Hillel Jewish student from Kharkiv killed while ‘defending Ukraine’

Serafim Sabaranskiy decided to pick up arms and defend his city; ‘He died a hero,’ Hillel says; Chabad center destroyed by Russian shelling as city remains united in its resistance

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Firefighters extinguish an apartment house after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Ukraine, March 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy)
Firefighters extinguish an apartment house after a Russian rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, Ukraine, March 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy)

A Jewish college student died on Monday in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, while “defending Ukraine,” Hillel International said in a statement, as Russian forces continue to bombard the besieged city.

The student, identified by the Hillel chapter in Kharkiv as Serafim Sabaranskiy, “died a hero,” Hillel said.

“We are heartbroken and devastated to share that Serafim, a student at Hillel Kharkiv, has been killed defending Ukraine. We are sharing our love and our prayers with Sefarim’s family and friends. He died a hero. May his memory always be a blessing and a comfort,” the full statement read.

The organization, which serves Jewish college students, did not elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Sabaranskiy’s death.

Earlier this month, Yulia Pototskaya, director of the Hillel chapter in Kharkiv, told JTA that some of Kharkiv’s Hillel students had decided to stay in the city despite the increasingly intensifying Russian assault and would take up arms to defend their home.

“We have volunteers from Hillel, students who went to the army, and we hope that Ukraine will be saved because Ukraine is a very wonderful place,” she said at the time.

Shortly before the announcement of Sabaranskiy’s death, reports indicated that Kharkiv’s Chabad center was hit by Russian shelling, causing damage to the facility. No injuries were reported.

The building had been used as a small yeshiva for religious studies and as a synagogue. Once the city became an active warzone, it was repurposed as a shelter and a logistic center for providing emergency relief services.

“We continue our activity to evacuate the city’s Jewish community and at the same time provide shelter, food and medications to those who’ve remained,” said Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, Kharkiv’s chief rabbi, who has led the city’s Jewish community since 1990.

“Despite the shelling of our institutions… we will rebuild, renovate and reinforce all of our institutions and expand our activity with full force,” he added.

Before the war, Kharkiv was home to a relatively large Jewish community of approximately 45,000.

Overnight Monday, Russian forces launched more than 60 strikes on Kharkiv, according to regional administration chief Oleh Sinehubov. The strikes hit the city’s historical center, including the main marketplace.

But despite the relentless Russian offensive, the city has remained united in its resistance, with the city’s civilian population showing “unprecedented heroism and self-sacrifice,” according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting not-for-profit organization.

Before Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, the lively Hillel chapter in Kharkiv, where Sabaranskiy studied, was preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary, according to JTA.

But the tense fighting and continued Russian bombardments have left a once major center of Ukrainian industry, trade and culture in ruins — and the historic building where the Hillel chapter was headquartered completely destroyed.

Hillel International is a Jewish organization that aims to engage with Jewish students on campuses across the globe and to encourage them “to celebrate Jewish learning and living, pursue social justice and connect to their peers and the global Jewish people,” according to the organization’s website.

Despite the recent tragedies that have struck the organization, Hillel continues to be a leading voice among Jewish organizations expressing solidarity with Ukraine and calling for a more assertive Jewish response to the ongoing conflict.

In the latest initiative, currently spearheaded by Hillel, Jewish groups are calling for a fast day to be held on Wednesday, a day before the Jewish holiday of Purim, as an expression of solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

AP contributed to this report. 

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