It’s past 10 p.m. in Donetsk, Ukraine, and the streets are empty. The city’s public transportation system is silent—the trains and buses now cease operating at 8 p.m.—and most residents have shut themselves within their own homes. With masked men toting Kalashnikov rifles roaming the streets, the Jewish community of Donetsk finds itself praying for its safety and for the safety of all citizens in this eastern city near the border with Russia.

Donetsk—long a hub of Ukrainian industry—is now under the control of pro-Russia separatists. In the last week, the city has become the scene of intense clashes between the pro-Russians and Ukrainian soldiers, who were sent by the new government in Kiev to regain authority over the city. The day after the May 25 election of chocolate-magnate Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s new president, Ukrainian troops launched an assault on the Donetsk airport, which at the time was being held by pro-Russians. More than 50 people died in the ensuing battle; the Ukrainians eventually retook the airport.

That conflict proved the bloodiest in what is now morphing into full-fledged war. It took place just 25 kilometers from the home of Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, chief rabbi of Donetsk and the city’s head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary. The conditions on the ground, according to Vishedski, remain dire.

“The situation here in Donetsk is terrible,” he laments. “The city is empty, stores are closed. There are armed men on the street, and the police are nowhere in sight. It’s not a comfortable situation, to say the least.”

Despite fears of what the future holds, Vishedski is quick to note that the Jewish community has not been specifically targeted from either side in the fighting.

Since arriving in Ukraine with his wife, Nechama Dina, in 1993, the rabbi has built a Jewish infrastructure in Donetsk, including a synagogue, school and soup kitchen, among other projects. Today, a total of 10 Chabad emissary families live and work in the city, which has become a major source for much of the kosher food and meat for distribution throughout the country.

Rabbi Pinchus Vishedski, Chabad representative of Donetsk, Ukraine, was interviewed by Israel's Channel 9 prior to the seder on the first night of Passover. Since that time, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has deteriorated badly.
Rabbi Pinchus Vishedski, Chabad representative of Donetsk, Ukraine, was interviewed by Israel's Channel 9 prior to the seder on the first night of Passover. Since that time, the situation in Eastern Ukraine has deteriorated badly.

“As this is happening, we are still trying to continue with all of our community activities like normal,” says Vishedski. “Our school was closed for most of last week, and when we did reopen on Thursday, most of the children did not come. Their parents are afraid. Nevertheless, the synagogue is open, and there are daily minyanim [prayer sessions] and shiurim [classes] going on. The Jewish community here needs us to continue operating, and we will remain here for them throughout the duration of this crisis.

“The most important thing anyone can do for us at this time,” adds the rabbi, “is say some tehillim [psalms] and pray for blessings for us.”

On the Front Lines in Lugansk

About two hours to the east of Donestk sits Lugansk, another major eastern city under the control of Russian separatists. Here, too, residents withdraw to the shelter of their homes after dark, giving the city an eerie, empty feel—one that locals worry will be shattered only by intense violence. As in Donetsk, men bearing heavy arms wander freely through the streets; however, many have shed their masks, assuming control of the city.

Rabbi Sholom Gopin with a local Jewish youth during more peaceful times
Rabbi Sholom Gopin with a local Jewish youth during more peaceful times

“The situation here is very bad, very dangerous,” says Rabbi Sholom Gopin, the city’s lone rabbi and Chabad emissary since 1999. “Everything that was happening here just a few weeks ago is child’s play compared to what’s going on today. We’re worried. We worry every minute that this will all turn into a big war.”

Gopin notes that the synagogue is still operating, and that the school year was scheduled to break for the summer last week, which it did.

Yet celebrating Jewish communal events in the current circumstances has admittedly become more complicated. When, last Wednesday, a circumcision was to be held for a boy born in the community, the area’s regular mohel, who lives in Donetsk, was unable to make it due to conditions there. Instead, Rabbi Mendel Cohen, the Chabad emissary in the southern city of Mariupol, volunteered to make the possibly dangerous journey by car and perform the circumcision.

“He traveled here with much self-sacrifice, just to make the bris,” relates Gopin. “It was a small bris, but beautiful.”

As the area teeters on the brink of all-out war, Gopin has not ruled out sending his wife and children to a safer locale, and says he has spoken with rabbinical authorities as to the correct course of action as the dangerous days turn into weeks. “Just in the last three weeks, things have escalated greatly here. Whatever feeling of calm we have here now, it feels like the calm before a storm.”

Lugansk and Donetsk are the easternmost cities in Ukraine.
Lugansk and Donetsk are the easternmost cities in Ukraine.

Requesting Outside Help

While the safety of their families remains of primary concern to Rabbis Vishedski and Gopin, Ukraine’s crippled economy and rapidly devaluating currency affect them both, as they do most of the Chabad emissaries throughout the country.

“For many years, our community has not requested help from the outside,” says Vishedski. “Our budget was raised here in Donetsk. But now many of the businessmen within the community have lost money; some have been crushed completely.”

He has received some help in recent weeks, most notably from Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who also facilitated in the delivery of hundreds of prepackaged kosher meals to be distributed to the poorer members of the Donetsk Jewish community. Emissaries throughout the country add that they are also thankful for the continued support of the Ohr Avner Foundation, which is based in Moscow and supports educational efforts throughout areas of the former Soviet Union.

“If there is someone out there who can help the Donetsk Jewish community during this extremely difficult time, we would really appreciate it,” stresses Vishedski. “We haven’t had to ask for money from outside Donetsk in many years, but now we have to—and will probably have to for the next year.”

Back in Lugansk, Sholom Gopin echoes Vishedski’s pronouncement: “Things cannot continue like this. There is no money and no business, and it is dangerous outside; this is not sustainable.”