The Jewish festival of lights offered a much-needed respite to a weary Kharkiv, as Ukraine’s second-largest city continues to be pummeled by Russian rockets.
For the past ten months, Kharkiv has entered a preternatural gloom when the sun sets, with street lights kept off as part of a strict blackout and hotels operating by flashlight and candle.
During Hanukkah this year, the city, which is only 19 miles (30 kilometers) from the Russian border, reached its darkest point since Russian forces began their advance toward Kharkiv in February. The sun disappeared behind its grand neo-classical buildings and imposing Soviet-era edifices at 3:30 p.m. as the city ground to an early halt.
Compounding matters, Russian forces — frustrated by the steady progress of a Ukranian counteroffensive in the east — have been targeting the country’s energy infrastructure, forcing millions to endure sub-zero temperatures without heating or running water. Ten rockets struck Kharkiv two days before Hanukkah, which began this year on the evening of December 18, knocking out electricity and leaving Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz and his wife Miriam unsure whether they would be able to stage public holiday celebrations.
In normal times, Kharkiv’s Jewish community comes together to celebrate in the city’s massive Freedom Square. With no major outdoor celebrations allowed amid the war, the Moskowitzes decided to erect a menorah in the city’s main subway station instead. But without power, that plan was also thrown in doubt.
In what some see as a miracle reminiscent of the Hanukkah story, electrical workers managed to get the lights back on within 24 hours of the strike, allowing the planned festivities at the subway station to go ahead.
Commuters were especially touched to hear music and celebrations in the same station that has served as a crowded bomb shelter for months of war, Miriam Moskowitz reflected.
Along with the candle-lighting and Klezmer music, the rabbi’s family and other Chabad men passed out traditional donuts and loaves of bread to passersby.
“We actually gave it out from our menorah location, so that way people would see us,” Moskowitz explained. “People who would see the menorah would come over and they would also get bread. We work very hard to make sure that we are not only helping the Jewish community, but also the wider community and people in front of us who need help.”
Non-Jewish Kharkivites walking through the subway station seemed touched by the unusual sight. An elderly woman in a lavender stocking cap kissed one of the rabbi’s daughters on the cheek after receiving two loaves of bread.
“Like a big family, you know,” Kharkiv resident Marina told Chinese CGTN news from the underground station after seeing the menorah. “Very good people.”
One man approached the menorah in tears. He told the volunteers that he is not Jewish, but that at the beginning of the war he was searching desperately for medicine to treat his chronic illness. The man was only able to find the drug at Moskowitz’s Kharkiv Choral Synagogue.
“I have people who came over and just said, we are so happy that you’re able to be celebrating,” Miriam Moskowitz recounted.
“They’re just so thirsty for some kind of way to celebrate, some way to get back to normality even in these times that are not very normal,” she continued.
The Jewish community placed eight large menorahs around the city, including in shopping malls that have been badly damaged by Russian missiles, and in front of the regional administration building that was hit struck in the war’s first week and remains a burnt-out shell.
Speaking from Kyiv, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk, said that the public Hanukkah celebrations “united us.”
“It allowed people to pray together, and we are proud of that,” he told The Times of Israel, noting he attended a lighting in Kyiv of the tallest menorah in Europe.
At the outset of the war, Moscow saw Kharkiv as an enticing target, believing that its mostly Russian-speaking population would welcome its troops as liberators from nationalist Ukrainians. Though Russian forces briefly reached the city’s center, by mid-May they had been driven back toward the border.
Still, Kharkiv continues to suffer from shelling and destruction is widespread in civilian areas.
Over 500 Jewish residents came to Kharkiv’s Choral Synagogue — the largest Jewish house of worship in the country – on the first night of Hanukkah for a program that included Jewish music, games of dreidel, and donuts.
The children, who have returned to studying online for the past year after doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic, were especially excited about the opportunity to see friends, said Miriam Moskowitz.
“There happened to be a little boy and a girl, Jewish kids who brought along an accordion and a violin,” she said. “And their mother came over and said, ‘Would you mind? My son and daughter haven’t been able to perform for the last ten months.'” The children were brought up onstage to play alongside the paid performers.
The next day, the community held a small parade, as cars mounted with menorahs drove by bombed out structures in the city center. Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov, who was stuck in Kyiv on the first night of Hanukkah due to train malfunctions, attended the candle-lighting at the synagogue on the third night.
During the day, Rabbi Moskowitz visited military hospitals, handing out food to injured soldiers and thanking them for their sacrifice.
He was also on the lookout for wounded Jewish servicemen.
“We bring bread to every soldier before we even ask about Judaism,” he explained. “We give help and then we ask nicely, where are you from, and who is Jewish in your family?”
Moskowitz’s efforts paid off. He met a Ukrainian-Israeli who had been injured around Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk that is currently the scene of the heaviest fighting.
The rabbi also discovered another soldier whose Jewish wife is in Israel and whose daughter is currently serving in the IDF.
During one of Moskowitz’s hospital visits over the eight-day holiday, a Jewish soldier visiting wounded friends introduced himself and was given a menorah to take with him to the front.
“The light, the message of Hanukkah, I think was even more appreciated than usual, because physically the city is so dark, so the menorah in front of the shul was also very noticeable,” said Miriam Moskowitz, using the yiddish term for a synagogue.
“In a certain way, it was much stronger than any other year,” she continued, “because the message and the need of the people here was much greater than ever before.”
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