History has been a battlefield between Russia and Ukraine for years, and the history of the Jews was part of that battle. This can be heard today in Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric about “denazification” or in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s exhortations to commemorate the murdered Jews of Babyn Yar amid the Russian bombing. But the past is more than a backdrop for geopolitical maneuvers.
The founding of the Hasidic movement by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) in what is now western Ukraine revolutionized Jewish life. And Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson — the Rebbe, or seventh leader, of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — was born in Ukraine 120 years ago and later helped ignite the religious revival of Judaism after the Holocaust.
The Rebbe was born on April 18, 1902 in Mykolaiv to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Chana Schneerson. His maternal ancestors had been chief rabbis of the city since 1854. During a 1905 pogrom, his mother hid in a basement with other women whose horrified screams threatened to lure the anti-Semitic looters outside. Years later, she recalled her 3-year-old son calming down the other children.
In 1908, Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was elected Chief Rabbi of present-day Dnipro. There, the future Rebbe celebrated his Bar Mitzvah while helping his parents care for Jewish World War I refugees who were forcibly expelled from the western provinces of the Russian Empire. But tsarist persecution paled in comparison to communism’s destruction of Jewish religious and communal life.
The Soviets closed synagogues and yeshivas and forced the rabbis out of office. The Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim paid a heavy price to resist this oppression – many were sent to the gulags or executed. The Rebbe’s father played a key role in the resistance and openly urged the Jews to remain steadfast in their faith. He was arrested by the secret police in 1939, tortured and exiled to Kazakhstan.
The Rebbe later wrote that “those who withstood the terrible torrent of intimidation and survived” had something in common: “They had internalized the Hasidic teachings and, through proper education, the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice they inspire.” the Rebbe’s work in strengthening Jewish life and learning behind the Iron Curtain was kept secret, and he maintained an underground educational and service network that stretched throughout the Soviet Union.
A new era began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1990 the Rebbe began sending permanent pairs of envoys to revitalize Jewish life in Ukraine. A year later, the KGB of Ukraine publicly admitted that they framed and tortured the Rebbe’s father, causing his death in 1944.
Even without the Soviets, being a proud and visible Jew in Ukraine was not easy. But that changed in the decades that followed: 192 Chabad husband-and-wife teams took root in 32 cities across the country, building synagogues, schools, and social centers. Huge Hanukkah menorahs illuminating public spaces signaled the end of the days of hiding one’s Judaism. While the Schneerson name was reviled, the new Ukraine embraced it. In 2016, Mykolaiv and Dnipro renamed streets for the Rebbe.
Since the Russian invasion, this thriving Jewish community has been turned on its head, but it has not disappeared. The communal structure established to support Jewish life in Ukraine revolved around an attempt to save its Jews, along with other innocent civilians, from the destruction of war.
Chabad distributes food and medicines across the country and turns synagogue basements into bomb shelters. Dnipro’s 20-story Chabad center has become a hectic humanitarian aid base for refugees, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as they are helped to leave the country. Chabads from battle-hardened locations like Mariupol and Sumy continue to evacuate people to safety. The organization has helped more than 35,000 people flee and will continue to do so as long as there are people in need.
On March 2, Avraham Wolff, chief rabbi of Odessa and representative of Chabad, sent around 120 children and employees from his community’s children’s home to Berlin. When they arrived, Rabbi Wolff and his wife followed with another 140 women and children. Having accommodated them, the rabbi drove back to Odessa alone. At the Palanca border crossing, he was the only one who drove into Ukraine.
“Everything I have absorbed during my 52 years from the Rebbe’s teachings and example in the Torah — how nothing is more important or dear to God than helping someone materially or spiritually — was for these last few weeks,” Rabbi Wolff told me recently.
The Rebbe taught that true education should charge us with a sense of responsibility to others and to God. It is no coincidence that these values are being put into practice today by the Jewish communities he revived and inspired. Nor that this great modern Jewish sage was born 120 years ago in Ukraine – a country that has come to terms with its past as an example of civil courage and steadfastness to the world.
Mr. Margolin is senior editor at Chabad.org.
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https://www.wsj.com/articles/chabads-ukraine-communism-ussr-tsar-de-nazification-russia-invasion-hasidic-movement-jewish-community-repression-persecution-antisemitism-refugee-11648745664 Chabad’s Ukraine Mission – WSJ