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Ukrainian Jews prepare for worst, pray for best and vow to stay

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission.

Jewish leaders across Ukraine are working feverishly to prepare their communities for the rigors of warfare, even as the prospect of a Russian invasion is bringing back old traumas for those displaced during previous rounds of fighting.

“I prefer not to speak about this, not to think about this,” said Shalom Gopin, a Kyiv-based rabbi who was displaced, along with most of his congregants, from the eastern city of Luhansk in 2014.

As the local emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in what became one of the centers of the pro-Russian insurgency eight years ago, Gopin was forced to flee – leaving behind a community he had built from the ground up – in order to coordinate evacuation efforts from western Ukraine. Now, he faces the possibility of further displacement.

“I already went through this seven years ago, I don’t have the strength to flee again,” he said. “To leave, not to leave – it’s so difficult.”

Moscow has amassed a reported 130,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, and while Russian officials claim there is no intention to invade, Western leaders believe otherwise.

An invasion would mark the largest escalation since Russian forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula and orchestrated an insurgency in the eastern Donbas region – which has claimed more than 14,000 lives to date. A massive wave of Ukrainian immigration followed, with 30,000 Ukrainian Jews moving to Israel between 2014 and 2018.

But despite the seeming similarities to 2014, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski said he believes the civilian population is in significantly less danger this time around.

Vishedski, an Israeli-born rabbi who fled the separatist bulwark of Donetsk and now runs a community of war refugees in the Ukrainian capital, said he is currently focused on boosting morale among his congregants.

“We’re looking at our central mission as one of strengthening Jews, giving them faith and certainly not hysteria and panic,” he said, describing efforts to distribute supplies in order to allow his congregants to ride out a potential siege in relative comfort.

Beyond food supplies, Vishedski said he had distributed 500 radio sets across Kyiv, so that in the event of power and internet outages, people will be able to follow the course of the fighting, “adding to their peace of mind.”

When Russian-backed militias initially took over Donetsk in 2014, Vishedski had vowed to remain behind. He only relocated under the dual pressure of his congregants’ entreaties and the constant shellfire rocking his city. Eight years on, he was no more enthusiastic about taking flight again.

“We’re checking into possibilities” regarding fleeing westward in case of fighting, he said, but added he didn’t think they were at that stage yet.

In Kharkiv, a major urban center a short drive from the Russian border, Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz has been preparing his community through regular consultations with the Israeli Embassy in Kyiv and the Jewish Agency. However, detailed plans are almost impossible to prepare given the inherent uncertainty of the situation.

“If somebody comes to you and says there’s a plan, nobody knows where this is coming from,” he said. “Will I take my community and go [west] to Lviv?” he asked, referring to the western Ukraine city situated some 70 kilometers (nearly 45 miles) from the Polish border. “Nobody knows what will be. Our plans are to be in touch with the experts and local leaders,” he said.

“My house is 40 minutes to the [safest] border by car,” but “we’re staying with the Jews over here and will help in any possible way,” he pledged. “I cannot, as a rabbi and community leader, just pack my suitcases and go to Israel and leave everybody behind.”

Back in Kyiv, Yonatan Markovitch, a former Israel Defense Forces officer-turned-Chabad chief rabbi, said he had been preparing thousands of food packages for distribution. He also set up possible refugee transit centers with mattresses and various entertainments such as table tennis and chess.

“We have someone who knows how to sing and will do sing-alongs, and someone who can dance – so we will have singing and dancing,” Markovitch said. “We’re trying to find solutions not just for food but for people. We’re preparing so people can be comfortable and to prevent panic.”

And while he prays that a full-scale invasion isn’t in the cards, he said there are minibuses standing by to evacuate people to western regions closer to the Polish border. If that happens, though, he will remain behind.

“I and my family took a decision not to leave but to stay and help, and not leave Jews who need help,” he said.

According to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, even without any military action, the current crisis has already caused significant harm to civilians in Ukraine.

In a statement on Sunday evening, Stefan Oscar, the JDC’s executive director of operations in the former Soviet Union, said that “simmering tensions are contributing to skyrocketing inflation, food and utility prices. The country’s poorest Jews are now facing dire choices between food, medicine and heating as they experience a harsh winter and a possible conflict.”

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission.

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