‘My City Is Being Shelled’: Chabad Emissary to Lugansk, Ukraine, Relates Her Story

Chana Gopin (standing), with friends at a Chanukah activity in Lugansk.
Chana Gopin (standing), with friends at a Chanukah activity in Lugansk.

By Chana Gopin

“I’ve dreamed a lot of dreams. I’ve dreamed about what I would do with my life, how my family would look, and how I’d develop the community to which I’m a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary. But what’s happening now wasn’t in the dreams.

“My Russian-language magazine, “The World of the Jewish Woman,” is celebrating its 150th edition. I remember the evening, 14 years ago, when I decided that we were going to publish a magazine. It was the dream of a youngster, wild about being a Chabad emissary, looking to spread Judaism in any way possible. We were a little lost at that time. We didn’t know the language, the culture or the people of our city. Now we feel the need to say ‘thank you’ to the Creator for giving us a hand and bringing us along all those years. He introduced me to the right people, who helped me move the project forward. He gave me the understanding and the patience to keep it going and to develop it, without quitting or caving in the face of difficulties, and He surrounded me with a loving family that gives me strength.

“But for the picture to be complete, we need to add one more detail. At this moment, I’m sitting and writing a long column for the 150th time, but it’s the first time I’m writing it to the accompaniment of sirens, gunshots, fighter jets and the smell of death in the air. I never dreamed that Lugansk would one day be in the headlines. I’m used to people asking me to repeat the name of the city two or three times and then sometimes just saying, ‘Ukraine.’ But today? Morning and night, my family and journalists are so worried they phone to ask what’s happening in Lugansk, in Luhansk or in Lukhansk. What is going on? No one knows. Only G-d has the answers. Let’s hope that the next issue will be written in a different atmosphere.”

I wrote these lines three months ago. I hoped then that the situation would change, and I still hope it will …

Something Good Was Happening

This last year in Lugansk has been intense. It started during the 10 Days of Repentance, right after Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrated our son’s bar mitzvah, which everyone said was inspirational. It was important to me for people to understand – what does it mean to become bar mitzvah? And why? And, if possible, to sneak in through the back door some other values, like Jewish education, Jewish family dynamics, love of Torah and love of other Jews. A few days later, I wrote an article in the magazine about the feelings I’d had, and the feelings other Jews in the community had shared with me. It was a good thing that the feelings had been captured in words that I could read and gain strength from because waiting for me around the corner lay a blessed and difficult challenge.

Missile damage has devastated much of Lugansk.
Missile damage has devastated much of Lugansk.

Over the past year we’ve seen a special awakening in the community. More people started coming to the Torah lectures; we’ve started a campaign encouraging the women of the community to celebrate their Hebrew birthdays, which the Lubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – encouraged; and “The Shifra and Pu’ah Fund,” which helps women after birth, expanded operations and, at the same time, gained a wider base of clients. The community has also shown a growing interest in Shabbat; instead of 40 people coming to pray, we now average 80. There was a feeling that something good was happening.

In the middle of the year, a few months after the bar mitzvah, our family celebrated another event – a landmark “round birthday of my husband’s, Rabbi Shalom Gopin, the emissary to Lugansk. We had to decide: Should we make a big deal out of it? Should we invest in it? Or should we just keep moving forward?

The answer came when Marina Peckerman, a member of the community whose family contributes a great deal to the Jewish life of the city, decided to celebrate the occasion by donating a Torah scroll in honor of the rabbi and the whole community. One night, while I was still mulling over ideas for a special evening, I remembered Marina’s father, who had died 10 years earlier in a tragic accident. The anniversary of his death was approaching, on the 20th of Adar II. This seemed like a wonderful, divinely arranged coincidence – like a sign from heaven.

The Jewish community of Lugansk would receive a new Torah scroll – and not one donated by outsiders or an anonymous donor, but by a member of the community, who was involved in our lives, who “read the map” and felt that the time had come to have a new Torah scroll written. The front of the Torah cover reads, “Donated in memory of Valerya, son of Alexander Peckerman.” The back cover reads, “In honor of the city’s rabbi and of the community.”

