ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Profile'I didn’t want to build a European museum synagogue'

Ukrainians love this audacious rabbi for his wartime aid and viral ‘chizuk’ videos

Rabbi Moshe Azman heads Kyiv’s Brodsky Synagogue, knows Volodymyr Zelensky, and is a former IDF chaplain. He’s made his community an aid hub for civilians, government institutions

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Rabbi Moshe Azman in Jerusalem, December 1, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Rabbi Moshe Azman in Jerusalem, December 1, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

KYIV — Some unlikely heroes have rallied Ukrainians during the almost 11 months of Russia’s invasion of their country.

The personal bravery and tenacity of diminutive Jewish comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky — who was by no means universally liked before the brutal war — has turned him into an internationally acclaimed wartime leader who has been mentioned in the same breath as Winston Churchill. A video of Ukrainian funk musician Andriy Khlyvnyuk singing a popular folk song days after enlisting in the Territorial Defense Forces went viral, stiffening the spines of young Ukrainians in the difficult early stage of the war.

Perhaps the most surprising figure to emerge is a 56-year-old rabbi who is now immediately recognizable across the country with his gabardine, black hat, and long salt-and-pepper beard.

Moshe Reuven Azman, leader of the Brodsky Synagogue in central Kyiv and one of the two leading claimants to the title of Ukraine’s chief rabbi, has gained renown in the country through his mostly Ukrainian-language messages of support — or chizuk as he calls them in Hebrew — that are shared on his social media channels.

Azman and the Kyiv community have also become a source of humanitarian aid for Ukrainians and even for governmental institutions, as was evident on his recent trip to the city of Kherson shortly after it was liberated from Russian control on November 11. In the ensuing months, he has regularly flown to nations’ capitals, asking for support for the Ukrainian war effort, including a mid-December trip to London for a Conservative Friends of Israel event where he met with former prime minister Boris Johnson.

Speaking to The Times of Israel from a hotel in Jerusalem last month, Azman recounted his journey into Kherson’s scarred landscape. “I could still see Russian propaganda billboards,” he said. “They didn’t have time to take them down.”

Rabbi Moshe Azman (L) and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky in Jerusalem, January 2020 (Courtesy)

In the first days of the invasion, Azman moved into the consciousness of the general public with a video he posted. Wearing his trademark hat and an open winter jacket, Azman cradled a Torah scroll in his arms as he angrily appealed to Russians to speak out against the war.

“If God forbid, I have to die, then let the curse be on those who are silent and quietly participate in this attack,” he thundered, speaking in Russian in front of the ark in the wooden synagogue in Anatevka, the Fiddler on the Roof-inspired village he founded in 2015 for refugees from the Donbas after unrest began there the previous year.

❗️❗️❗️МОЕ ОБРАЩЕНИЕ КО ВСЕМ ЛЮДЯМ ДОБРОЙ ВОЛИ!!!

Posted by Chief rabbi of Ukraine – Головний Рабин України on Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The March 1 video has garnered over 770,000 views on Facebook alone, and many more on other channels.

His subsequent videos have taken a different tone, mixing Jewish and patriotic themes to offer positive messages to his mostly non-Jewish viewership. Driving through Kyiv in a September 11 clip, Azman starts by expounding on the opening of the week’s Torah portion. “When God is with you in war, you are above your enemy,” he says. “Today Ukraine is fighting for its land, for its nation, for its families. The whole civilized world is on Ukraine’s side, and that’s why God is on Ukraine’s side.”

Azman also urges citizens to treat air raid sirens seriously, citing Judaism’s exhortation to care for the body created by God, and even released a music video of him singing an original patriotic song for Ukraine’s independence day.

He finishes with a typically upbeat note: “Everything will be good and we’ll have victory soon. Tomorrow is going to be a good day like today, the sun is shining.”

Kyiv residents worship at the Brodsky Synagogue, August 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

‘Everything is destroyed’

Kherson was the first major urban hub to fall to Russian forces and the only regional capital Moscow’s troops gained control over. Before pulling out of the city in November after an eight-month occupation, Russian forces destroyed energy infrastructure, disrupting Kherson’s water and electricity supply.

Prior to the city’s liberation, Azman drove to Kherson in a truck loaded with food and medicine for the local Jewish community. They had also asked the rabbi to bring portable batteries so they could continue to charge their phones — their lifeline with the world — during the long electricity outages.

“On both sides of the road, 100 percent of the houses were destroyed,” he continued. “The roads are destroyed, everything is destroyed.”

