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Abandoned in Kharkiv? Community in Crisis Struggles for Survival

By , Kharkiv, Ukraine

As fighting in Ukraine continues and the value of the hryvnia keeps falling, the nation’s crisis deepens.

Hundreds of thousands have fled Donetsk and Luhansk, leaving these once burgeoning, proud Jewish communities teeming with activity, now silent.

The weeks have turned into months, the months now well past the year-long mark, with no end in sight. Frustrated, in despair, thousands have become exiles, living day-to-day, yearning to reclaim the security and dignity of their homes, their livelihoods, their lives.

Some of those who fled have come to Kharkiv, which has been spared the worst of the fighting. Here, too, bombs explode, and people are worried, tense and struggling with a shattered economy.

The city’s Jewish community’s leaders, Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moskovitz, are holding together a now fragile phenomenon, working against enormous odds to maintain the infrastructure, the programs and services they’ve painstakingly established to raise the quality of life for Kharkiv’s 35,000 Jews. As of this writing, no help, they say, has been forthcoming from Jewish philanthropic organizations in America.

Until the outbreak of fighting, the past 15 years have been remarkably successful for the city’s Jewish community, say the Moskovitzs. So successful, in fact, that Miriam was sure that her hardscrabble days were well behind her. In 1990, as a young newlywed with an 8-month old baby, she left a comfortable life in Sydney, Australia, and moved with her Venezuelan born and raised husband Moshe, to Kharkiv—then Kharkov, a Soviet city. Among the very first to capitalize on communism’s fall, the young couple barely scraped by as they began their work reviving Jewish life under Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms.

The challenges piled on quickly. Living standards were abysmal; for the first six months, they made their home in a mice-ridden hotel, surviving on a menu of Pepsi or Fanta for breakfast, and white bread for lunch. Dinner was a can of cholent, heated on a portable burner. Today, the mother of 12 says those were the least of their hardships. Over the course of the next 10 years, the Chabad representatives led all their activities in the city’s run-down synagogue—the first of all Jewish properties to be restored to the community by the Russians—sans heating and hot water.

Naive and non-conversant in Russian, this couple who traded a sunny city for an impoverished, gray one, were an anomaly: while local Jews flocked to them—150 showed up at their door, kids in tow, two days after they arrived having heard that the Moskovitzs were opening a Jewish school—old-guard authorities tapped their phone and followed their every move with suspicion. And in 1998 the synagogue went up in flames.

The Moskovitzs plowed ahead with single-minded focus, building the infrastructure that would give Kharkiv’s then 50,000 Jews a Jewish experience altogether new to them. With the support of Mr. George Rohr, the synagogue was beautifully renovated. With funding by Mr. Lev Leviev, they opened a preschool, a day school, a high school. A yeshiva, a soup kitchen, a medical clinic, adult-education programs and more would soon follow. Eventually, the community began to stand on its own, and in the past decade and a half, Kahrkiv’s Jewish community sustained itself independently; local Jewish businesspeople began taking ownership, and the Moskovitzs recruited additional Chabad couples—10 in all, to accelerate change in the city.

By every measure, this is a story of a community gone from rags to riches, spiritually and materially. So the recent setback is painful; the Ukrainian hyrvnia, eight to the dollar before the fighting broke out, has been drastically devalued. The wealth of local Jews who sustained Jewish life in the city has diminished, and resources have dried up, leaving these community leaders in a desperate struggle to maintain all of the programs and services that are vital to the city’s Jews. With $1.2 million budget before the economy collapsed, every day they keep their schools and services running is another day of miracles. Why, they wonder, has the crisis garnered no response from their brethren in the west?

Amid all the chaos, Moshe and Miriam welcomed the newest addition to their family five months ago. In between their intense routines and incessant emergencies, they took time to speak with me, sharing their concerns and perspectives as Jewish leaders, community builders, and shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbeof righteous memory.

How close are you to the fighting?

MIRIAM: We are actually lucky. Every week a bomb goes off somewhere in the city, keeping everyone on edge. Not far from here four people were killed by a bomb a month ago. But we haven’t had to flee as our fellow shluchim in Donetsk and Luhansk had.