A New Age, and Sadness, in the City of Lugansk

Life has many ups and down, like the line on the monitor that rises and falls with the baby’s heartbeats. The plan was for the new Torah scroll to be brought to the synagogue on the 11th of Nissan, the Rebbe’s birthday. What could be a more precious present for the Rebbe? And I can’t deny that synchronizing the celebration of the new Torah scroll with the preparations for Passover intensified the spiritual high of each event.

Chabad emissaries in Lugansk Rabbi Shalom and Chana Gopin at their son’s recent bar mitzvah.
Chabad emissaries in Lugansk Rabbi Shalom and Chana Gopin at their son’s recent bar mitzvah.

When your head is full of plans for cleaning and for organizing Passover seders, both private and communal, in addition to your normal workload, it’s a little hard to make room on the hard drive for another event. But when you’re an emissary, your plans have to be to meet other people’s needs, not your own desires. We announced the celebration to welcome the new Torah scroll all over the city, and we drafted other Jewish organizations to help, as well as calling on the police force and the newspapers. However, man makes many plans … and the desire of the separatists may win out. At that time, pro-Russian groups in Lugansk decided to rebel against the new Ukrainian government, and a new era began.

The day before the rebellion, the separatists put roadblocks on all the main roads of city. It wouldn’t have been a problem if not for their strategic location – 100 meters from the synagogue. Why there? Perhaps they knew that there’s a blessing around a synagogue, though more likely because of the police station in the area. This was the turning point; all of the downturns in the situation started then. In one night, they took control of the police station and hunkered down in it with thousands of weapons that they’d captured. In an emergency meeting of the members of the community, the question came up: “Is it right to celebrate the writing of a new Torah scroll at this time?”

On the one hand, the city had become dangerous. There was a growing sense that the Ukrainian army might blow up the police station. This wasn’t the time for celebrations. On the other hand, the celebration held at the completion of the writing of a new Torah scroll can’t just be shelved, while the scroll lies in wait for months for the final letters to be written so that it can be placed into the ark with the other Torah scrolls. Yes and no, and no and yes. The decision was made. The celebration would be held, but it would be scaled down.

To tell you the truth, it was disappointing. It was like letting the air out of a balloon, leaving you with just a limp piece of rubber. But – and here’s the “but”that directed me and continues to direct me through these recent trials – in these difficult times, needs dictate the course we’ll take, the course of our thinking and, if possible, the course of our mental processes. The more we can go with the flow, the easier it will be to keep our heads above water. The less fear, the less pain and the less disappointments. We’re talking about rising to the level of devotion of earlier generations, of the Previous Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory), who was the symbol of pure devotion to Jews behind the Iron Curtain. Can we even begin to compare to them? Are we suffering from hunger? Is anyone chasing us? Thank G-d, we haven’t yet seen any anti-Semitism in the city. So what are we seeing? A need to bend our wills, perhaps to suffer a little discomfort, to sacrifice our personal ambitions, to put ourselves on the sidelines. In our generation of self-promotion and self-realization, this isn’t a simple challenge.

An Attack on the Synagogue

There was a lot of tension on the day of the event. I got to the synagogue to check on how things were coming along and to see what I could do to help. And then it happened. A motley crew of vicious rabble tried to get past the wall surrounding the synagogue. A few years ago, thank G-d, we moved to a new building, which shone like a lighthouse of Judaism in Lugansk. But the building wasn’t finished, and there was only a temporary wall around it. For a few seconds, I stood mesmerized. A situation that had seemed like child’s play had just become dangerous. The building’s supervisor, Isana Razinkova, who is very devoted to the activities of the community, tried to scare away the rabble, but they soon toppled the fence and Isana fell on the ground. We called in our security company for backup, and they managed to scatter the hooligans. How did it end? Isana was lightly wounded; one of the community’s supporters decided that the community needed and deserved more robust security; and another community supporter, who is a contractor, decided that the time had come to build a more permanent wall. And they did.

