We are all in a state of shock and disbelief as we watch from our front row seats as Russia wages war on Ukraine. We have to dust off the history books and challenge our memories to recall such naked aggression and shameless attempts to swallow up another country whole together with its proud citizens.
We are all praying for the safety of our 350,000 Jewish brethren in Ukraine along with all the people of Ukraine. We pray for a peaceful and immediate resolution to this conflict. We pray that the people affected have the strength and resources to make it through this trying time. And most of all, we pray for the day when “nations will beat their swords into plowshares ... and not learn war anymore.”
For me this is very personal. The founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, my ancestor, who was born in the Carpathian mountains in Ukraine founded the Chassidic movement which took the Jewish world by storm in Medzhybizh, Ukraine. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty ,was born and grew up in the Ukraine. His father, the saintly rabbi Levi Yitzchok was the chief rabbi of Dnipro, Ukraine. Both of my parents were born in Ukraine, my father is from Kiev and my mother is from Krolevets.
In the summer of 2019 we took a group from our community to visit the Ukraine and to see firsthand the renaissance of Jewish life in the Ukraine. All thanks to the heroic sacrifice and the selfless dedication of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s 200 personal emissaries the “shluchim” and their families who took responsibility for the material and spiritual well-being of all the Jews in Ukraine and for restoring their joie de vivre.
The Resurrection of Jewish Life
We witnessed a miracle in our lifetime. Who would believe that the land of the Cossacks would elect a Jewish President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy! We witnessed the resurrection of Jewish life. We visited thriving, pulsating Jewish communities throughout the Ukraine from Odessa, Kiev, Zhitomir and Dnipro. Their Jewish centers put ours to shame. Dnipro boasts the largest most impressive Jewish community center anywhere in the world, the Menorah center with its seven candelabra like branches, seven skyscrapers. It’s by far the nicest building in the center of the city servicing all the material and spiritual needs of the Jewish community.
While the Ukrainian Jewish Oligarchs spend lavishly on themselves, they also take their responsibilities for their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters very seriously. They understand that charity begins at home and they spent to rebuild an incredible infrastructure for a thriving and growing community. Top of the line educational facilities so that every Jewish child could claim their birthright to receive an excellent Jewish and secular education. Orphanages where every child in crisis could grow up surrounded by so much warmth, love and care, who turn out to be model productive citizens. Camps, museums, five-star kosher restaurants, synagogues, learning centers and even top of the line medical facilities partnering with the best world class medical facilities in the West. We saw the Ukrainian people as a highly educated citizenry, very spirited and with great potential waiting to be unleashed.
What is unfolding now before our very eyes is surreal. How do we respond? Not a single Chabad emissary left their post. They have all chosen to bravely stay with their people to be there with them and to help with food, shelter, emergency assistance, encouragement and support. There has been an outpouring of financial support from all across the world to give them the means to provide for their communities for whatever they need.
I sincerely believe, however, that there’s an essential spiritual element to all of this that we are overlooking and it’s critical that we truly understand how much of a a central role each and every one of us plays in this unfolding drama. The essence of Jewish faith is that G-d is one, consequently we are all connected and are all part of that unity. The key to being civilized to leading a happy and well adjusted life is self-restraint, impulse control and respecting boundaries. Tragically, most recently we are indoctrinating our children, and the adults are leading by example, to live a life without any constraints. We are taught to follow every urge, every impulse, every instinct and to proudly celebrate every psychosis. Truth has been substituted with power, morality has been substituted by immorality. Is it any wonder that children today suffer from an epidemic of anxiety, even suicide unprecedented in human history.
We wag our finger at Putin: how dare he won’t control his imperial appetite and impulse to conquer another country whole just because he could and just because he wants to. We have to honestly ask ourselves, are we any better, do we curb and conquer our destructive and harmful impulses? We are all connected, and by us strengthening our own borders and boundaries, and by us strengthening our character by drawing a red line in the sand that we won’t cross not because we can’t get away with it but because it’s immoral and it’s wrong, we will help strengthen and help keep Ukraine’s borders intact.
Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski is Director of Chabad Upper East Side.