KYIV, Ukraine — Just past a dark and unobtrusive arch leading off of Nyzhnii Val, a tree-lined street in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, stands a modest three-story red and white synagogue building whose very existence has been described as a miracle by its congregants, many of whom were convinced only a few years ago that their community was on the verge of being erased from the face of the earth.
Known as the Kedem Synagogue, the rented building serves as the new home of the displaced Jewish community of Donetsk, a war-torn city in eastern Ukraine at the center of a pro-Russian insurgency that has killed more than 13,000 people in this post-Soviet republic since it began in 2014.
Inside, a group of men stood around an electric kettle, making cups of instant coffee and chatting after the end of morning services. Grinning as one of their number cracked a joke, they appeared no different from their counterparts in synagogues around the world. But looks can be deceiving, and their smiles belied the horrors that each had experienced.
One member of the group is Yaakov Virin, known to his friends as Yasha, a middle-aged man with a beard edging into gray who had resettled in Kyiv after an extended hegira that found him moving from city to city across the country.
In July 2014, Virin fled Donetsk, joining a flood of people desperately trying to decamp from the rebel capital. Only months earlier, the city had been considered a post-Communist success story, with a vibrant Jewish community that had rebuilt itself following decades of religious oppression. Locals estimated that between 10,000 and 11,000 Jews had lived in the city before the war, and although most had not been actively involved in the synagogue, Jewish life was flourishing.
However, after the ouster of the country’s pro-Kremlin president following mass protests in Kyiv earlier that year, Russian forces invaded and annexed
Ukrainian Crimea and instigated a brutal anti-government revolt in the regions along their common border, with Virin’s city declaring itself the capital of an independent Donetsk People’s Republic.
Within a short period, half of Donetsk’s approximately one million residents had fled, becoming either internally displaced persons or refugees, making their way to Russia, Poland, Germany and other countries. According to Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, more than 30,000 people made aliyah from Ukraine between 2014 and October 2018.
The editor of Donetsk’s Jewish newspaper, Virin was a pillar of the community, part of a core of dedicated Chabad Hasidim that formed around Pinchas Vishedski, an Israeli rabbi who had arrived to rebuild Jewish life the city following the end of the Cold War.
Shortly before his own escape, Virin’s wife Rachel left with their 13-year-old daughter. For nearly two weeks, Virin lived a solitary life, drifting off to sleep every evening to the whine and boom of incoming fire. When the violence became too much for him, he decided to evacuate as well, making his way out of the city as shells rained down around it.
Sitting down to speak with The Times of Israel at a table in the back of the synagogue, Virin said that his wartime experiences taught him “that a person shouldn’t make plans and calculations.”
“I just live,” he said. “I moved here with my family and it goes the way it goes.”
After leaving Donetsk, Virin migrated across the country, first moving along with many other refugees to Dnipropetrovsk — an eastern city that was controlled at the time by Ihor Kolomoisky, a Jewish oligarch whose privately funded militias helped push back the Russian advance — where he reunited with his wife and daughter, and then setting off to join his rabbi in Kyiv.
As the Jews of Donetsk and nearby Luhansk (another center of the insurgency) streamed out of the war zone, Jewish charitable organizations and communities across the country engaged in frantic efforts to house the displaced, and Virin and his family found themselves living off of charity.
Now, in Kyiv, both Virin and his wife work for local community organizations and are managing to support themselves, although things are still difficult, he said, citing the high cost of living in the Ukrainian capital.
“When you live in a rented apartment and you need to pay each month and go from one place to another and each year the price is rising, you feel like you are in a temporary place,” he explained. “Generally it’s okay. I’ve come back to the community and the rabbi and, thank God, a job. It’s not the same but things have returned to normal.
“On the one hand, I’m happy that there is a community that I can call my community, but on the other hand I would substitute all of the life that I have here for my life in Donetsk before the war,” Virin said.
Just like Virin, the community’s synagogue has had to make its way in Kyiv, starting off in a small house in the capital’s Podil neighborhood and moving twice, eventually to Nyzhnii Val.
“I’m grateful that I’m here,” said Zushi Plietnov, a 30-year old refugee from Luhansk who translated for Virin. “This is the best community ever. Vishedski really made a place for everyone here.”