Presenting gifts to the donors of the Torah scroll.
Presenting gifts to the donors of the Torah scroll.

The event itself was very moving. Some people were too nervous to come, but not those for whom the community had become an inseparable part of their lives. Those people came and participated fully. We believed then and we believe now that the merit of bringing a Torah scroll under such frightening conditions has protected the entire Jewish population of the city.

Circumcision Under Fire

Three months ago, a Jewish baby was born in Lugansk. Nu, so what? To an emissary, every birth is an excuse for a celebration. The Jewish population increases; there’s another potential student for the Jewish kindergarten, maybe even for a Jewish school; and people who like to live in the future even begin speaking about the possibility of there being another Jewish marriage. A birth is a reason to activate the services of the Shifra and Pu’ah Foundation.

Hot kosher meals are provided for the new mother, as is cleaning help; gift packages are presented; and financial assistance is extended. Sarah was the name of the volunteer who brought everyone’s best wishes to the new parents, as well as a gift package, and she sat and tried to get a sense of the new mother’s attitude to having a circumcision performed on her newborn son. It’s not a given that she’ll agree; it’s almost a given that the answer will be no. The family is far from being Torah- and mitzvah-observant, and there are dark clouds over the future of the city. Can you come up with a more surprising suggestion? It was so surprising that Julia didn’t refuse. She consulted with her husband, and they agreed.

Their approval was like a ray of light in those dark days. But then we encountered an unexpected obstacle – there was no one qualified to do a ritual circumcision! It’s ironic that Lugansk, the city nearest to the Donetsk home of Reb Yakov Guysinovitch, the mohel of Ukraine and Moldova, couldn’t find a mohel, but what could we do? All the exits of the city Donetsk were closed. We thought about skipping it. But G-d had different plans. By Divinely ordained chance, my husband had been speaking with Rabbi Mendy Cohen, the emissary to Mariupol (another city in Ukraine), and he mentioned the problem. It turned out that Rabbi Cohen is a professional mohel. Even better, he was willing to travel four hours and to enter a dangerous city to do the circumcision. Until 2 p.m., we didn’t know if the circumcision would take place. Then Rabbi Cohen phoned to say he was on his way. He traveled hundreds of kilometers, passed tens of roadblocks, and was sometimes the only car on the road, but he wasn’t deterred by what was going on and kept driving. I can’t describe how excited the family and the community was when they got together at 6 p.m. for the circumcision ceremony.

Towards the end, Rabbi Cohen announced: “He will be called among Jews by the name David.” Like King David, who was famous for his bravery, little David was already showing his first signs of bravery by undergoing a circumcision under fire. During the circumcision ceremony, I thought about the power of the One who sends emissaries, who is always directing the actions of His emissaries, about the selflessness of the parents of this baby and that of the mohel, thanks to whom an 8-day-old Jewish baby was made a member of the covenant of Abraham, our forefather.

Destruction in the streets of Lugansk.
Destruction in the streets of Lugansk.

Another serious incident occurred on Friday at 2 p.m., a time when the synagogue is quite busy. Suddenly, unexpected guests appeared. Ten armed ruffians broke in and insisted on searching the premises. Why? They’d heard a rumor that the community had received a shipment of humanitarian aid. (That was the only thing they’d heard that was true.) Some thought that the Ukrainian army was passing arms through synagogue. (That part of the rumor wasn’t true, of course.) Explanations did no good. You could have cut the tension with a knife.

They searched the synagogue and disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. But the atmosphere didn’t just go back to what it had been. The Rabbi decided to move the supplies we’d received further from the synagogue, and more than that, to wrap the new Torah scroll and another Torah, and hide them in a safe place. Who knew what else the day would bring, and what other surprises were in store for us? That Shabbat, as we read the weekly portion from our old, small Torah, the atmosphere was bitter. Until that day, synagogues had been neutral territory, disconnected from political conflict. One felt the holiness when entering the synagogue and forgot the strife in the streets. Because of this, even more Jews than usual flocked to the synagogue, as if they were running away from the turmoil outside.

