A public celebration of Chanukah will take place in the Ukrainian frontline city of Mariupol despite the government’s declaration of martial law, the city’s rabbi said late Thursday. The martial-law status, which went into effect in nearly half the country on the morning of Nov. 28 and will last for at least 30 days, was triggered by Russia’s firing on and capture of three Ukrainian navy vessels trying to enter the Sea of Azov earlier this week—a significant escalation in the four-and-a-half-year-long Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The captured vessels, whose 24 sailors were taken into Russian custody, were attempting to pass through the Kerch Strait and sail to Mariupol, an important industrial port city of 500,000 on the Sea of Azov. The city sits mere kilometers from the frontlines of Europe’s only active land war, and the sounds of artillery have long become a staple of local life.

Food prices in the city have risen and Ukraine’s currency dropped—what is by now considered life as usual in Mariupol continues. The never-ending pressure of sitting on a tinderbox has taken the highest toll on weary residents, and it is that, more than any other aspect of the martial law, that is felt most.

“We don’t see a difference in day-to-day life, but G‑d forbid if one person on either side makes a mistake, we’ll be the first to know,” says Rabbi Mendel Cohen, the city’s lone rabbi, who together with his wife, Ester, directs Chabad-Lubavitch of Mariupol. “It’s not a game; this is serious.”

On Sunday evening, the first night of Chanukah, the Jewish community of Mariupol will gather on Theater Square in the city center, joined by city and regional officials to witness the lighting of a giant menorah. The menorah-lighting has taken place every year with the exception of one—in 2015, when Mariupol city officials asked that it be cancelled to avoid a large public gathering. Some 300 people are expected to join this year, not including passersby.

Hundreds turned out for the menorah-lightings each year.
Hundreds turned out for the menorah-lightings each year.

“We’ll be celebrating on the plaza,” says Viktoria Smirnova, a native of war-torn rebel-occupied Donetsk, who since moving to Mariupol has become an active Jewish community member. “There will be a lot of us coming out together; we’re not afraid at all.”

Chanukah events in the city will extend to every night of the eight-day holiday, and Smirnova says that her 5-year-old son, who attends Chabad’s Or Avner preschool, is excited to perform in its Chanukah recital.

“He’s been singing Chanukah songs for a whole month,” she says.

Mariupol lies in the Donetsk region (part of which is under separatist control) and is one of Ukraine’s 10 regions where martial law was declared, all places bordering areas containing Russian troops and all of them home to Jewish communities.

“The Chabad emissaries in each and every one of these 10 regions are doing everything to bring Chanukah to more and more people,” says Cohen. “Here in Mariupol, we want to bring the light to every single Jew.”

‘Now family’

Mariupol, an already highly fortified city by land approach and sea, has also seen a marked increase in military presence. Buses of soldiers have poured in, and armed patrols have reappeared.

While many Ukrainians are cynical about the underlying reason for martial law—asking why it was imposed now and not during the much bloodier early days of the war—in Mariupol there is at the same time a genuine fear of what the next step might be.

“People are worried they’ll start shooting at us from the sea,” says Smirnova.

Despite the turmoil, Mariupol has a active Jewish life. Here, a new Torah scroll was welcomed in May.
Despite the turmoil, Mariupol has a active Jewish life. Here, a new Torah scroll was welcomed in May.

Like so many people in Ukraine, Smirnova has witnessed what war can look like. She and her family fled to Mariupol from rebel-occupied Donetsk in late 2014, a few months after the war in her hometown began.

“Our home was destroyed,” she says. “When we came to Mariupol, we didn’t know anyone at all.”

All that changed through her involvement with the Jewish community.

“I now have friends, we get together—for Jewish holidays or anything else—I’m invited to people’s homes,” she says. “It’s more than friends, it’s now family.”

Cohen echoes Smirnova’s view, saying that he has witnessed increased activity in the Jewish community since the war began. More people come to synagogue and to Torah classes, but most of all, he sees a new closeness and warmth.

“I am seeing things now that I never saw before in my work here,” the rabbi says. “There’s a feeling here like we’re all one family.”

A Yud-Tes Kislev celebration
A Yud-Tes Kislev celebration

Smirnova says her family seldom attended Jewish functions in Donetsk before the war. But since being assisted when they arrived in Mariupol with nothing—by members of the community and the Jewish center itself—Smirnova takes part in everything from holiday programs to Ester Cohen’s monthly women’s classes.

“Honestly, for me, Jewish life here has been a light in the darkness,” she says.

To date, the war has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 Ukrainians, and has displaced 1 million civilians. It has changed the country and radically altered the face of once-sleepy industrial Mariupol. Cohen says he prays for a day when there will be peace and tranquility for all the citizens of his hometown, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

“We saw what war looks like, and we don’t want it again,” he says. “We don’t want the threat of it, and we don’t want the nightmare.”

In the meantime, their work goes on, and the community has responded in kind.

“The Jewish community is here, and we are celebrating with joy,” insists the rabbi.

The community has a popuar kollel Torah-study group for men.
The community has a popuar kollel Torah-study group for men.

For eight nights, the Chanukah menorah will illuminate Mariupol, the adjacent trenches and the volatile Azov Sea, telling the story of a miracle that happened to the Jewish people in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, and proclaiming the ultimate victory of light over darkness.

“That,” says Smirnova, “no one can take away.”

Click here to assist the Mariupol Jewish community.

Women celebrate Yud-Tes Kislev.
Women celebrate Yud-Tes Kislev.
Mariupol sits mere kilometers from the frontlines of Europe’s only active land war, and the sounds of artillery have long become a staple of life.
Mariupol sits mere kilometers from the frontlines of Europe’s only active land war, and the sounds of artillery have long become a staple of life.
Last year's Chaukah celebration.
Last year's Chaukah celebration.