Asked if he was still suffering the effects of fleeing his home, Plietnov recalled living through the “bullets and shots” during the initial takeover of his city but insisted that despite what he had gone through he is “not struggling at all.”
“Sometimes you need to force yourself tell yourself a new story about your life and what happened,” he said. “I don’t feel sorrow or bad. I feel like we moved on and we never discuss what there was or how we used to live.”
For others who might not be doing as well, the community maintains a WhatsApp chat group and “if someone needs help they get so much support from the community,” he said.
“I think people are getting along normally [but] some people still need help,” Grisha Sagirov, an administrator in Vishedski’s UkrKosher kosher certification business, said as he showed this reporter around the new community building, which features a synagogue, classrooms, an event hall and a large playroom for congregants’ children.
“All of the people rent apartments, which is very expensive in Kyiv and if they want to be in Podil and keep Shabbat they need to stay near the synagogue,” he said. “Kyiv is a very expensive city and most of your salary goes to pay for an apartment. The rabbi is still helping some people.”
Noting that on an average Shabbat the synagogue prepares meals for around 100 people, he said that people from all over the city come to pray there, not only former members of the Donetsk Jewish community, and that the name was recently changed to Kedem (Hebrew for “forward”) to reflect the fact that the community had a “new soul” and identity.
A hand from above
“It wasn’t easy; it was very difficult,” community administrator Nadiya Goncharuk recalled with a wry smile.
Sitting behind a desk in the synagogue office, she described the first hectic days of the exodus from the east when she and the rabbi struggled to coordinate the distribution of aid from a makeshift office in a high-rise office building in downtown Kyiv.
“We came to Kyiv with our luggage in our hands and all the time the community [in exile] grew bigger and bigger and bigger. Our halls didn’t have enough room for the whole community” but “God helped us and gave us his hand.”
“It’s a great miracle,” declared Vishedski, the rabbi. “We found ourselves in a situation where we couldn’t plan our lives and we set a goal to help people and we succeeded in helping people to find work, to arrange their livelihood and not to be dependent on charity.”
However, even with all of the progress that has been made, Vishedski said that while many in the community no longer need help to pay their rent, some 30 percent are still dependent on aid, most of which comes from the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
“It didn’t happen in a day,” Vishedski said, adding that for the first ten or so months of the war people still held out hope of returning to Donetsk and that most of his efforts during that period focused on providing immediate aid to his coreligionists rather than developing a new community.
But “people loved each other and wanted to be together” and as the situation stabilized, he said that he found himself presiding over a new and growing community with a membership drawn from both displaced Jews and those already living in the capital.
A fresh start
But not everybody has been as successful is recreating their communities. In Kyiv’s Obolonskyi District, Rabbi Shalom Gopin of Luhansk has also established a synagogue but only one or two Jews from his old city attend services.
Luhansk always had a much smaller community than Donetsk and when the war broke out Gopin traveled with many of his congregants to a makeshift refugee camp set up in the city of Zhytomyr, some 140 kilometers (87 miles) west of Kyiv. Many of them, including the rabbi (who is a native Israeli), ended up moving to Israel and it was only in late 2016 that Gopin returned to Kyiv, determined to begin anew.
“Almost all of the observant Jews in our [former] community are either in Germany or Israel,” he said. “Some came to Kyiv and I wasn’t here so they joined the Donetsk Jewish community.”
While Gopin works to send money to the several hundred elderly Jews he estimates are still living in the east, he said that he sees his return to Ukraine as an opportunity to build a completely new community, stating that there are more Jews living in his current neighborhood than the entire pre-war population of Luhansk.
While many younger members of Vishedski’s and Gopin’s communities have been able to restart their lives, many of the elderly displaced by the war would be unable to support themselves without continuing charitable assistance, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a New York-based charity that runs a network of social services centers known as Heseds in the former Soviet Union.
According to JDC spokesman Michael Geller, the organization has helped 5,200 internally displaced people since the crisis started in 2014 and 724 over the course of 2019. Out of that number, 185 have been in Kyiv, Raisa Gritsenko, the city’s Hesed head, told The Times of Israel.