Rabbi Gopin with a child whose mother and grandmother were killed in an explosion in Lugansk.
Rabbi Gopin with a child whose mother and grandmother were killed in an explosion in Lugansk.

Like a Refugee

The city began to shrink. Many residents, Jews among them, began to leave. We tried over and over to hold off the end, but it was like layering bright paint over a gloomy picture. When it seemed likely that heavy artillery was about to enter the city, we consulted with a friend who advised us to remove our older children from the area of danger. The only way out was a 22-hour train ride to Kiev, the capital city, and from there, a flight to Israel. All those hours that they were traveling, we were in suspense. Would they get there safely? I stayed home with just the two little ones and prayed for them.

We’d planned to celebrate Shavuot with the community and then to go to Israel. Much to our distress, because of the situation, for the first time in 14 years, we didn’t organize a summer camp for children, as well as a family camp. I was grateful for every day that we didn’t leave. Leaving wasn’t for me. I’m one of those people who feel “my home is my castle.” I love my home, my city and the constant work. Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it myself and be happy. I was overjoyed to get another week in Lugansk.

I prayed that this week would be the one that changed the situation, so that we wouldn’t have to leave. But the next day, at 2 p.m., there was an enormous explosion downtown, a kilometer from our home. A missile had landed on a government building in the middle of the day, while the sun was shining and children were playing in a nearby park. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But it was still very hard to leave. When my husband consulted with a friend, he was told, “Better to be outside thinking about what’s inside than to be inside thinking about being out.” That seemed right.

I didn’t know what to take and what to leave, or for how long the conflict would last. We left at midnight, a couple with two children. The darkness was thick; the city was a ghost town. We stood at the train station and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. We just hoped the train would come before another siren sounded. We thought about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who we represent in Lugansk.

When the Rebbe said that he’s with his emissaries wherever they’re sent, he must have meant that he’d be with us in the tough moments, too.

We heard the rattle of the train’s wheels, and we got on – me carrying the stroller and my husband carrying the suitcases. My eyes closed immediately. If at any time in the last three months I’d felt like a war refugee, it was then. There were tens of bunk beds in the train’s carriages, occupied by sleeping farmhands and their wives. Finally, I broke down. “What am I doing here? Am I going to have to spend the next 12 hours in such crowded quarters?” But I’m not one for self-pity. I quickly decided that while I may have lost control of some things, I was going to remain in control of how I responded. It’s said that everything starts in the head, and apparently, that’s true.

So what should I do? Our hearts were elsewhere, but our bodies were here. At that time, the 15th of Av, we had been emissaries to Lugansk for 15 years. We’d been attached to the city, and we’d taught our children to be, too. Whenever we went away, for summer or winter vacation, it had been for a short time. This year, for the first time, we were going away for a longer time. It wasn’t easy, I won’t deny it, and I had a lot to think about, but this experience strengthened my faith and trust in the Creator of the world. He’s pulling the strings, and He can see the whole picture. He is certainly doing it for our good.

I’m writing this in Zhytomyr, far from Lugansk. There’s going to be a camp here for 150 Jews from Zhytomyr and the surrounding areas. We hope that they’ll all be able to return to their homes within the week. If not, we’ll have them find someplace to stay. There are tens of Jews in the orphanages who have no place to go, but at least they’ve found a refuge, some place that provides food and clothing and beds. The other Jews in the city have been left without any way of making a living. We can at least provide them with a hot meal every day and some financial assistance.

Sometimes, you have to go down before you can go up. Sometimes, the downturn is part of the uptick. I’m praying that by the time this article is published, all memories of the fear will be behind us, and let us say, Amen!

Chana Gopin is a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Lugansk, Ukraine. She is publisher of a popular Russian-language magazine “The World of the Jewish Woman” and editor of a Russian-language web site for women, Jewishwoman.ru.

courtesy Chabad.org News