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Prayer and panic in a wartime Shabbat

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(JTA) Rabbi Aaron Motuz fled Odessa on the night of 24 February aboard several buses with about 200 other community members in defiance of a government-mandated curfew.

They intended to reach neighbouring Moldova, where hundreds of Jews from Ukraine are already staying, but didn’t 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.

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 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 principle that saving a life is the highest value.

Motuz represents one extreme of the ways in which 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.

It’s a quote of a centuries-old saying about the need to rejoice around the holiday of Purim, which will fall on 16 March.

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 25 February, 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 to pray that we succeed in helping all the Jews we’re responsible for and that we have, G-d willing, a good Shabbos and great protection from Hashem.”

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, don’t leave home unless it’s absolutely necessary”, citing the overnight bombing of the city’s outskirts.

But, he too added, “Don’t panic and remain calm as well as give tzedakah [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 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 evacuees from leaving.”

So the families were “sheltering in a place outside of Kyiv, in a camp” in the hope of travelling the next day in the direction of the Polish border.

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

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, launched what it called on its website an emergency campaign to mitigate a $4 million (R61.5 million) increase in expenditure in connection with the conflict. A quarter of the amount had been raised by last week, a JDC official, Amos Lev-Ran, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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, Chabad.org, 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 a 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 neighbour,’” Kapustin wrote on Facebook.

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 aren’t in vain.”

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