In order to deliver both spiritual and material sustenance to the Aviv Masorti Community in Chernivtsi, Midreshet Schechter sent pedagogical advisor, Gila Katz, and adult education director, Dr. Etka Liebowitz, to Ukraine for the weekend of Shavuot. In addition to bringing kosher meat, special Israeli kosher treats for the children and Israeli educational games for children, they were able to show the community that Midreshet Schechter cares about them and is doing everything possible to help them.
Gila taught classes and workshops on the holiday of Shavuot, focusing on the Book of Ruth, with whom converts in the community could easily identify. Etka provided the Kehillah with their first opportunity to hear the chanting of the Book of Ruth as well as a reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah. Both Gila and Etka held many informal conversations with members of the community and they were very impressed by their commitment to Masorti Judaism, desire to learn, and support of Jewish refugees from other communities.
Following are snapshots from the visit:
On Friday, June 3 Lev Kleyman, director of the Aviv Masorti Kehillah, met us at our hotel. Lev, who is 36 years old, married with one daughter, is the heart of the Masorti Kehillah. A graduate of the TALI Day School in Chernivtsi, Lev was a camper at Camp Ramah Yachad Ukraine and then a counselor.
Lev accompanied us on the 15-minute walk to the Kehillah, which is housed in a small 2-story building, with the first floor containing offices and a kitchen and the second floor a large multi-functional hall used as both a synagogue, dining room and activity center. Due to the curfew, Kabbalat Shabbat is held early at 5:00 pm (sundown is after 9:00 pm) and we arrived early so as to have an opportunity to talk with Kehillah members. We met refugees from Kyiv, Kharkhiv, Zaporizhzhia and Nikolaev (Mykolaiv), who described their flight to Chernivtsi, along with local kehillah members – children, teenagers, young families and elderly individuals. Altogether some 50 people came to Kabbalat Shabbat.
Gila led a lively Kabbalat Shabbat Service, accompanied with guitar playing by a young refugee from Kiev, Sergei Valov, who is sheltering in Chernivtsi.
During the Shabbat meal, which included homemade challot and Ukrainian kosher wine, Dr. Yuri Radchenko, a refugee from Kharkhiv who is sheltering in Chernivtsi, gave a short sermon. Yuri, a Holocaust researcher and an active member of the Masorti Kehillah in Kharkhiv, fled to Chernivtsi in March due to the constant bombing. During attacks on Kharkhiv, Yuri would take the kehillah’s two Torah scrolls down to the Metro station for safekeeping. The scrolls are now being kept in Kehillat Aviv’s ark until they can safely be returned to Kharkhiv. Yuri is studying through distance learning at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in order to become a Masorti rabbi in Ukraine.
Lena Gribelnaya, a Hebrew teacher and Ramah Yachad counselor, organized an alphabet game which everyone participated in. Finally, everyone sang Jewish and Israeli songs, ending with Grace after Meals. Everyone helped clean up and then left quickly in order to get home before the curfew.
Back in the hotel, when we were in bed, air raid sirens sounded, which adds to the tension and scares the children.
Due to the curfew, Kehillat Aviv decided to hold an early tikkun Shavuot, which would commence on Shabbat afternoon after services. Gila gave a short class on the origins of Shavuot, followed by a festive meal and then a tikkun Shavuot. The group of some 50 people divided up into five small study groups and each group received a page decorated with spring themes with questions connected to Shavuot, such as, why do we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, what exemplifies Ruth’s conversion, what are the different names of Shavuot, etc. We joined each of the groups for a short time and were very impressed by the high level of Jewish knowledge of all, both those from Chernivtsi and the refugees.
On Sunday we went to Aviv for Shavuot afternoon services. For the first time, Kehillah members heard the chanting of the Book of Ruth and the reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah by Etka. A festive meal was served with special foods for Shavuot. Following services, Gila discussed the intergenerational aspects of Judaism, which Kehillat Aviv exemplifies, and the history of the community from the 1990s to the present, which Gila helped establish.
During the activities, we had time to talk and meet with the many refugees.
One example is Oksana, who fled to Chernivtsi from Kharkhiv with her husband and their two daughters in their 20s. This was her third time attending a kehillah activity. Although she was not a member of a Masorti community in her hometown, when she came to Chernivtsi shortly before Passover she telephoned several Orthodox synagogues requesting to buy matzoh. When she phoned Aviv and spoke to Lev, he was the only one who not only offered her free matzah but also invited her and her family to the community’s seder. She is very impressed by the warm welcoming atmosphere and is very grateful for all the help she is receiving.
Igor is a “double” refugee. In 2014, he fled to Kyiv from Donetsk with only two suitcases due to the Russian invasion. Now he fled from Kyiv to Chernivtsi with just one suitcase! His wife and 8-year old daughter are sheltering in Belgium but Igor cannot leave Ukraine since he is eligible for the draft. Igor has become an active member of Kehillat Aviv and together with other community members initiated a clean-up of the local Jewish cemetery.
On Monday morning we set out on the long journey back to Israel. Despite the difficulty of the long journey via air and land, this was a meaningful and memorable experience.
View more pictures with captions here.
Etka Liebowitz is the Director of the Research Authority and a Coordinator of Development, including matters pertaining to Schechter’s activities in Ukraine. She received her PhD in Jewish History in 2012 (specializing in women in the Second Temple period) and has published several academic articles in her field. Dr. Liebowitz is fluent in English, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish.