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An On-the-Ground Update from the Chief Rabbi of Donetsk, Ukraine

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A radio station recently interviewed Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, chief rabbi of Donetsk, Ukraine, and emissary of Fellowship-supported Chabad, about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and The Fellowship’s Freedom Flights, which are helping Jews in that war-torn region make aliyah(immigrate to Israel) and build a new life in the Holy Land.

Interviewer Amiram Cohen: With the fear of renewed fighting in Ukraine, around 100 new olim [immigrants], the majority of whom are refugees from Ukraine’s embattled areas, landed last Thursday at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport aboard an International Fellowship of Christian and Jews’ chartered flight.

Shalom, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski.

Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski: Shalom and good evening.

Cohen: Before we talk about the aliyah flight, what is the security situation like where you live in Ukraine?

Vishedski: Very, very tense. People wake up in the morning and they don't know how the day will end. When they go to bed at night, they don’t know what morning will bring.

There is no rest for the people of Donetsk. There are still many Jews who live there, and we have to take care of them. There’s no work there, no safety net, no way to support oneself. The only person who is actually taking care of this community, who is helping us help them, is Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. He’s a total tsaddik, a righteous person, who is doing everything in his power to do right by this Jewish community and to give them hope.

His efforts are twofold: One, helping the Jews who are still living in the troubled areas of Ukraine and those who fled the east but are living as refugees in safer regions of Ukraine. And two, he has also taken the bold step of airlifting Jews to Israel. Last week the fifth chartered flight of Jewish refugees took off. I believe the entire Jewish people owe him a big thank-you.

Cohen: How many Jews still live in the area where you are?

Vishedski: As of today, according to our lists, in Donetsk alone there are more than 2,000 Jews. In the smaller towns nearby there are fewer Jews because the security situation there is more complex than in the city. Most of the villagers have either moved to the city or have left the region entirely.

In nearby Lugansk there are 1,000 Jews. They live in danger and we, Chabad, are doing everything we can to help them live as much of a “normal Jewish life” as is possible in the current situation – meaning that synagogues stay open, daily prayers are said, Sabbaths and religious holidays are observed.

We also teach Torah classes, and in some places we hold those classes online – via Skype – because it’s too dangerous to send a teacher there; we use technology to bridge the gap.

And, as I said, we get a huge amount of help from The Fellowship – soup kitchens, food packages, medicine – everything that the Jewish community here needs in order to survive these very difficult conditions.

Cohen: And those who want to leave Donetsk?

Vishedski: What’s unique is that The Fellowship gives people who want to makealiyah money to help out with their first few months in Israel, to help them gain their footing there, to make aliyah with dignity and not as an overwhelmed refugee. It’s still not easy to relocate your life, but at least this person now has a small measure of support when he arrives in Israel.

A person who makes aliyah as a war refugee can’t sell his home because no one’s going to buy a house or an apartment in a war zone. He can’t sell his car because no one has money here to buy it from him. He also can’t take his assets with him or doesn’t have enough time to sell them off properly.

So a person moves to Israel like this, with no basis of support, to start his new life in Israel. That’s where The Fellowship steps into the picture. Rabbi Eckstein comes in and says, “There’s no way that a Jew will come to Israel with nothing. If he’s a refugee, then The Fellowship will give him what he’s missing. We’ll give him hope that things will be OK and that he’ll be able to get on with his life.”

It’s not simply about airlifting Jewish refugees out of war-torn Ukraine. That’s the easy part. The special thing about The Fellowship is the caring, the one-on-one help they give each and every person.

Tags: Stories , IFCJ , Crisis and Need

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