While the total number of those requiring aid has decreased significantly, those who are still on the Hesed’s rolls need more than ever, Gritsenko said, citing a rising cost of living and “all of the stress” placed on her elderly clients over the past six years. “Integrating into life in Kyiv is rather difficult” for older IDPs, who must face both the challenge of changing their lifestyle so late in life and deal with the fact that “prices are increasing more quickly than [their] pensions.”
Due to how funding to the JDC is earmarked by its largest donors, Holocaust survivors receive more money than their non-survivor counterparts, which means that funding for Internally Displaced Persons, also known as IDPs, is not always at the levels that Gritsenko would like.
“The problem now is budgetary. There is not always money for this,” she explained, saying that currently the Hesed is covering about 30% of what she would ideally like to provide.
One IDP who will likely never become financially independent is Tatiana, a 72-year-old retired English teacher who fled Donetsk with her husband, Valerii, in 2014. She said that she had been able to reconnect with some of her friends from Donetsk through the Hesed but that they have been unable to connect with any of the local synagogues because of her husband’s difficulty walking.
Breaking down in tears, she said that living in Kyiv was difficult because she does not have enough money to pay for treatments when Valerii, who is in ill health, needs to go to the hospital.
Olga Prokofieva, a 60-year old Hesed client originally from Luhansk, said that she is living in Kyiv with her 85-year-old mother and that while she makes her living working as the editor of a Jewish magazine in Zaporizhzhya, the salary is low and she would have been unable to make ends meet without outside help.
“I’m trying to do my best,” she said. “It would be very difficult to live without Hesed assistance because there is a definite age limit when you cannot find any job anymore and the rent of the apartment is really very high.”
A house visit
One Hesed client is Galina Yablokova, an 86-year-old retired gynecologist from Horlivka, one of the cities hardest hit by the current conflict.
A Holocaust survivor originally from Minsk, she lives in a dingy one-bedroom walkup in a crumbling Soviet-era apartment bloc provided by the JDC. Suffering from hypertension, heart disease and complications from a stroke, she is barely mobile, getting around with the help of a cane and surviving on food packages brought by a JDC social worker who checks in on her and her husband, Yevgeniy, a former mining engineer.
She recalled her life in the Soviet Union as a much happier one than in 21st-century Ukraine and described how her husband had been hospitalized with internal bleeding in the early days of the war. Due to the shelling, there was no glass in the hospital windows and the elderly couple were forced to put a mattress in a corridor so they wouldn’t be in danger of being hit by flying shrapnel. Due to the fighting, the hospital was unable to properly treat Yevgeniy, who only underwent surgery after the couple fled from Donetsk to Kyiv.
Asked what it was like to be a refugee for the second time in her life, Yablokova replied that the first time around she was only a child but now she is an adult and “feels it differently.”
“The only thing we thought about was to stay alive and we had no thoughts other than this,” she said. “We wanted to be alive. It was really very scary because we had everything and suddenly we had nothing.”
In the shtetl
While the overwhelming majority of the displaced have been resettled in urban environments, some have chosen to put down roots in Anatevka, a gated compound set up outside the capital as a modern day shtetl by Moshe Azman, the leader of Kyiv’s Brodsky synagogue and one of several self-declared Ukrainian “chief rabbis.”
Azman has publicly claimed that Anatevka, which is named after the fictional village fictional hometown of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” is home to some 150 people, but not many were in evidence when The Times of Israel visited the site last week.
While it is indisputable that Anatevka houses at least some refugees, the actual number is a matter of dispute. According to a recent Bloomberg exposé, “residents who asked not to be named for fear of retribution” have said that the compound only houses around 20 IDPs and that only around 65 people in total actually live there, most of them from the nearby capital.
Members of the Donetsk Jewish community in Kyiv said that they did not know of any members of their community living in Anatevka, while Rabbi Gopin of Luhansk said that there were “maybe 15-20” people from his city there and that the rest came from Azman’s community.
Regardless of the number of Jews living in Anatevka, however, what is clear is that while there are still those who are suffering as a result of the war, many of the displaced have managed to move on with their lives, creating new communities and working to put the horrors of the past behind them.
In 2020, Vishedski said, most of the aid money distributed by his community goes to feed those who remained on the separatist side of the line, where around 100 people still queue up daily for meals at Donetsk’s Bet Menachem Mendel Synagogue.
Simona Weinglass and JTA contributed to this report.