In early March, Jews throughout the world celebrated Purim.
In cities throughout Ukraine, Jews celebrated their second Purim inside the onerous reality that Russia is occupying significant parts of their country. Local Communities supported by Midreshet Schechter found themselves adapting to a difficult and uncertain existence as they created community celebrations as best as they could.
Schechter sent two representatives to assist celebrations, Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, Director of Midreshet Schechter, led the community to Kyiv while Dean of Schechter’s Rabbinical Seminary, Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch led festivities in Chernivtsi’s Kehillat Aviv.
Both brought ample sweets and toys alongside unbridled happiness. Rabbi Irina brought a Megillat Esther (Scroll of Esther) to read in Kyiv while Rabbi Avi brought mezuzot for community members, refugees who fled other Ukrainian cities, renting long-term apartments. He notes that a Scroll of Esther had previously been donated to the Chernivtsi community.
According to Rabbi Irina, most of the communities are in better spirits than in 2022, when Purim came a mere three weeks after Russia’s February 24th invasion that created wide-spread uncertainty about their future.
“This year was very exciting. The mood was different and happy,” said Rabbi Irina. Explaining that the community was really looking forward to the holiday as a welcome respite from the daily grind of being very close to the warzone.
In fact, she notes, this year the communities organized Purim Shpiels for everyone. “There was boisterous laughter all around. It was as if laughter became a relief, a medicine, a relaxant that we all needed after this past year,” smiles Rabbi Irina.
Rabbi Avi comments, “Despite being literally 100s of kilometers away from the front, every time there was a rocket or artillery strike somewhere in Ukraine, sirens went off in Chernivtsi. No one batted an eye, but as an Israeli, I had a difficult time handling that aspect of normalcy.”
Schechter’s presence in Ukraine is spread throughout the country. Prior to the war communities in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa and Chernivtsi flourished with community centers and synagogues – often in the same building, day care centers and schools, and Camp Ramah Yachad for children.
However, the war changed it all.
According to Rabbi Irina, “Everything changed overnight, literally. Our communities became refugees and some families were left without the male family figure who were not allowed to leave the country and were drafted into Ukraine’s national army. Our communities were – and are in constant flux. Our job has been to reach out to those who arrive, helping them begin anew – including creating bonds with the local community.”
She made a number of trips to Ukraine this past year and notes that Purim provided a respite for everyone and brought joy to everyone’s faces.
‘This was a very different Purim in Ukraine. People in the community streamed into our community centers. Often, they dressed for the festivities with some small homemade difference to differentiate with all other days,” she comments.
In Odessa, the community held a ‘hamantaschen’ bake. Community members, including children, made the dough, added the fillings and baked the three-cornered treat.
“It was an intergenerational event from the grandmothers to the elementary school age children. It was a ‘hamantaschen’ festival,” reports Rabbi Irina.
From Tel Aviv, Rabbi Novis-Deutsch brought a duffel bag filled with sweets for children and families. At Kehillat Aviv in Chernivtsi, he found a community that had grown and become accustomed to being a stop on the refugee stream.
“I literally found myself handing out the goodies to everyone whether or not they were long or short-term residents of the city. We, as Jews, are always a holy community wherever we are. Giving Mishloach Manot and Matanot le’Evyonim are among the most important mitzvot we are commanded to perform on the holiday,” says Rabbi Novis-Deutsch.
During his 5-day stay in Chernivtsi, Rabbi Avi took the opportunity to add an intensive Torah study regimen for some community members.
“There is a growing thirst for Jewish knowledge, for Jewish expression that can only be found in studying and wrestling with Jewish texts,” Rabbi Avi notes. “At the extended chevruta (study partnership), we explored Talmud in an intensive four-day session.”
“Part of Midreshet Schechter’s responsibility is to ensure the continuity of community leadership. During the war all of our communities suffered as community leaders sought a respite. Some became refugees fleeing to Jewish communities outside of Ukraine while others moved from one city to another,” states Rabbi Irina.
During this visit, both rabbis held sessions with emerging community leaders to learn and to teach. Both are eager to return and continue participating in learning circles to re-build Ukraine’s Jewish communities.
(top photo by Marcel Gascon Barbera @JTA at Kyiv Jewish Center Purim Celebration)