Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski and Garik Zylberbord had been close for years. Zylberbord was one of Vishedski’s earliest friends and supporters when the rabbi first arrived in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1993. The two remained in close contact as the conflict in the eastern part of the country, which began back in February, burned into war and forced the rabbi to flee to Kiev just two weeks ago.
When the two men last spoke last Friday, Garik told the rabbi that he would join him in there this Wednesday, Sept. 3.
“Unfortunately, he got here before that,” says Vishedski, the exiled chief rabbi and co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Donetsk.
Zylberbord, 47, was shot dead in Donetsk while trying to stop pro-Russian rebels from robbing his neighbor’s home.
“He was killed on Shabbos, and his funeral was held here in Kiev on Monday,” explains the rabbi.
Vishedski has already set up a Donetsk Jewish community office in Kiev to help the lost and struggling Jews of his city who have found refuge there and in other parts of the country.
He describes Zylberbord as someone who became closer to his Judaism over the years, being circumcised (his Jewish name was Eliyahu) and attending synagogue regularly. He was also a generous financial supporter of the community.
“Much more than that, he was a very, very good friend,” laments Vishedski. “He was like a brother.”
The rabbi’s wife, Dina Vishedski, agrees: “He was like a part of our family. The funeral was very difficult. The Donetsk Jewish community is spread throughout the country, but people came from everywhere. He was a very active person and had many friends. He was a very special person. I have no words.”
Rabbi Vishedski explains that Zylberbord served as a member of the board of directors, but filled his position more than in just name. “He didn’t just give; he gave himself to the community. He was available at any time for any question, always there to help.
“This is a very big loss—for myself personally, for my family and for our entire community.”
Zylberbord, a longtime supporter of Chabad, recites a blessing at the wedding. At the far left is Vishedski, chief rabbi and co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Donetsk; next to him is his father-in-law, Rabbi Eli Zilbershtrom.
A Displaced Community
When Zylberbord’s wife, daughters and parents arrived in Kiev together with their deceased loved one, they joined the thousands of refugees who have escaped from the disintegrating east.
The vast majority of Donetsk’s Jews have also fled. Today, they find themselves scattered about the country, living in refugee camps, senior centers and rented apartments in places like Kiev, Zhitomir, Odessa, Kharkov, Kremenchug and Dnepropetrovsk. Following the recent entrance of tanks, infantry and artillery from over the Russian border in the country’s southeast, those who earlier ran to Mariupol, which is just miles from the new center of fighting, find themselves in danger once again.
In Kiev, the Vishedskis have thrown themselves into organizing relief and offering help to their community. Calls and text messages flood their phones all day, according to Dina Vishedski, as community members struggle to stay afloat in their strange new predicaments.
“We are receiving phone calls not only from poor people,” explains Rabbi Vishedski, but from “regular, middle-class families that have no money and no food right now. We are assisting them every way possible, but we desperately need funds to continue helping them.”
His wife adds that they have been receiving phone calls from fellow Chabad emissaries throughout Ukraine, relaying information and regards from Donetsk refugees who have been welcomed by various other communities.
Jews from Donetsk now living in Kiev pay their respects to fallen community member Zylberbord, 47, who leaves behind a wife, daughters and his parents. (Photo: Vaad of Ukraine)
“Calls start early in the morning and don’t stop all day,” she says. “There is always more work to be done. I told myself just now that I need to work for one more hour or else tomorrow will not start right.”
Despite the Sept. 3 announcement by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed in principle to a “permanent cease-fire regime” in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, shelling in and around the badly damaged city of Donetsk has not stopped.
Still, Dina Vishedski remains optimistic. “I hope,” she says, “to be home for Rosh Hashanah.”
To assist the Donetsk Jewish community click here