community, that we want to thank all of you shluchim (emissaries) who have stayed behind to be together with us. We now see that all of what you have been saying all these years that you are one inseparable part of the community is true" He finished, with a beautiful big hug.
Another beautiful thing about Shabbat is we didn't have our phones and weren't able to check the news. We have received hundreds of WhatsApp and emails from people all over the world, who are concerned and praying for us, who want to know how we're doing. Our poor families all over the world, who want to be reassured that we're doing fine. But on Shabbat our phones were put aside as we lit the Shabbat candles, praying hard for peace everywhere.
There are three moments that I'd like to share, that I wasn't able to capture of course:
The first beautiful moment was after the Shabbat meal in our house, with my family and grandchildren here. They all put on Purim costumes and put on a skit and danced. My daughter Malka explained to me after their happy dance that she knows why we are all sleeping downstairs together in the basement which is our shelter "In the times of Purim, Haman said that the Jews were spread all over and not united...so we have to sleep all together to show we are all one"
Another special moment was during the Mussaf prayer. My son, Yossi, was davening (praying). When he started singing "Hu Elokeinu" (He is Our God) there were loud sounds of the bombing that is taking place on the outskirts of Kharkov, as they are trying to enter the city. As he was singing, we heard the booms, the davening was getting louder and louder, so we could drown out the sounds. Definitely an unforgettable prayer.
Then we had an amazing Shabbat meal downstairs together There was no need for words, or to say anything inspiring. All of us together, over 100 people sitting in the basement of the synagogue which we are currently using as a shelter, including the people who have been sleeping in the synagogue for the past couple of days, joined together in song. Hard to choose just one moment from the hours we shared together...the man from Kramatorsk who had fled to Kharkov in 2014,thanking us for staying and with prayers that the community should only continue to be stronger....and everyone hand in hand singing "hinei ma tov" (how good it is when we are together)...and the standing ovation for the cooks who have also moved into the synagogue to be 24/7 available to feed everyone who is coming in...from the refugees from Donetsk with their children to the old man who is scared to be alone on the fifth floor.
Special moments and definitely a Shabbat I won't forget. A Shabbat full of faith, unity and lots of hope for only very good times ahead. Shavua Tov
Charities that support Ukrainian Jews include: