Kyiv rabbi amid Russia tensions: ‘We’re stockpiling food, mattresses in synagogue’
Chabad emissaries in Ukraine say they’ll stay with their communities, ‘like the captain of a ship,’ despite Israel urging all citizens to leave; Uman rabbi tells tourists to go
A leading Kyiv rabbi said Sunday that the local Jewish community was stockpiling basic supplies in its synagogue amid concerns of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine later this week.
But Yonatan Markovitch said that along with other Israeli national Chabad Lubavitch emissaries in the country, he is not planning to head back to Israel, despite a Saturday call by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett for citizens to evacuate.
Markovitch told the Walla news website that over Saturday there was a drop in morale among community members who, though they were not monitoring media reports because they were observing the Shabbat, became aware that the already tense situation was escalating.
“Until Saturday we didn’t really feel pressure but on Shabbat, we suddenly started to feel a different situation and a little pressured,” he said, as members noticed that the advertised dollar exchange rate from street money changers had suddenly shot up, even though there is no currency trading on Saturdays.
Markovitch said that after Shabbat ended at nightfall, they understood the gravity of the situation and began making preparations.
Food and mattresses have been brought to the synagogue, he said.
“We prepared places for Jews and Israelis who want to be together, so if they want to be evacuated and there are rescue flights it will be easier to arrange,” Markovitch said.
He said hundreds of people generally come to services on the day of rest, but this past Shabbat there were fewer. “The Israelis didn’t come to synagogue. That is unusual. On Shabbat, there is usually a very respectable number of Israelis. This morning, no Israelis came,” he said.
Markovitch described receiving phone calls from both Israelis and non-Israeli Jews asking him if they should leave the country. The rabbi said he was in contact with the Jewish Agency, Israel’s official body for relations with Jews living outside of Israel, and noted that whereas Israelis could arrange to be evacuated, “for other Jews it is more complicated.”
He said Israeli teachers at Jewish schools would return to Israel on Monday, and in any case it was not clear if schools across Ukraine would be open this week as usual.
Markovich expressed his concerns of a rise in antisemitism that could be caused by the crisis, noting that “as far as the nationalists are concerned, it is always the Jews who are to blame in the end.”
He said that so far there had not been any unusual antisemitic incidents “but we are very concerned that it could break out in parallel to the situation.”
Markovich, who in 2020 was honored by the Ukrainian parliament for his services to the community, said he was in constant contact with senior intelligence and security officials, police and top officials in the president’s office.
“All of them are trying to maintain restraint, to help, to see how it is possible to cooperate, and to help us against any appearance of antisemitism,” he said.
A religious mission
Markovich, 53, is an Israeli citizen who was born in Ukraine but grew up in Kiryat Gat after his family moved to Israel.
He was sent to Kyiv 21 years ago by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which deploys emissaries all over the world to help bolster Jewish communities and provide Jewish religious services. He is married with seven children and, for the time being, he plans on continuing his mission.
Unlike the majority of Israelis in Ukraine, who work in business or tech, Markovich said that the religious community leaders find it difficult to leave.
“We can’t allow ourselves to do that,” he said. Emissaries feel a duty to fulfill that they were tasked with by the long-time leader of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe send us to be here, to be with all the Jews who are still here, and here we will stay. In many ways, it is like a captain of a ship,” he said.
His determination to stay was matched by that of the chief rabbi of Kherson, Yitzhak Wolfe, another Chabad emissary, who told the Kan public broadcaster that the community has been stockpiling basic foods for a while, in preparation for the worst.
Wolfe estimated that there are over 150 Chabad emissary families in Ukraine.
But Yaakov Jan, the chief rabbi of Uman, an important Jewish pilgrimage site that is home to the grave of the Hasidic rabbi Nachman of Breslov, published a letter Saturday night saying tourists “must certainly leave Ukraine by Wednesday” and those who live in the city should take a vacation “until the anger calms.”
על סף פלישה לאוקראינה | רב העיר אומן קרא לתיירים ישראלים בעיר לשוב לישראל עד יום רביעי. במכתב ששיגר לקהילה קרא הרב יעקב ג'אן ליהודים שמתגוררים באומן, לשקול לצאת לחופשה מאוקראינה עד יעבור זעם. "מי שאינם יכולים לעזוב, ימתינו עד סוף השבוע לראות כיצד יפול דבר"@EranCicurel pic.twitter.com/oeXm1bMd0H
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) February 13, 2022
Warning against both panic and complacency, Jan wrote that his was “not an easy decision.”
Those who are not able to leave should wait until the end of the week and then reassess the situation, Jan advised.
Estimates of Ukraine’s Jewish population range widely from 56,000 to 400,000. According to the World Jewish Congress, citing a 2016 estimate, there are between 56,000 and 140,000 Jews in the country. The UK-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research found there are 200,000 Ukrainian Jews who qualify for Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Right to Return law. The European Jewish Congress puts the number of Jews at 360,000–400,000.
Meanwhile, Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky said Sunday that it was important that Israelis in Ukraine heed the warnings.
“I hope that everyone will listen to our advice and within a very short period of time will arrange to leave the country,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.
Brodsky said all members of Israeli diplomats’ families will return to Israel Sunday morning — around 20 people.
He estimated there are at least 10,000 Israelis in the country, mostly in Kyiv and other cities, including Uman.
Brodsky said that at the beginning of the month as tensions began to rise, the embassy asked all Israelis in the country to check in so that officials would have an idea of who was there. So far, 6,000 have registered, he said.
The Biden administration has warned Israel that Russia could invade Ukraine within days, according to Saturday Hebrew media reports. Russia has massed over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders. US officials said that Russia’s buildup of firepower near Ukraine has reached the point where it could invade on short notice.
Israeli airlines have started to increase flights to Ukraine to aid the evacuation. Israel’s El Al, Israir, and Arkia airlines are offering rescue flights.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Saturday that he has instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the possibility of helping evacuate Israelis from Ukraine.