This shipment of food never reached the Jewish community, however. When Azman’s staff opened the truck in Kherson’s central square, thousands of residents showed up. “There were so many hungry people who arrived and we couldn’t leave them,” he explained.

“They were hungry but happy,” Azman recalled.

“We do appreciate all the assistance that has been done,” Yevhen Korniychuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, told The Times of Israel in December. “And he is very active. He brought together lots of humanitarian aid and political support, etc. And we are welcoming any support at the moment because we are in a very difficult situation.”

Relatives of Elizaveta, 94, transport her by a cargo cart to the evacuation train in Kherson, Ukraine, December 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

In November, Azman also met with the governor of the Kherson oblast, who asked for help replacing the government property the Russians had looted.

“He told me the Russians stole everything — cars, computers, even the bathrooms,” said Azman. “He gave me two pages listing what he needed.”

Azman arranged for the delivery three days later of 100 computers, welding tools and a cherry-picker truck to fix electric poles and stations. “They were amazed,” he remembered.

Climate control for the wounded

Back home in Kyiv, the situation is better but still challenging as Russia strikes Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Azman’s own home has electricity for two hours a day. The Brodsky Synagogue gets its power from a generator he installed recently.

Members of his community live in apartments without reliable heating as winter tightens its grip, and often have to huddle in the basement with the other residents around a gas-powered heater. The community is now focused on providing a solution for them.

Kyiv Rabbi Moshe Azman (R) speaks with former British prime minister Boris Johnson at the annual business lunch hosted in London by the Conservative Friends of Israel, December 13, 2022 (courtesy)

Since June, Azman has led efforts to donate dozens of hospital beds and over 400 air conditioners to hospitals around Kyiv, many of which house soldiers wounded in combat against the Russians.

“We are really thankful to the Jewish community since the beginning of the war effort,” Viktor Netchitayvo, deputy commander of Kyiv’s police department, told The Times of Israel as beds were delivered to a Kyiv police hospital in August.

“We were helped a lot with food for our crews that are working and patrolling the streets. We also received AC units for this hospital and many more hospitals. We are also receiving the beds now so badly injured police can get proper treatment.”

Viktor Netchitayvo, deputy commander of Kyiv’s police department (L), Larysa Bezuh, director of the Head Medical Center of Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry (C), and Rabbi Moshe Azman in Kyiv, August 1, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

The Kyiv police force had suffered two dead and 17 injured at that stage in the war, according to Netchitayvo.

“This help is crucial,” said Larysa Bezuh, director of the Head Medical Center of Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry, in August. “Right now, temperatures are very high outside, so the ability to control the temperature in the rooms for badly wounded soldiers makes the healing process go faster. We can also use them to control temperatures in the fall before the central heating is turned on.”

The hospital uses the climate control units in the rooms where the most heavily injured soldiers are treated.

‘Enemy of Soviet Power’

Azman was born in Leningrad in 1966, where he was a  Jewish refusenik and was arrested on multiple occasions by the KGB. According to the official Soviet newspaper Pravda, Azman was an “enemy of Soviet Power.”

Finally given permission to move to Israel in 1987, Azman studied in a rabbinical seminary, joined the IDF as a chaplain, and worked for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl project.

In 1995, he was sent by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement to gain back the historic Brodsky Synagogue for the Jewish community. The Romanesque Revival building, built in 1898 for wealthy Jews in central Kyiv, had been confiscated by the Soviets in 1926 and was being used as a theater.

Rabbi Moshe Azman as an IDF reservist, 2014 (courtesy)

In 1997, the theater moved out, and Azman led renovations until the synagogue’s reopening three years later.

“I didn’t want to build this synagogue as a European museum synagogue; I wanted to make a Jewish home, a Jewish community center,” he told The Times of Israel during his recent visit to Jerusalem.

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a US-born member of the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic sect, was already using the title of chief rabbi when Azman arrived. In 2005, a group of communities now called the Alliance of Jewish Communities of Ukraine gathered to elect Azman as chief rabbi. The move was opposed by Chabad leaders, and Azman is no longer associated with the institutional Chabad movement.

“I was elected without my opinion,” insisted Azman. “In Kyiv there were 300 chairmen of communities, and I wasn’t there and they invited me and everyone comes and says mazel tov, mazel tov.”

“I didn’t want it because politics was not my thing,” he said.

Friends in high places

Whether he wanted the chief rabbi title or not, Azman has certainly sought to play the part.

In the wake of Russia’s 2014 capture of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas, Azman created the village of Anatevka, named after both the fictional shtetl and the Ukrainian village of Hnativka, the real-life burial site of Hasidic master the Maggid of Chernobyl.