We were, and still are, in close touch with them. It is devastating to think about what happened there. We are further west, so thank G-d, the fighting is not as intense here and we’ve been able to continue here. But the real disaster is the impact this has had on the economy which is making things really, really difficult for us now.

How does that translate into your day-to-day activities?

MOSHE: The majority of the 35,000 Jews in this city depend on the humanitarian services we provide in one way or another. We have two soup kitchens for the hungry; a pharmacy program that has been subsidizing medicines for hundreds of local people here. Now the cost of these meds have doubled and tripled, so those who used to pay for their medicines can no longer afford to. This means we now have many, many more needy people.

MIRIAM: We bus 400 children every day from all parts of the city to the Jewish day school. Bus drivers need to be paid, lunches have to be prepared, and teachers’ salaries have to be covered. We are cutting down everywhere, making changes to everything from lunch menus to salaries.

And you’ve got 10 couples—Chabad representatives, now working with you in Kharkiv.

MIRIAM: Yes, their salaries are part of our budget. And we’ve had to cut them by 40 percent. There’s been a really close spirit of unity—they understand the situation. But this is painful for us—we are in a terrible bind. Some of them have 10 children, and taking this kind of pay cut is not easy. The economy has simply collapsed—banks have closed, the money has lost its value, all of which has affected local businesspeople who supported the Jewish community. Even those who had investments in Crimea have lost everything.

You usually have 2,000 people at your annual Passover Seder, but with things as they are, have you downsized this year?

MOSHE: No. We will find someone to subsidize our Passover Seders because we’ll be conducting them as we do every year: 1,000 each Seder night in the shul—we’ve got 250 guests in a room, four rooms. Our son Mendel, who recently got married, moved back here with his wife Chani and baby daughter to join us. He leads these Seders in the shul. In addition to that, we have 90 people at each Seder in our home. We’ll also find someone to subsidize our matzah distribution . . . . three and a half tons of matzah, and we’ll just have to give them out for free because the cost of the matzah doubled, but no one can afford to pay for it.

Are Jews leaving Kharkiv?

MIRIAM: Many have left, and many have lined up all their documents and paperwork so that they will be ready to leave on a moment’s notice. For us, it is sad—we’ve built friendships with many families over the years, and they are now leaving. Some are leaving because they don’t want their sons drafted into the army, which is now compulsory. On the other hand, we are constantly surprised to see new faces here. Many who never did before, are now coming to shul. And we have quite a number of refugees from Luhansk and Donetsk who didn’t feel a need to connect with the Jewish community back home, but I guess the crisis has moved them to act. MOSHE: By and large, people are worried. There’s uncertainty, and we get calls all the time from people here wanting to make sure that we are staying put. We reassure them that our fate is with them. They want to know what our back-up plan is. We don’t have one. We are determined and hopeful that we will be able to continue here.

You’ve toiled for years to build this beautiful Jewish community that is teetering now. People here depend on you to keep their morale high. How do you keep your own morale up?

MIRIAM: I’m here as a shlucha of the Rebbe. He sent me here, and I’m supposed to be here, so we’ll get through whatever happens. It’s nothing that we cannot cope with. We’ve had very difficult times here. But we pulled through. Things were going really well in recent years. Everything was running smoothly. You might say we were spoiled. Now we were thrown this curve ball. We’re struggling, and it’s hard for us that friends who’ve been with us for many years are leaving, and newcomers from Donetsk and Luhansk feel so lost. But having raised 12 children here, I don’t get easily frazzled.

MOSHE: With everything that’s happened here, I do wish I could be smiling more. But to be honest, things are not good. The fact is, there are big challenges for the community as a whole—people are afraid of tomorrow, they don’t know where to go. And yet, we are optimistic.

What has been the response from the Jewish community abroad?

MOSHE: To our great dismay, there hasn’t been a response. We’ve reached out through various individuals to some of the major, well known Jewish philanthropies that should be responding, but so far there’s been no support. This is confounding to us. This is a sizable community—the second largest in Ukraine. It is a proud community that is now in deep crisis. Perhaps your coverage here will be the wake-up call.

If you’d like to help support this community in crisis, click here to donate.  


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