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For Donetsk’s Jews A New Year Begins With Hope But Not Enough Help

By , Donetsk, Ukraine

Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski sits at the kitchen table of his temporary apartment in Kiev and sighs. Laid out in front of him are plans for Rosh Hashanah services and holiday meals for an isolated Jewish community nearly 500 miles and dozens of checkpoints away.

To Vishedski, this is not just any community. It is his community. At least what’s left of it.

Today Vishedski is the refugee director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Donetsk. After 20 years of leading High Holiday services in the city’s beautiful synagogue, its chief rabbi will be observing Rosh Hashanah in exile for the second year.

Dina Vishedski and her six children fled the war-torn city a year ago, at the end of August, when the bombing and gunfire made it dangerous to remain at home. After ensuring that most of his community evacuated the shelled city and transferred to a refugee camp in western Ukraine, Rabbi Vishedski finally left.

Many thought that the conflict would come to a quick resolution. Instead, the protracted violence that has become a day-to-day reality in eastern Ukraine over the last year and a half, has left a trail of devastation: injury and casualties, and the collapse of the local economy.

To date, the fighting has cost over 6,800 lives, according to a United Nations report. Donetsk’s Jewish community experienced its own tragic losses, including a dedicated Chabad preschool teacher, Irina Shelkayeba, killed by a rocket while cooking dinner in her apartment, and beloved local philanthropist, Garik Zylberbord, shot while attempting to stop pro-Russian separatists from robbing his neighbor’s home. In late 2013, Donetsk’s community counted 10,000 Jews. Today, only about one quarter of them remain. 

Overall, some two million people have thus far been forced to flee. Nearly 100,000 fled Donetsk and the greater Donbass region bordering Russia, of whom 20,000 are thought to be Jews, effectively creating the greatest Jewish refugee crisis since the end of World War II. In 2014, 5,840 Ukrainian Jews made aliyah, and thus far, in 2015, more than 6,000 have immigrated to the Jewish homeland. Commonly referred to as Internally Displaced People, or IDPs, the refugees are struggling to begin anew in strange cities far from home.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Since the Ukrainian government in Kiev imposed a virtual blockade of the Donetsk separatist region, travel to and from the city has become nearly impossible. Trains have stopped operating completely, and moving across the border now requires elusive travel permits. At a cost of 5,500 Ukrainian hryvnias (about $250) a permit for a family of three, in addition to the bribes demanded by the militias at various roadblocks along the way, they are prohibitively expensive, trapping the destitute locals who cannot afford these costs, in Donetsk.

Thirty-seven-year-old Michael Katz is one of the lucky few who has managed to obtain a propusk that allows him to travel in and out of the city. But even with the permit, travel is heavily delayed. “You have to wait for a really long time at each checkpoint, and it takes a while to get anywhere.”

And even with the propusk, not everyone can just pick up and leave.

“Many of the Jews who remain are elderly, infirm, or have nowhere to go,” says Dina Vishedski. “And many stay because they won’t abandon parents or relatives who cannot leave.” Lucia Joe, a young mom, fled with her son to Kiev after an intense bout of fighting but later returned to the bombarded city to care for her ailing mother.

Katz knows the difficulty. “People from the outside find it easy to say ‘Just leave and go to Israel’ but it’s not so simple.” The younger crowd that has moved faces challenges of a harsh and strange new city, finding a new job and the lack of a familiar community.

A New “Normal”

Speaking from Donetsk by phone with, 33-year-old Anna Ratner is afraid. “There are bombings and explosions nearly every day. No one is out after 5 o’clock­­—the streets are completely deserted.” Walking home one afternoon when Grad missiles started falling, she ran for cover in a deserted storefront. Nearby, a building had all its windows blown out. “It is frightening to live here.”

Although civilians are not intentionally targeted, they are often caught in the crossfire. Israel Kruchkov, 44, relocated in February, with his wife and 18-year-old son to Dnepropetrovsk, a major city 250 kilometers west of Donetsk. “There is a real war going on here, and strangely enough, people can get used to anything,” he says. “They have no choice so they continue living their lives but with a sense of uncertainty of what will happen next. They somehow got used to the fighting being a part of their daily lives.”

He describes how they’ve learned to recognize the direction the shelling is coming from and react accordingly. “If a shell explodes 200 meters from you, you run for cover. But if it explodes a kilometer from you, it is far enough to ignore.” This bizarre reality has become the new “normal” for the residents of Donetsk, who go about their jobs, schooling and even attempt recreation as best as they can.  

“You can’t think about it all the time or you will go crazy,” says Anna of the constant boom of gunfire. She moved from the airport area to the relatively calmer city center of Donetsk, across the street from her grandmother. Her 13-year-old son Velvel used to attend the Jewish school but has since switched to a public school in this safer neighborhood. 

Chabad’s Relief Efforts

The virtual blockade has resulted in severe food shortages, forcing Donetsk citizens to rely on outside aid. Chabad, which remains the sole established Jewish presence in the east, now works to provide more than 10,000 local Jews in the region with emergency food plans and medical aid. In the 11 months since establishing their synagogue-based soup kitchen, they have served 52,000 hot meals to hungry Donetsk citizens.

Local hospitals are underequipped and understaffed, with many healthcare providers having fled the city. Vishedski’s eyes on the ground report that pharmacy shelves are bare, and sick people are unable to access the lifesaving medicine they need.

“One of our community members who is undergoing oncological treatment could not get his medicine. We had to purchase it for him here in Kiev and then send it to Donetsk.”

