Religious leaders bring ‘message of hope’ to war-torn Ukraine

Israeli rabbi, American Jewish philanthropist, Chabad rabbi put on interfaith event in Chernivtsi with a message from the pope

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Religious leaders from around the world hold a solidarity event in Chernitski, Ukraine, on April 12, 2022. (Elijah Interfaith Institute)
Religious leaders from around the world hold a solidarity event in Chernitski, Ukraine, on April 12, 2022. (Elijah Interfaith Institute)

Leading religious figures from around the world gathered in Ukraine last month on a solidarity mission, meeting refugees and delivering a message of comfort and hope, the Israeli rabbi who organized the trip said.

The trip was a relatively short one, but during it, the delegation — which included 11 spiritual leaders of various denominations — held a large in-person service in the city of Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine, which was also broadcast on Ukrainian television and later shared on YouTube.

The event included the reading of a personal letter from Pope Francis to the people of Ukraine and a video message from Metropolitan Epiphanios, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

“I thought, ‘We should be with people, to give them spiritual messages, to give them support, to give them hope, to give them comfort.’ We’ll do what religious leaders know how to do,” organizer Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein told The Times of Israel last week.

“We’re not politicians, we’re not there to think about troops, we’re not there to negotiate. People tried to refer to us as a peace delegation, I said, ‘No, we’re a solidarity mission,'” he said.

Goshen-Gottstein is the founder of the Elijah Interfaith Institute, an organization that regularly brings together top leaders of world religions for conversations on their faiths and for initiatives like the delegation to Ukraine.

He said the idea for the mission came within the first few weeks of the Russian invasion. He had spoken to the other organizer of the delegation, James Sternlicht, who runs a non-profit organization called Peace Department, about the need to respond somehow to the Russian onslaught.

“James said, ‘Who needs people standing outside? We need to go and be with the people.’ I said, ‘I can go. I have a team, I have access, I know how to do these things,'” Goshen-Gottstein said.

Relatively quickly, they put together a plan and found members of the Elijah Interfaith Institute who were interested in taking part. In addition to Goshen-Gottstein, eight other “core members” of the organization participated in the delegation, compromising two other rabbis, two Hindu swamis, a Muslim grand mufti, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, a Buddhist nun and a Brahma Kumari nun.

Joining them were two relative newcomers: Rowan Willams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, and Massimo Fusarelli, the minister general of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, who represented the Vatican.

Notably missing from the delegation, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Rabbi Berel Lazar, a member of the board of the Elijah Interfaith Institute and a long-time participant in its activities. For over 20 years, Lazar has served as the chief rabbi of Russia and is considered to be extremely close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who launched the vicious invasion of Ukraine.

A resident carries his belongings as he leaves his damaged building following Russian strikes in Kyiv on April 29, 2022, on the 65th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP)

Though Lazar has at least indicated discomfort with the Russian invasion – referring to it at one point as “madness” — concerns over the Russian government’s brutal crackdown on dissent within the country against the war meant that Goshen-Gottstein and the other members of his organization intentionally left Lazar out of its efforts on the Ukrainian front.

“It would have been out of context, inappropriate and potentially damaging for him and the Jewish community to try to engage with him on this,” Goshen-Gottstein said.

The formal mission to Ukraine lasted only one day, primarily due to issues in finding a place for the religious leaders to sleep as all of the hotel rooms in the area of Ukraine had been sold to refugees fleeing the fighting elsewhere in the country.

However, Goshen-Gottstein himself spent nearly a week in Ukraine and in neighboring Romania, including spending Shabbat in Chernivtsi. There he encountered not only locals but also refugees from eastern Ukraine. Most were Jewish, but some had simply sought refuge in the synagogue, he said.

Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein (Alon Goshen-Gottstein Facebook page)

Goshen-Gottstein said many of the refugees he spoke with there said a “silver lining” of the war and their displacement was encountering the concept of Shabbat, of a day of rest.

“They had an experience of Shabbat that was just so transformative,” he said.

The funding for the solidarity mission was provided by Sternlicht, he said.

The highlight of the delegation was the event held at a theater in Chernivtsi on April 12, after the participants had met with a number of Ukrainian refugees.

“I thank you for the initiative of this moment of prayer and fraternity between followers of the different religions, which contributes to strengthening the sense of responsibility of believers before a war that contradicts all those efforts made in past decades to build a world with fewer weapons and greater peace,” Pope Francis wrote in his letter, which was read on stage.

At the event, the delegation members spoke of friendship, peace and compassion, of the values that people around the world cite as important to them — a sort of proof of the fellowship of man.

“We didn’t come to speak politics. We’re not here to make peace. We’re here to be with you. the world has watched Ukraine suffer, the world has watched the pain. We have heard the calls for religious leaders to come, and we felt we come in friendship, in solidarity, to bring a message of comfort and hope. That’s why we are here today,” Goshen-Gottstein said in his remarks.

Religious leaders from around the world hold a solidarity event in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, on April 12, 2022. (Elijah Interfaith Institute)

According to Goshen-Gottstein, the event only came together at the last minute due to the uncertainty and confusion caused by the war and changing security regulations in Ukraine.

“We didn’t know we could use the theater until two days in advance,” he said.

Much of the logistical work in putting together the event came from the Chabad rabbi of Chernivtsi, Rabbi Menachem Glitzenshtein, Goshen-Gottstein said.

“If not for Chabad, this would never have happened,” he said.

With the funding coming from Sternlicht, the logistics by Glitzenshtein, and himself organizing the overall event, Goshen-Gottstein noted: “It was Jews who organized this from start to finish.”

Footage of the event, which was attended by roughly 1,000 people, was broadcast on Ukrainian television later that week, meaning the overall audience was likely in the millions, Goshen-Gottstein said.

“I think we really did something meaningful,” he said.

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