by Dovid Margolin – chabad.org
Rabbi Mendel Cohen was not looking to be a hero when he and his wife, Ester, established Chabad-Lubavitch of Mariupol. But as he battles COVID-19 in an Israeli hospital bed, it’s clear to me that he is one and has been for many years now.
There was nothing glamorous about the mid-sized Ukrainian port city where the Cohens, both originally from Israel, chose to settle back in 2005. Aside from the gray waters of the Azov Sea, which connects to the Black Sea, Mariupol’s most notable features were the two mammoth steel and iron works that dominate the city’s skyline, their countless smokestacks spewing heavy black smoke and making Mariupol’s air the dirtiest in Ukraine. But none of that mattered to Cohen and his wife. They had come to Mariupol to do a job and serve its Jewish population, and that’s what the couple set about doing.
They opened a preschool, Hebrew school and teen club. They gave Torah classes to men and women, operated a soup kitchen and a social-services center. The rabbi, a trained and practicing mohel, established Mariupol’s only synagogue; Ester ran the mikvah they built. In short, they created a vibrant Jewish life in what could only be described as yet another grimy post-Soviet town.
I remember that Mariupol, the one from before the war. I saw it in 2007 when the Jewish community celebrated the first completion of a new Torah scroll in town since before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. At the time, I was a rabbinical student in Kharkov, and the six of us headed south to Mariupol to celebrate the joyous occasion together with the young rabbi, his small community and guests from throughout eastern Ukraine. Locals stared as we danced and sang the new Torah down the streets to its new home in the little synagogue. There was an unmistakable excitement in the air that day. Jewish life was returning not only to the big and famous places, but to the furthest reaches of the former Soviet empire.
That was Mariupol until the war came. And then everything changed.
In February of 2014, amid the turmoil in Ukraine, Mariupol became the scene of street fighting as the city was captured by pro-Russian separatists. In early May of that year, Ukrainian government troops attempted to retake control of the city, culminating in a bloody offensive on a rebel-held police station. The city would only be recaptured in June.
But peace remained elusive. In January of 2015, a Shabbat-morning massive rocket attack left 30 dead. “The whole synagogue was shaking,” Cohen told me at the time. There were congregants in the room who had come from the neighborhood where the rockets had landed. “You can imagine what it sounded like here; there were screams, we had to calm people down.”
The new Mariupol was a place where masked armed men could roam the streets one day and rockets could land on another. The boom of artillery became a regular feature of life in the city, “the orchestra” they called it. “You hear it every day. Some days, it’s constant … ,” Cohen told me in 2017. “Soldiers are dying every day. How should I explain this? Nobody here wants this war. Nobody knows why we need it.”
Nevertheless, there was work to do. Jewish refugees from parts of the country that were even worse off came and went, and the rabbi and his wife were there for them. More of Mariupol’s Jews needed help—spiritual, emotional and financial. The synagogue became fuller, people coming together to feel the comfort of community. The soup kitchen fed even more people, and more packages of basic staples were being sent out to even greater numbers.
I got a glimpse of all this in the summer of 2015. It was my second visit to the city, but a world away from what I had seen eight years earlier. Ukrainian military checkpoints dotted the dark highway to Mariupol. The city streets lay deserted at night, while a tension filled the air by day. In the morning, I prayed in Cohen’s synagogue, then watched as the adjacent dining room filled up with supplicants. That afternoon I saw one Jewish family’s homemade missile bunker, a tiny dugout they sometimes had to spend the night in.
“ … We are so busy with the work that there is almost no time to pay attention to the rockets, never mind the politics,” Cohen once told me. “We have a job to do here.”
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know him well, and I can tell you that he never wanted any of this—not the guts, not the glory. Each time I’d call him or meet him in Ukraine or New York, he’d express his hope that things would finally settle down. The violence, the tension, the feeling of sitting on a powder keg—none of it was for him.
Yet through it all, he has never once considered leaving Mariupol. It is his and his family’s home as long as there are Jews who live and breathe there.
Mariupol sits mere kilometers from territory under separatist control, and the war in the east, while relatively quiet, is still not over. If that weren’t enough, just six weeks ago an axe-wielding intruder attempted to break into Cohen’s synagogue shortly after morning prayers. The security guard posted outside managed to disarm the man, as the rabbi and a few others escaped through a back exit. “Baruch Hashem, G‑d saved me today,” he messaged me that evening. “It was a long day … .”
Last week, he and his wife both fell ill with COVID-19. While his wife’s symptoms soon got better, the rabbi’s grew worse—to the point that he was having a very hard time breathing. Prior to Shabbat on Sept. 4, Rabbi Cohen was flown by emergency medical transport to Israel, where he is now hospitalized and in serious but stable condition.
As he battles the coronavirus, Cohen is already thinking about what the future holds for Mariupol. He wants to move the synagogue to a new location, a permanent one, where they can host even more people. The axe attack has also made him determined to find a suitable building in a safer neighborhood.
For there is no doubt in his mind, nor of those who know him, that he and his family will, with G‑d’s help, be back in Mariupol soon. War, terror or pandemic notwithstanding, there is work to do, souls to touch and a mission to complete.
This article has been reprinted with permission from chabad.org