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Two wars in two years – Ukrainian Jewry speak out



“My family is now in Israel, and the biggest injustice is that my son [who is six years old], is facing his second war in two years,” says Ilya Bezrucho, a Kyiv-based entrepreneur and the representative of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry in Ukraine.

“Sometimes he cries and says that he feels bad because his native country is at war and his new home was also attacked,” says Bezrucho, who sent his family ahead of him to Israel when the war began, and joined them later. “At six years old, he understands the axis of evil and the connection between Russian and Iranian regimes.” Bezrucho’s parents remain in Ukraine as they refuse to leave.

It’s been two years since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. On this sombre anniversary, “I express my deep appreciation that the Jewish community of South Africa remembers its fellows Jews and the war in Ukraine,” says Bezrucho. “This is the biggest war in Europe since World War II, which is changing the shape of the world’s geopolitical alliances. More than a million Ukrainians, including Jewish communities, in the south-east of Ukraine are under Russian occupation. People are being tortured and killed.

“I feel like this war is endless, unless a ‘black swan’ event seriously influences the battlefield,” says Bezrucho. “If this ‘black swan’ appears in Russia, it may lead to civil uprising and change of the ruling regime that will end the war. I feel sad that the United States and other Ukrainian allies shortened their supplies [to Ukraine], and Ukraine had to pay for it with lives of soldiers and civilians.

“Ukrainians support Israel,” says Bezrucho. For example, on 8 October 2023, more than 350 digital advertising spaces on the streets of Kyiv displayed the Israeli flag in solidarity after the Hamas massacre, and on 11 October 2023, Ukrainian soldiers expressed their support for the Israel Defense Forces.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, the founder and chief executive of oleh support organisation Yad L’Olim, says Ukrainian refugees have stopped coming to Israel. In the early days of the war, his organisation was at the forefront of helping thousands of Ukrainian and later Russian refugees streaming into Israel, and it continues to support them on the ground.

“We still have Russian and Ukrainian-speaking staff who assist these olim with their bureaucratic struggle in Israel,” says Lipman. They have “absolutely” been affected by the events of 7 October and the war, he says, and “are struggling with mental health issues. We provide them with services to address this. They have a lot of trauma, and we’re giving them coping skills in their native language. Our effort to help them with Hebrew and being part of a community are a big support.”

Meanwhile, Rebbetzin Rochi Levitansky, formerly of Johannesburg, says she and her family have returned to live in their home town of Sumy in Ukraine after fleeing as refugees in the early weeks of the war. “Baruch hashem, we’re all okay, and so is our community.”

South African expat Ronny Apteker, who fled Kyiv for South Africa with his Ukrainian wife and young son, wrote on his blog on 2 February 2024 that “later this month marks two years since the start of this evil war. A war that no-one here understands. And by here, I mean here in Kyiv. I’m at home and have been here for a few weeks. End of next week, I will go back to Wroclaw [in Poland] and then a month later, I will come back to Kyiv. And so it will go for 2024.

“Putin and his henchmen are pure evil,” he says. “Russia is a problem to Ukraine and the world. What has to happen here in Ukraine for someone to scream, ‘Enough!’? The quote, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’, comes to mind.”

Liubov Abravitova, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa, notes that “Russian aggression against Ukraine started on 19 February 2014. This means, we’re marking 10 years since the start of a well-planned campaign by [Russian president Vladimir] Putin to destroy Ukraine. These 10 years have had a devastating toll on people in Ukraine, its infrastructure, agriculture, environment, and culture.

“The lesson that the world should learn is that lack of adequate response to Russian aggression in 2014 was taken by Russia as a sign of weakness and allowed it to bring an invasion on a different level,” she says. “Lack of unity among the international community allows Putin to continue his brutal, unprovoked war of aggression, threatening not only to the security architecture of the European region, but global security.

“Let me underline that today, we Ukrainians are fighting not only for our identity and the survival of our country, but also for the rest of the world,” says Abravitova. “To overcome this evil, Ukraine needs all the support available.”

Rabbi Mayer Tzvi Stambler, the chairperson of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, lives in Dnipro with his family. “We’ve found ourselves dealing with things we never imagined, as rabbis, as community leaders, as Chabad emissaries. Saving lives, sometimes risking our lives and those of our volunteers, evacuations. It was difficult, but we’ve done a lot. We feel respect from the government and the president himself.

“What really hurts is that many families are apart, with men unable to leave. The economic situation is tough. When you see people who were sponsors in the community who still have fancy cars but come to pick up food, it’s heartbreaking,” he says.

“We know that before Moshiach comes, we’ll see situations where it becomes clear who is good and evil,” says Stambler. “Right now, things are getting very clear, from Russia to Hamas. And we feel G-d everywhere. Even our chaplains in the army – they go to work with Jewish soldiers, but find that everyone wants to know more about Judaism. We also witness many Jews, who never saw their Judaism as important, coming to shul. Both Israel and Ukraine need your prayers and support.”

Sana Nelina, speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Odesa, says it has been “730 days and nights of fear and hope. Seven hundred and thirty days of support and resilience. I don’t want to describe all the horrors we see day and night. I would rather speak about the feelings I have living among the tired yet resilient Ukrainians and Jewish community.

“You know, every time I visited Israel, I had the same question: how people could get used to the everyday danger and continue living their ordinary life. These two years of full-scale war have given me a clear answer: to live in the middle of war doesn’t mean getting used to the fear. It means accepting the unpredictable and unknown and gaining skills you would never have thought you would gain.

“For example, most of us have the skill to be fast when we have only two hours of electricity a day. Many of us learn how to live without water. We’re able to overcome with the help of volunteers and workers from Jewish and non-Jewish organisations.

“We have the skill to celebrate every new day and every new holiday even after the hard sleepless nights,” she says. “Every one of us has some personal ‘recipes of recovery’. All of us have the skill of multitexting our loved ones, and sitting in corridors or shelters while there are drones and rockets. Seven hundred and thirty days of war have taught many of us how to feel gratitude, pride, support, and unity. I’d like to thank people of the world for standing with Ukraine. Please, keep going!”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Colin Braude

    Mar 1, 2024 at 3:37 pm

    Just a tweak:
    October 7 was also the worst attack on Israel civilians since the state was established.

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