After two years and two wars, we still choose life

In Short

I look forward to a future when war will not be at the forefront of our thoughts and dreams, when we will be able to imagine a peaceful future for our children.

Every Shabbat, Masorti communities in Ukraine start their prayers with the prayer for Israel and end with the prayer for Ukraine. This is symbolic of how Jews in Ukraine view their predicament: They find themselves in the midst of two wars, each of which deeply and personally touches their own existence.

This Shabbat, two years will have passed since Feb. 24, 2022, the day the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine started. It is a day I will never forget. This day changed the lives of all the Jews in Ukraine. So many of their dreams and life plans collapsed as many of them became displaced persons in search of new communities. 

Unfortunately, destruction, fear, loss and uncertainty about what their future holds remains the reality two years later. The war remains a constant in the lives of our Jewish communities, ongoing and destructive as ever. As a regular visitor to the country, I used to ask people about their plans for the future. At this point, most will not even consider this a proper question because even the events of the coming night and day are uncertain. 

The murder of Alexei Navalny and the fall of Avdiivka are driving a stake of darkness closer to the heart of Ukraine, making people question how can they or the country resist such an evil.

Still, the Jewish communities in Ukraine have served and continue to serve as man-made bubbles of stability and support against the storm. 

I remember celebrating the first Purim of the war in Chernowitz (now known in Ukraine as Chernivtsi). At that time, March 2022, the shul could not begin to contain all the refugees who arrived in the city from all over Ukraine. We found literally thousands on their way from regions that had fallen into Russian control or remained under fire.

We read Megilat Esther, drank and made fools of ourselves. It was one the happiest celebrations I have experienced in my life. During the festivities, I kept asking myself: How is this possible? I could see all of the pain in the eyes of people who didn’t know where they would spend the following night. 

Later that year, when I led High Holiday prayers in Chernivtsi, the haunting words of the U’Netana Tokef prayer — “who will live and who will die” — were hard to pronounce without all of us in the community bursting out in tears. 

In regular times, we Jews train ourselves to observe Jewish rituals that help balance and control our emotions. On Sukkot, to be happy even if we are sad. On Yom Kippur, to feel awe and the presence of God even if we are depressed and fighting inner darkness. 

And on Shabbat, we force ourselves to be part of the community, even when the pain practically paralyzes us from leaving the house. 

In times of crisis, all of these Jewish “skills,” these long-trained mental/muscle memories that can so easily be questioned in everyday so-called normal life, come to our rescue in unconscious ways, even when our conscious self falters and fails. 

I will spend this Shabbat, the second anniversary of the invasion, here in Tel Aviv with a group of teenagers who were sent to Israel in April 2022, alone, without their families. I will welcome them into my home for Shabbat because I believe that none of them should spend this day — this day that totally upended their lives — alone. 

Together we will light the eternal light mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, to help us remember the solidarity and support of the people in Ukraine’s communities that helped these kids escape. But they escaped one war only to find themselves experiencing the second one of their short lives since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel on Simchat Torah. 

As a Jew, I look forward to a future when war will not be at the forefront of our thoughts and dreams, when we will be able to imagine a peaceful future for our children. As a rabbi, I ask God to give us the strength and wisdom to go through all the challenges we are going through and still choose life.

Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya is executive director of Midreshet Schechter Ukraine and Midreshot Schechter in Israel.