(JTA) — Volodymyr Zelensky met with 32 Chabad emissaries and rabbis Thursday night ahead of Rosh Hashanah, marking the Jewish president of Ukraine’s first official meeting with Jewish leaders since Russia invaded in February 2022.
Also in attendance were 15 Jewish soldiers whom Zelensky presented with medals.
During the meeting, Zelensky made his latest appeal for military aid from Israel, including for its Iron Dome missile defense system, something Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly sought. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declined to supply Ukraine with Iron Dome capabilities because he fears the technology could then fall into the hands of Iran, an adversary of Israel that is allied with Russia.
At the meeting on Thursday, Zelensky involved Jewish religious observance in his request for Israeli aid. Israeli weapons, he said, would have made it easier for Ukraine to protect the tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims who are in the city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic leader who lived at the turn of the 19th century. Those pilgrims traveled to Uman despite safety warnings from both Ukraine and Israel, where many of them live.
Zelensky also broadcast a message of appreciation at the event, which was organized by the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, an organization led by Rabbi Meir Stambler.
“Because of you, the glorious Jewish community continues to flourish here,” Zelensky said. “And you continue to do your part both within Ukraine and abroad, for the Jews here and for the general population.”
Ukrainian Jewish communities have been shaken by the war, as many Ukrainians fled the country or relocated to safer ground inside it once Russian troops invaded, leaving behind a population that is older and needier on average than was the case before the war. While some Chabad rabbis, who make up the majority of Jewish clergy in the country, helped their families leave early on, all have returned, in keeping with the philosophy of their movement, whose emissaries typically commit to the cities where they are stationed and stay there through thick and thin.
The meeting comes weeks after a landmark in Chabad’s recent presence in Ukraine: the first new emissary couple to arrive there since the war’s onset. Rabbi Mendy and Mushky Halperin, who came with their 4-month-old son Ari, now live in Chernivtsi, a western Ukrainian city which, due to its location, has largely been spared the war’s violence.
Before the war began, Chernivtsi was estimated to have about 2,000 Jewish residents, including many Holocaust survivors. Since February 2022, the city has become a refuge for Ukrainians, and the local Jewish community, too, has seen growth.
Chernivtsi’s Masorti community, which is affiliated with Conservative Judaism, saw attendance at its Shabbat services in the city roughly double as of last December. Chabad operations in Chernivtsi have also expanded — and local emissaries expect to host 500 people for Rosh Hashanah.
The Halperin family crossed from Moldova into Chernivtsi by land on Aug. 30, weeks ahead of the holiday that begins this Friday night. Mendy comes from Kfar Chabad, a Chabad-founded village in Israel, and Mushky hails from Riga, Latvia, where her parents serve as Chabad emissaries.
The couple will join Rabbi Mendy and Pnina Glitzenstein, directors of the Chabad of Chernivtsi, who have been at their posting since 2003. Mendy Halperin will work with Jewish university students, and Mushky Halperin will serve as the Jewish programming director of a preschool.
“We are overjoyed by the opportunity given to us,” Mendy Halperin told Chabad.org.
Now past the year-and-a-half mark, the war has become a grinding reality for Ukrainians as their army and Russia’s trade narrow slivers of territory and shelling punctuates daily life at unpredictable intervals. Zelensky is in the middle of another push for foreign aid, which he says is required for victory.
“We have come a long way, this very difficult year. In the new year, I wish all of you, your families, loved ones and the people you help health and peace. Peace can only come through Ukraine’s victory,” Zelensky told the rabbis. “Thank you for bringing this peace closer with your work, prayers, and activities together with the entire people of Ukraine, military and civilians.”