They hear Grad missiles when they walk to synagogue on Shabbat, at a Torah class, during a youth club meeting. At night, when they put their children to bed, tucking them in and saying everything will be alright, they hear heavy artillery then, too. For the Jewish community and general populace of Mariupol—a city in southeastern Ukraine that saw heavy fighting in the early days of the country’s war with Russian-backed separatists, but which has seen relative quiet in the last two years—what they darkly call the artillery “orchestra” has returned in the last two weeks, as has heavy fighting and increased casualties all along the frontlines that stretch through eastern Ukraine.
“We prayed Shacharit so well that the walls of the synagogue were shaking,” wearily jokes the city’s chief rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, Rabbi Mendel Cohen. “You hear it every day. Some days, it’s constant: 1, 2, 3, 4. Soldiers are dying every day. How should I explain this? Nobody here wants this war. Nobody knows why we need it.”
In Mariupol, a mid-size industrial city where mammoth steel factories dominate the skyline—smokestacks continuously belching dark clouds into the air—city officials have worked hard to maintain life-as-usual, with municipal transportation, schools and public services being maintained. This comes despite the tanks, heavy military equipment and soldiers pouring into the city, and, of course, the ceaseless thud of missiles and artillery crashing down just 16 kilometers away from the city center, where the synagogue is located.
Cohen and his wife, Esther, celebrated the birth of a new baby boy in December, just prior to Chanukah. A short time after returning from Israel with their newest family member, the fighting intensified. “We got a loud welcome home,” says Cohen.
Just as the city continues to function, so, too, have Jewish communal activities continued, even strengthened. Mariupol’s Or Avner Jewish preschool and day school hasn’t skipped a day. About 25 men and women show up at the nightly Kollel Torah class held at the synagogue, studying chassidus and Talmud; this group of Jewish Mariupolites recently concluded tractate Berachot. A group of 15 Jewish teens shows up weekly for gatherings of their local chapter of EnerJew, a Chabad-sponsored Jewish youth club with chapters throughout the former Soviet Union.
A Yud Shevat farbrengen drew 50 people to synagogue, despite the background noise. Rabbi Yehoshua Raskin stands to speak.
In the last few weeks, Mariupol has seen two circumcisions: one a newborn boy (Cohen, a trained mohel who practices around the country, performed that circumcision); and the other a 55-year-old man who over the last decade has gone from zero participation in Jewish life to being an active synagogue member. The adult’s brit milah was performed by Rabbi Yaacov Gaissinovitch—a Chabad emissary formerly of separatist-occupied Donetsk, who today lives in Kiev and serves as the country’s leading mohel—who drove through three Ukrainian military checkpoints to reach the frontline city.
“It’s cold, it’s snowing. I sit down to eat or put my children to sleep, and I hear it. I walk outside, and it’s even louder. But the work continues,” adds Cohen’s assistant, Rabbi Aron Kaganovsky, who leads the evening Kollel Torah and the EnerJew chapter.
A festive meal for a brit milah in Mariupol; two circumcisions have taken place recently. “We have a job to do here,” insists Cohen.
‘Like an Earthquake’
It’s not only the spiritual needs of the Jews of Mariupol that Cohen’s synagogue—the only one in the city and affiliated with the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS—cares for. Each day hot meals are distributed at the Jewish center, and Cohen says he makes regular deliveries of food, staples and medicine to those who cannot make it to there. Aid provided by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, also allows the synagogue to provide clothing to Jewish community members, help that is vital while biting winter temperatures remain low.
With people attempting, for the most part successfully, to lead everyday lives, few Mariupol Jewish community members have expressed wishes to leave the city for Israel or elsewhere. According to Cohen, most of those who wanted to leave have already departed, and the remaining Jews, deeply rooted in the city and hardened by the conflict, will not go anywhere minus full-scale invasion and bloodshed. Cynical of what has become a tiring war of attrition, they do not believe the background noise of heavy artillery will go away soon, much as they hope. Nonetheless, Cohen says he has been assisting those Jews who are in the process of making plans to move to Israel.
