Prayer and panic as Ukrainian rabbis guide their communities into a wartime Shabbat


(JTA) — Rabbi Aaron Motuz fled Odessa Thursday night aboard several buses with about 200 other community members in defiance of a government-mandated curfew.

They intended to reach neighboring Moldova, where hundreds of Jews from Ukraine are already staying, but did not have all the necessary papers. The convoy is heading west to Poland and, Motuz told the Israeli news site Kikar, will continue driving through Shabbat, when Orthodox Jews are commanded to refrain from such travel unless human lives are at stake.

The haste, Motuz said, is also connected to a new government order that any man older than 18 stay in the country – a move that’s seen as designed to prevent emigration ahead of recruitment to the army. Motuz’s brother is already serving on the frontline, he told Kikar. Non-Jewish locals who saw the bus convoy asked to come with it, and some even offered to pay.

“We’re afraid they’ll stop us on the way and send us back. So we’re driving nonstop through Shabbat. It’s pikuach nefesh,” Motuz said, using the Hebrew term for the Jewish principle that saving a life is the highest value.

Motuz represents one extreme of the ways that Ukrainian rabbis prepared for the first Shabbat since the Russian army invaded their country. Some cautioned Jews to stay home or even flee, while others urged their community members to remain positive even amid frightening conditions.

“Especially in our situation, we need to remember that we are in the Hebrew calendar month of Adar and when Adar arrives, we increase our joy,” Rabbi Nochum Erentreu, an emissary of the Chabad Hasidic movement in the eastern city of Zaporizhzhia, reminded his flock in a video sermon that he posted on Facebook.

It’s a quote of a centuries-old saying about the need to rejoice around the holiday of Purim, which will fall on March 16 and celebrates the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from deadly persecution there.

He urged listeners to facilitate the triumph in their hearts of “faith and confidence that the Almighty will help us.” The Rebbe, he said, referencing the late Chabad leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Many times repeated: Think well and it will be well!”

Rabbi Moshe Azman, posting on Facebook from the synagogue at Anatevka, a compound he had built near Kyiv for Jewish refugees during Russia’s last invasion of Ukraine in 2014, told his followers to “radiate joy wherever you go” — which this week could easily mean into underground bomb shelters, makeshift bunkers or to safety outside of cities.

“I’m with you. Don’t panic. We all know what’s going on. Let’s pray, let’s be united, let’s not let fear enter us! Let’s be happy,” Azman said. “Let’s pray to the Almighty and ask Him to give us peace.”

But peace felt far off as night fell on Friday, with Russian troops advancing on Kyiv and uncertainty wracking the country.

“We just evacuated the whole community and all the children, and we had to violate the Shabbat,” the gabbai, or director, of Odessa’s main synagogue said in a video posted on Facebook. “We ask everyone pray that we succeed to help all the Jews we’re responsible for and that we have, God willing, a good Shabbos and great protection from Hashem,” or God.

In Kherson, a southern city situated near the border with Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Wolff, also Chabad, asked listeners to “stay home if possible, do not leave home unless it’s absolutely necessary,” her said, citing the overnight bombing of the city’s outskirts.

But, he too added: “Do not panic and remain calm, as well as to give tzedakah,” Hebrew for charity, which he said “saves lives.” Wolff then prayed for peace.

Yaakov Dov Bleich, another Ukrainian chief rabbi who divides his time between that country and his native United States, kept his video message Thursday night from Kyiv snappy and specific.

“We’ve made a decision to try and evacuate to the west,” he said, referring to a few dozen
families from his congregation. But a curfew prevents the evacuees from leaving, he said.

So the families are “sheltering in a place outside of Kyiv, in a camp” with the hope of traveling Friday in the direction of the Polish border.

“If anyone can help, please do what you can to help. Daven,” he said, meaning pray, “and donate money.”

Multiple Jewish or Jewish-related groups involved with relief and community work in Ukraine appealed for the donations for their efforts.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, launched what it called on its website an emergency campaign to mitigate a $4 million increase in expenditure in connection with the conflict. A quarter of the amount had been raised on Thursday, a JDC official, Amos Lev-Ran, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 

A banner on the website, featuring the picture of an elderly man with disheveled hair and titled “Ukraine’s Jews need your help now” solicited donations of up to $500.

Chabad-Lubavitch, the international Hasidic movement which in Ukraine is probably the largest Jewish faith group in terms of rabbis, synagogues and congregants, has quickly set up what it calls on its main website,, the “Ukraine Jewish Relief Fund.” Online, donors are able to earmark their contributions to one of more than 30 cities in Ukraine.

Misha Kapustin, a Reform rabbi from Crimea who left for Slovakia following that territory’s annexation by Russia from Ukraine in 2014, was one of few Ukrainian rabbis who addressed an audience in Russia, rather than in their own native countries.

“Dear friends living in Russia! I understand very well what country you live in, but I also know that the Torah says: ‘You shall not stand over the blood of your neighbor,’” Kapustin wrote on Facebook Thursday.

Those who remain silent about a crime “become accomplices,” he wrote. “Let your voices for peace be heard in your country. If at least one of you will hear my words — but not only hear them — then they are not in vain.”

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