From their offices in the center of Kiev, the Vishedskis are trying to keep their now scattered community together, and provide critical assistance. There are 26 Chabad institutions in east Ukraine, the majority of them in Donetsk, including synagogues, schools and community centers. Chabad’s schools in Donetsk have become  relief centers where a wide range of humanitarian aid projects are dispensed: housing and employment help for the displaced, emergency financial aid, food and clothing parcels, and even summer camp tuition for the needy. 

But the High Holidays demands that more be done to give those who have lost so much a better start, insists Rabbi Vishedski. “We can’t allow our people who have lost so much and are grappling with such difficulties, to come into the New Year feeling forgotten.” Jerusalem-based Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and his organization Keren HaYedidut have provided generous, critical support enabling Rabbi Vishedski to extend emergency humanitarian aid packages, including food and clothing for the Jewish New Year.

Desperate Times

In recent years before the outbreak of fighting, Dontesk’s Jewish community, to its great pride, had become self-sustaining, with its own local donors and philanthropists invested in the community. But rampant inflation, devalued currency, and an inadequate or nonexistent fiscal safety net have since wiped out the savings and funds of all of the community’s supporters, from middle-class families who gave modest monthly donations to wealthy oligarchs who were once the primary pillars of support.

The crisis is an unhappy reminder of difficult times following the fall of the Iron Curtain; today, the community is once again dependent on charity from abroad, and Vishedski has no choice but to ask for help, imploring anyone who will listen to him. In addition to the life-saving support provided by Rabbi Eckstein and Keren Yedidut, his relief efforts have been helped by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, under the management of Rabbi Dovid Mondshine and Rabbi Shlomo Peles.

“Once middle-class families have become penniless and have no food right now,” Vishedski says. One after another has lost their lifelong investments. Vitaliy Chibolnik lived in Donetsk all his life, scrounging and saving to provide for his family. Close to retirement age, he finally bought large apartments in Donetsk so his sons could marry and raise Jewish families of their own. “Those apartments are now worth nothing and the man has been financially and emotionally devastated. His entire life’s work has been wiped out by war.”

Ukraine’s Jews, he observes, are saddened and disappointed by the indifference of the worldwide Jewish community to their plight. Regardless of how the conflict is resolved, most now have come to accept that the thriving Jewish community of Donetsk of the past 20 years will never be the same again; hundreds have permanently relocated elsewhere and many more have no desire to return to their now destroyed city. 

Donetsk’s Or Menachem day school and Gan Menachem preschool are currently operating at 40% enrollment, with locals and volunteers filling the vacant staff positions of those who have fled. Prayer services continue to be held in the synagogue but with only 15 regulars who attend daily, and around 50 who come on Shabbat.

In the face of so much loss, the Chabad representatives struggle to maintain their optimism, to lead with inspiration. “When you have to support others, you just don’t have the time or luxury to wallow in despair,” says Dina. But sometimes, the weight of the situation bears down on them.

“We had a vibrant house full of life and energy, and suddenly we were forced out, the doors locked behind us.” As newlyweds, Dina and her husband came to Donetsk (from Israel) armed with idealism and a vision that they labored and succeeded to bring to fruition over a period of twenty years.

They left their belongings in their home, taking only the clothing on their backs and a few personal items. Since then they have repeatedly moved apartments, upending their children’s lives again and again. Their 11-year-old daughter has attended four different schools in the last year alone.

The toll this has taken on her young children who beg to return to Donetsk, is testing. Dina spins their constant moves into a big adventure, making it out to be an extended trip. But even adventures can become tiresome and the children want to know when the “vacation” is going to be over.

“We sent my son to a second month of summer camp in America to keep him away from the craziness but he just wanted to go back to the life he knew, pleading and crying again and again, ‘please take me home,’ she says, her voice breaking. “It is moments like those that make it really hard to hold it together.”

It’s also at moments like these, that the relationships they nurtured come back to bless them. Well-to-do before the fighting began, Boris Kamisorov lost all his wealth in the financial collapse. When he visited the Chabad rabbi and his family in Kiev in July he noticed the strain in their faces. It was his turn to reach out to them. “It is like a wheel­—what we put out there now comes back and lifts us up in times of need,” says Dina.

Hope for the New Year

On Rosh Hashanah, many families traditionally eat round challahs symbolizing the cycle of life, and the hope it offers for those at the bottom: The wheel will turn; prosperity will return. In the meantime, life goes on and Ukraine’s Jews are learning to celebrate moments of joy while they pray for better days ahead. And they pray differently. 

“Wishing my son a sweet new year now,” says Anna, “takes on a whole new level of meaning.”

Last year she attended Rosh Hashanah services at the central synagogue and planned to return this year “to celebrate a bit of holiday joy and hope in the pervasive sadness.”

Rabbi Vishedski continues to lead his Thursday evening Torah class which he now broadcasts live from Kiev to Donetsk, and Dina continues to lead and participate in community events via conference call and video chat. Surprisingly, new faces show up at these meetings.  The crisis has brought many Jews seeking help, community, and spiritual solace, out of the woodwork. 

Over the summer, a few circumcisions and weddings that have been put on hold finally took place to great celebration. Avigayil Perchemenko, 24, was engaged to Kiev-based Moshe Zalman Zabrudin when she made her way back to Donetsk to visit her mother. But the war and bureaucratic red tape kept her there. Unable to return to her fiancée, her wedding plans were put on hold indefinitely.

Three months later, the eager bride finally saved enough money to make it past the separatist blockade and return to her worried fiancée in the capital city. Her wedding has been rescheduled for this autumn.

Back in Donetsk, Katz was looking forward to Rosh Hashanah. “It will be a smaller version of what used to be,” he says with a trace of longing. But the war has taught him to take nothing for granted. He counts his blessings. “Rabbi Vishedski has planned everything perfectly from Kiev.”


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