A top rabbi from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv fled the country on Monday after receiving warnings from local security officials, but said he was still working to help those who could not leave the city.
Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch and his wife Inna initially decided to stay in Kyiv despite the Russian onslaught against the city to help the people who lacked the means or the physical ability to seek refuge elsewhere. They turned their synagogue’s basement into a shelter, stocked with 50 beds and several tons of food, as well as water and fuel. Dozens of people took shelter there amid Russian bombardments of the city.
“The local security officials asked me and helped me to leave. They saw that the situation was very bad, particularly someone with my look. They knew me and told me to leave. They said it was safer for the community, for me and for them,” Markovitch told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. (Markovich has a large beard and wears traditional Hasidic attire.)
It was not immediately clear if the officials were referring to a specific threat against Markovitch or against Jews, or just general instability in the beleaguered city. Israeli officials have raised concerns about a potential rise in antisemitism in Ukraine in light of the chaos following the Russian invasion.
“I want to be cautious. That there is gunfire in the streets and citizens receiving guns raises the insecurity of the [Jewish] community and could be deadly,” Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said in the Knesset on Monday, referring to reports he received from Ukraine.
In light of the security officials’ warning, Markovitch left Kyiv in the predawn hours of Monday morning and traveled “to Europe,” staying near the border with Ukraine. For his own safety, he refrained from specifying where he was staying.
He said that he planned to remain close to the border, from which he would continue overseeing the flow of humanitarian aid to those still stuck in Kyiv, which has been battered by Russian artillery and aircraft in recent days, as well as helping evacuate people who are still in the city and can make it out.
“I need to stay here. I am trying to get humanitarian aid to Kyiv and to help people continue to evacuate,” he said. “We are continuing to get buses from Kyiv to European countries.”
Markovitch said he did not know why some people are only now, six days into the fighting, choosing to leave the city.
“We don’t have a privilege to ask people now, ‘why didn’t you leave earlier?’ If we save one person, we’ve saved a whole world,” he said, citing a line from the Talmud.
Markovitch, who runs the Chabad-affiliated Kyiv Jewish Center, said there were still people staying in the synagogue and others who, largely for medical reasons, have been unable to leave their homes. He said the synagogue has not been damaged in the Russian attacks.
“Many are in the synagogue. There they have food and security and a place to sleep. People who can’t leave their homes, we send food to them,” he said.
Markovitch said most of those who stayed behind are older and only have Ukrainian passports, meaning they cannot easily travel abroad, beyond the growing refugee camps on the Polish, Moldovan, Hungarian, Romanian and Slovakian borders.
He said the humanitarian aid that his synagogue has been able to deliver to people has come from both private donations and from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Though Markovitch said he had heard of donations to Ukraine from the Israeli government and from different Jewish charities, those funds had yet to reach him.