Kyiv’s Jewish community celebrates Rosh Hashanah in shadow of Russian invasion

Candle lighting and prayer times moved up to enable worshipers to celebrate Jewish New Year before mandatory curfew; Ukrainian PM lauds community for contribution to war effort

Kyiv Chief Rabbi Jonathan Markovich, left, hands a Rosh Hashanah package to a member of the local Jewish community. (Courtesy)
Kyiv Chief Rabbi Jonathan Markovich, left, hands a Rosh Hashanah package to a member of the local Jewish community. (Courtesy)

Members of Ukraine’s Jewish community in Kyiv that have remained in the city celebrated Rosh Hashanah this week with a variety of communal and private events, ushering in the Jewish New Year under the ongoing threat of Russian attack.

Candle lighting and evening prayer times were made earlier to enable members of the community to attend services and festive meals while adhering to the capital city’s strict 11 p.m. curfew.

The city’s main celebration of the new year brought together Ukrainian political and military officials, as well as diplomatic representatives from Israel, Austria, the UK and others, for a festive holiday meal on Sunday night, the beginning of the holiday, according to a statement.

In addition, a number of Ukrainian soldiers returned from the front lines to celebrate the holiday in the city.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal wished Kyiv’s chief rabbi, Chabad emissary Jonathan Markovitch, a happy holiday from the UN General Assembly in New York.

He also sent a letter Monday thanking the country’s Jews for their contribution to the war effort, the statement said.

There were also a number of other, smaller communal meals, and packages were sent to the community’s elderly and needy in order to provide them with provisions to celebrate the holiday.

Jewish worshipers in Kyiv mark Rosh Hashanah, September 25, 2022. (Courtesy)

Markovitch said that most Jews who had remained in the city since the beginning of the conflict were elderly and needy.

“This year the prayer of all Jews in Ukraine and outside Ukraine is that the war will end and that peace and quiet will return to Ukraine,” he said at the holiday’s opening event.

“Despite the situation, we were happy to see the many worshipers who did not give up and came to the synagogue,” he added.

Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February and had initially sought to capture Kyiv. While forces retreated from the city’s outskirts in April, the city has nonetheless remained on high alert from Russian aerial attacks.

The Kyiv Jewish community dates back a thousand years, and Jews comprised over a quarter of the city’s population prior to the Holocaust. Since Ukraine’s independence, a significant portion of the city’s Jewish population has emigrated to Israel.

On the eve of Russia’s invasion, there were about 18,000 Jews in Kyiv, or 1% of the city’s population. While hundreds have fled the city, a significant portion have stayed to fight the Russian invaders, encouraged by the country’s Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Jewish immigrants fleeing from war zones in Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office, at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Many have also chosen to emigrate to Israel. As of September 20, 13,000 Ukrainian Jews — along with 24,000 Russian Jews and just over 1,000 Belarusians — had immigrated to Israel since the beginning of 2022 under the Law of Return.

Nearly 38,5000 Ukrainian refugees who do not qualify for Israeli citizenship have also come to Israel.

In Uman, approximately 210 kilometers (130 miles) south of Kyiv, tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims marked the new year near the burial site of the revered Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, despite warnings from the Israeli, Russian, Ukrainian and American governments.

While the Russian government had denied planning to deliberately attack the city in order to harm pilgrims, it also said that it cannot guarantee their safety. The Israeli government similarly cautioned that it would not be able to save its citizens who may be caught in a firefight over the holiday.

Uman is relatively far from the front lines in Ukraine’s east and south, though it is within the range of Russian missiles and has been struck before. The city was badly hit by Russian missiles in the early weeks of the war, and just last month, a civilian was killed by a Russian missile in the district.

AP and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report. 

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