Cohen, a mohel by training, performed the newborn's brit himself. During some of the heaviest fighting in 2014, he drove to Lugansk, Ukraine, to perform a circumcision there.
Natasha Yakovenko, 44, lives with her husband and daughter in a rundown neighborhood on the eastern edge of Mariupol, far closer to the action than those in the center. Due to her home’s proximity to the fighting, in the past two weeks structural portions of the modest wooden structure have been damaged from the impact. Her windows have all cracked as well.
“When these grads land, you feel it in the ground, like an earthquake,” says Yakovenko.
While the boom of rockets can be heard throughout the day, the main show, she says, begins like clockwork at 4:45 pm. There were times in the past when Natasha and her daughter, Nelli, used to immediately run into their homemade garden bomb shelter. Now they use it only sporadically, when things get unbearable, as it did one night last week.
“We’re surviving,” she says.
Yakovenko’s son, Jenya, is studying in the Chabad yeshivah in Moscow, and on her and her husband’s limited pensions they are saving up to buy him his own pair of tefillin. But they spend the majority of their income purchasing coal and wood to heat their house. They procure clothing and medicine with the help of the synagogue and Cohen, with whom she stays in close contact.
The baby boy’s family holds him after the bris. Most Jews who wanted to leave have already departed; the remaining ones, deeply rooted in the city and hardened by the conflict, say they won’t go anywhere minus full-scale invasion.
In an interview in the summer of 2015, Natasha expressed her fears and doubts about leaving Ukraine for Israel, but by now she is reconsidering her options. Yet moving there is not so simple.
She has begun the process of gathering the proper paperwork evidencing her Jewish roots, and says she that after the winter frosts thaws, she will travel to Ternopil, in western Ukraine, to access her maternal grandmother’s birth documents, proving that she is Jewish. The process has begun, but the road is a long one.
The rabbi of Mariupol and his family; assistant rabbi Kaganovsky and his family; the hundreds of Jews who go through the synagogue on Kharlampievskaya Street every day; Natasha Yakovenko and her family—all exude an aura of fatigued defiance.
Home to massive steel-production plants, Mariupol’s skyline is dominated by factories. Here, a view of some of them in the distance. (Photo: Avraham Edery for Chabad.org)
“Truthfully, we are so busy with the work that there is almost no time to pay attention to the rockets, never mind the politics,” says Cohen, who notes that the synagogue has become fuller in the last two years, as Jews of all types seek out the warmth of family and community. “We have a job to do here.”
“We pray to G‑d every day,” says Natasha. “Every morning, Modeh Ani Lefanecha. If we won’t pray, we won’t survive.”
A fund has been established to assist the Jewish community of Mariupol.
The inside of Natasha Yakovenko’s crude, homemade bomb shelter. She and her daughter used to run in there all the time, but now, acclimated to the constant sound and impact of nearby heavy artillery fire, they go only when the situation becomes intense. (Photo: Avraham Edery for Chabad.org)
A 2015 file photo of Natasha helping her daughter into the garden bomb shelter in their yard. The family lives close to the fighting; their home has been rattled and their windows smashed in the last two weeks due to the intensification of fighting. (Photo: Jonathan Alpeyrie for Chabad.org)
A 2015 file photo of a smashed window in a Mariupol Jewish community member’s apartment. The official death count was around 30, but Jewish community member Natasha Ralko—whose windows were blown out while she was in her living room with her daughter and 8-month-old infant, and whose kitchen was heavily damaged—was convinced that the number is higher. “There were at least 30 bodies just down there around the parking lot,” she said at the time. (Photo: Jonathan Alpeyrie for Chabad.org)
Mariupol Jewish community member Natasha Ralko, whose windows were blown out while she was sitting in the living room of her apartment with her daughter and 8-month-old infant, and whose kitchen is now heavily damaged, believes the death toll in eastern Ukraine is much higher than reported. (Photo: Jonathan Alpeyrie for Chabad.org)
Award-winning 2015 photo essay depicts how amid bouts of violence, Jewish residents of this city lived under the threat of invasion for months.