Chabad Rabbi Stays Behind with Trapped Jews in Besieged Ukrainian City

During the summer months of any other year, southeastern Ukraine’s seaside city of Mariupol would draw scores of tourists to its foaming shores. Vacationing by the sea, the morya, is almost a ritual in this part of the world, and until recently, Mariupol, an important port on the northern banks of the Azov Sea, had served that purpose well.

But these days, the only thing locals have come to expect is the ongoing war between pro-Russian fighters and the Ukrainian army, both of which have alternated in controlling the city. And now, with reports of heavy shelling that has turned into a full-scale invasion in nearby Novoazovsk—a town that sits along the road from Russia to Mariupol, and until this week was quiet—locals have once again begun to fear that war is coming their way.

“People are very worried now,” relates Rabbi Mendel Cohen, Mariupol’s rabbi and Chabad-Lubavitch emissary. “There are lines at all of the gas stations and ATMs, and people are stocking up on food, so there is nothing left in the stores. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

With columns of tanks, artillery and well-trained infantry rolling into Novoazovsk, Ukrainian and Western officials today accused Russia of leading a quiet invasion into the country, thereby opening a third front in the current war between the Ukrainian army, which has been making recent gains, and pro-Russian separatists.

Thus far, Cohen reports that despite the growing anxiety, most of Mariupol’s Jews have chosen to stay in the city, fearing the lawlessness they might face on the roads that lead out. Cohen has stayed with them through it all, making sure that the work of the Jewish community continues.

“We have a minyan three times a day and Torah classes. Our day camp just ended, and we are now preparing for the school year,” says Cohen. The Jewish community has also worked to supply food packages to a growing number of people who need them.

Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, lies about 35 miles west of the border with Russia. Located in the Russian-speaking east, it was the site of heavy unrest in February when its central administrative buildings were occupied by pro-Russians. In early May, government troops attempted to retake control of the city, culminating in a bloody offensive on a rebel-held police station that left a dozen dead.

Ukrainian troops were able to recapture Mariupol on June 13, bringing a relative calm in their wake.

“There were armed men with masks right next to the shul. Until three months ago, it was dangerous to walk around in the streets,” says Cohen. “Since June, thank G‑d, it has become more stable.”

Donetsk, which is 70 miles north of Mariupol, and Lugansk, further to the east, have in the last month become the sites of the heaviest fighting between pro-Russian fighters and the Ukrainian army. The battles have displaced some 330,000 residents and killed an estimated 2,000 people.

“Along with the bigger communities such as Dnepropetrovsk, which has been helping people tremendously, many refugees from further east have come to Mariupol, and we have tried to accommodate them and help them any way we could,” adds Cohen.

The Only One Left

Out of the four Chabad communities in southeastern Ukraine (Chabad rabbis are the only ones serving in that area of the country), rabbis in three of them—Donetsk, Lugansk and Makeevka—have been forced to evacuate their embattled cities, along with most Jewish residents.

“The shluchim were together with their communities in those cities through the most dangerous of times,” says Cohen, noting that Donetsk’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Pinchus Vishedski, stayed in his besieged city until very recently. “I hope and pray that they will be able to return to their work very soon.”

Meanwhile, in Mariupol, the situation has become ever more worrisome, as mixed reports from the rapidly approaching battlefront filter into the city.

“Thank G‑d, it was all quiet here today,” says Cohen. “We pray that it stays that way.”

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