Special needs boy who just had spinal surgery among needy

Ukraine rabbi sheltering 35 community members in synagogue basement pleads for help

Yisroel Silberstein of Chernihiv, close to Belarus and Russian borders, says food supplies cannot get through as Jewish homes hit, city bridges bombed or mined

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Members of the Chernigov Jewish community gathered in the basement of the synagogue amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, February 2022 (Courtesy)
Members of the Chernigov Jewish community gathered in the basement of the synagogue amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, February 2022 (Courtesy)

The only rabbi in Chernihiv, a city northeast of Kyiv, close to the border with Belarus and Russia, reached out Sunday to world Jewry to help his community and 16 others in Ukraine to ward off what he described as a developing humanitarian crisis.

Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein, a Chabad rabbi originally from Crown Heights in Brooklyn, told The Times of Israel that members of his community had only limited food left and were short of basic supplies such as sleeping bags.

Some 35 people are sheltering in the synagogue basement, he said.

“We have a mother with a special needs son who had spinal surgery a couple of weeks ago. Now he’s huddling in the basement with everybody else,” he said.

A further 17 people, including his wife and nine of his 10 children, were sheltering in the basement of his home, he added.

With 18- to 60-year-old men called up to fight, most are women and children.

Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein in a 2009 file photo. (Courtesy via JTA)

“During the past few hours, there’s been a direct hit on the home of a community member, who is now homeless. He came to the synagogue to seek shelter,” Silberstein said.

“There are other families whose windows were blown out of their homes or whose houses sustained other damage.

“People are running out of food and supplies. We are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. We ordered food ten days ago that didn’t make it through in time because of the fighting,” he said.

“We need food, sleeping bags, heating. We’ve put together a campaign to help support the communities on the front line.”

Silberstein and rabbis from 16 other communities have set up a website, Jews of Ukraine, to raise funds, he said.

“It’s a grassroots initiative. The communities are spread all over the country, from Mariupol to Lviv,” he said.

The home of a member of the Chernihiv Jewish community damaged in Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022. (Courtesy)

Asked whether the Joint Jewish Distribution Committee’s Hesed network could help, Silberstein said, “Hesed have turned to us. We are the ones managing the humanitarian crisis at this point. We can feed 30 or 50 people for a few days.

“But we don’t have enough blankets, sleeping bags, money to buy food for the long haul. It could be weeks before food is stocked in stores. Supply lines are down,” he said.

“I just spoke with a friend who has a dairy farm outside of the city. He’s wasting seven tons of milk every day because nobody can reach him. He’s begging people to just come with trucks to take the milk.”

Chernihiv, also known as Chernigov, is a city of around 300,000 and also a large region, Silberstein explained, estimating that there are 3,500 Jews.

“Very few Jews we know of have left,” he said. “There was disbelief that something like this would happen. Now you can’t leave. We’re surrounded by Russian forces in the city. The bridges and all the roads in and out of the city are either mined or have been blown up.

“We are asking world Jewry to please step up to the plate.”

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