A Jewish man walks through the village of Anatevka, July 24, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Relying on private backers and his own money, Azman spent millions to build dozens of apartments, a wooden synagogue, and religious schools for 400 students from Anatevka and Kyiv. More than 200 Jews called the village home before the 2022 war.

When The Times of Israel visited the site in August, fewer than 10 Jews were living there.

The village might have been quiet in August, but in the chaotic early days of the war, it was a refuge for Jews fleeing the Russian advance on Kyiv. Azman gathered thousands of community members there before organizing a massive convoy out of the country with armed guards.

Anatevka is now being used as a staging ground for Azman’s humanitarian aid to Kherson. It has also begun to fill up as Ukrainians return home from abroad.

Despite his claims about disinterest in politics, Azman has not shied away from developing close ties with political leaders.

He has known Zelensky for years, well before the president entered politics in 2019.

Ukrainian actor and future president Volodymyr Zelensky, left, and Rabbi Moshe Azman, center, in 2018, one year before Zelensky’s election as Ukrainian president. (Courtesy)

Azman has not met with Ukraine’s president recently, but did speak to his chief of staff after the November United Nations vote in which Kyiv supported requesting the International Court of Justice weigh in on Israel’s “prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of Palestinian territory.”

Before the Rosh Hashanah holiday, Ukraine’s military commander in chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyy met with Azman to discuss appointing a Jewish military chaplain and ways to get Israel to increase its support.

Like many other Ukrainian Jewish leaders, Azman was an outspoken supporter of former US president Donald Trump. Following the 2021 storming of the US Capitol by Trump supporters, Azman posted on Facebook that the “Maidan has begun in the USA,” referring to the widespread protests that led to the ouster of pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Azman, and Anatevka, found themselves in the international spotlight in 2019 around former president Donald Trump’s impeachment. In May of that year, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani told The New York Times that he planned to travel to Ukraine to deliver a paid speech to a Jewish group on Middle East policy. A day later, he canceled his trip amid an uproar over his plan to meet Zelensky during the visit and press him to carry out investigations perceived to benefit Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

The Jewish group in question was later revealed to be American Friends of Anatevka. In lieu of the Anatevka visit, Giuliani traveled to Paris, where he met with Azman, received an oversized key to the hamlet, and was named its honorary mayor.

In late October 2022, Azman was in Israel, where he participated in rallies in support of Ukraine in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat, and met with wounded Ukrainian soldiers undergoing treatment in Israel.

Вітаю та Благословляю Прем'єр-міністра Беньяміна Нетаньягу, а також весь правий національний блок – із впевненою…

Posted by Chief rabbi of Ukraine – Головний Рабин України on Friday, November 4, 2022

Azman’s affinity for and connections with the right wing of Israel’s political spectrum was also apparent during the visit.

During the recent campaign ahead of the November 1 Israeli elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared in a video alongside Azman, pledging expanded support to Ukrainian and Russian Jews in Israel.

“What is taking place in Ukraine is an awful tragedy,” said Netanyahu. “When I return to leadership with God’s help and with your help, I will do everything in my power, I will use all of my gravitas and experience, to bring an end to this tragedy that embitters the lives of Ukraine’s residents.”

Rabbi Moshe Azman (C) and then-candidate Benjamin Netanyahu (R) at the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem, October 2022 (courtesy)

The rabbi also appeared on stage at Jerusalem’s Friends of Zion Museum with Likud MK Nir Barkat, whom Azman hosted in Kyiv in September, and then-candidate Netanyahu. Azman stressed that like Ukraine, which refuses to give up land to Russia, so too Israeli leaders should never agree to relinquish “the holy land given by the Almighty.”

The rabbi celebrated Netanyahu’s victory in the recent elections, posting his congratulations to “Netanyahu and the entire right-wing national bloc,” and expressing his hope that a new phase would begin for Israel and for its relations with Ukraine.

Though the right-wing government led by Netanyahu is set to bring about broad changes within Israel, it is unlikely to implement the policies Azman and Ukrainian officials would like to see, especially around arms sales. Netanyahu is cautious on the world stage and has built close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the years.

“I hope it will continue to fulfill its promises to help the Jewish people,” Azman said about Netanyahu’s government this week. “It’s truly a Jewish government, one that can first of all provide a feeling of security for Israel, and also help the weak.”

“I hope it turns over a new page in its relationship with Ukraine, so Ukraine can truly be an ally of Israel, now that Iran is fighting alongside Russia, and helps the olim [immigrants], as they promised me,” said Azman.

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