By Dovid Margolin
It’s Sasha Gordon’s second year celebrating the High Holidays away from his home in Donetsk. He was forced to flee last summer after war broke out between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian government, leaving together with most of Donetsk’s 15,000 Jews. Now jobless and living in a rented apartment in Kiev with his wife and three children, Gordon joined 150 fellow Jewish natives of the city in ushering in the Jewish New Year at a hotel in central Kiev, the new focal point of their transplanted Jewish community.
“We can’t lie to ourselves; there’s no road back to Donetsk,” says Gordon, 40, acknowledging that he no longer considers his circumstances temporary. “We’re in Kiev now. Yes, it’s a different life, but this is what happened.”
As the reality of a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine sets in – and a death toll estimated by the United Nations to be approaching 8,000 people – refugees from the region’s largest city of Donetsk are trying to rebuild their lives elsewhere. In Kiev, Donetsk’s chief rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski and his wife, Dina, have established a Jewish community center servicing internally displaced persons.
“Of course, we have synagogue services, classes and programs,” explains Vishedski, “but this is also the place from which we coordinate material assistance for the hundreds of Jewish community members from Donetsk living in Kiev and spread throughout the country. This is not just another synagogue in Kiev; it’s a center for refugees from eastern Ukraine. Caring for their needs is our responsibility.”
Life for these refugees has not been easy.
Gordon had a good job in Donetsk, but he’s finding it nearly impossible to find one in Kiev. He adds that aside from his home city’s Jewish community, no one would have helped him and his family during their time of need.
“Until recently, we received cards with which we could purchase clothing, as well as help with paying our rent here,” he says. “We’re far from the only ones. We’re going to a wedding this week [that’s] being paid for by the Donetsk Jewish community.”
Much of the help has come from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Although many of Vishedski’s former financial supporters have lost their ability to do so in the current economic crisis, others have stepped forward, including those who sponsored the Rosh Hashanah and upcoming Yom Kippur programs.
Aside from the material help he and other have received, Gordon explains that gathering together makes things easier. “On Shabbat, we can gather, pray, make a ‘l’chaim’ and share what’s going on in our lives. For some, it’s going better; for someone else, it’s worse. But we’re together, like a family.”
While families who have settled in cities with active Jewish communities were encouraged to join local Jewish life there, Vishedski says a special effort was made to reach out to those now living in isolated towns such as Slavyansk and Kramatorsk.
“The Rosh Hashanah prayers that discuss the exile and scattering of the Jewish people have a special meaning for us,” acknowledges the rabbi, who is expecting an even larger crowd on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. “It’s no longer abstract.”
One Soul, Two Bodies
It’s not only Jews who have fled east Ukraine; more than 1,000,000 civilians have been displaced by war, leaving Donetsk a shadow of its former self.
According to the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, which coordinates and distributes financial aid to Jewish communities in Ukraine, there are some 2,000 Jews left in Donetsk, most of them elderly and infirm. And even though most Jews may have bolted the city, Vishedski says those who remained have not been abandoned. In fact the Or Avner Jewish Day School opened its doors in the beginning of September, just as a tentative quiet settled over the city.
“We are one soul in two bodies,” says Vishedski of his separated community.
Yakov Dovid Shamrayevsky was a teacher and rabbi in the once vibrant Donetsk community. After leaving in July of 2014, he waited in Ukraine for four months hoping the war would come to an end. That did not happen, and although he has now settled in Israel with his wife and three children, his connection to Donetsk remains deep. That’s why when Vishedski asked him to travel to the capital city of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic to lead High Holiday services there, he readily agreed.
“It’s my first time back; it’s a different city, nothing is the same,” says Shamrayevsky by phone from Donetsk, where he remains until after Yom Kippur. “It’s quiet now, but I wouldn’t have come here six months ago.”
Shamrayevsky reports that Rosh Hashanah services at the synagogue were full, with nearly 160 people gathering for the high point – the blowing of the shofar. “People told me that walking in, they felt like everything had returned to the way it was before the war,” he says.
Shamrayevsky says he was surprised by how many young Jews he encountered, but added that most of them had confided that they were making plans to leave the city once and for all. Fear and uncertainty remain prevalent in rebel-held eastern territories – circumstances few young or middle-aged individuals can envision living with much longer. It’s mainly the elderly who insist that they will not leave Donetsk.
Vishedski says the tight-knit nature of Donetsk’s Jews means that they will continue caring for each other no matter how future events unfold. He also hopes to arrange a mass Hakhel unity gathering this December in Kiev for Donetsk’s Jews across the country.
Meanwhile, he and his wife continue the work of leading a dispersed Jewish community.
“Crying doesn’t help ever; we need to be optimistic,” contends Sasha Gordon. “Things may have changed, but I still think it will be good.”