‘A fight of light against darkness’

‘A fight of light against darkness’

Ukraine’s chief rabbi comes to Teaneck to talk about the war

Ukraine’s Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman looks at the devastation left by Russian bombs. (All photos courtesy Mitzvah for Ukraine)
Ukraine’s Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman looks at the devastation left by Russian bombs. (All photos courtesy Mitzvah for Ukraine)

When you click on the video, you see a handsome, stocky man with ruddy skin, light eyes, and a long, scraggly graying beard, wearing a helmet and an apparently undersized protective vest, against a lush background of leaves that match his helmet, vest, and eyes.

The man — Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Ukraine — looks into the camera and starts to talk. “Dear friends,” he begins, in heavily accented English, saying that he’s in Kherson to help take people to this safer side of the river, when the explosions begin.

The video goes whirligig as the person holding it loses control; you see the street from gutter level, you see running legs and — briefly — the shadow of a dog, and the world somersaults around you; you hear more explosions and loud panting.

At the end, the video rights itself; we see a police car, and Rabbi Azman looks at us levelly again.

Rabbi Azman looks at the destruction caused by Russian missiles.

It is terrifying.

The video (easily googleable on YouTube, where it’s called Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Rabbi Moshe Azman Under Attack in Kherson, Ukraine) was made on June 8, soon after the dam over the Dnipro was breached, the surrounding area flooded catastrophically, and the Russians — almost definitely the perpetrators — shelled the devastated city.

This Sunday, Rabbi Azman, on Zoom from Anatevka — the village he presciently built as a temporary home and training center for displaced Ukrainians in 2015, and now is sheltering many refugees from this war — talked about the situation in Ukraine.

One of his sons-in-law, Chaim Klimovitsky, was in another Zoom box. Rabbi Azman was born in Leningrad, and his English is good but understandably not great. Mr. Klimovitsky was born in Brooklyn; he’s fluent in Russian and Hebrew, but of course his native language is English.

Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman stands in front of a sign that reads “Kherson Region.”

Rabbi Azman is in Kyiv now, and Mr. Klimovitsky is based in Israel, but they’re both going to be in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area this week. Rabbi Azman will speak at Keter Torah in Teaneck on Sunday. (See below.)

Rabbi Azman’s shul is in Kyiv; Mr. Klimovitsky is the executive director of Mitzvah for Ukraine, an advocacy organization. Under the aegis of the chief rabbi’s office, Mitzvah for Ukraine has become one of the country’s most successful humanitarian groups, raising money for all Ukrainians.

The two men’s message is clear.

It is necessary for Jews to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia. It is necessary for all people of good will to support Ukraine. The support must be material, financial, political, and spiritual, and it must be unstinting.

Rabbi Azman and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky are in Jerusalem in January 2020.

The first question to pose to Rabbi Azman, as he stands in bright daylight in Ukraine, is if he’s okay. Is he safe in Kyiv now?

“No, we are not safe right now,” he said. “There have been many explosions in Kyiv.

“I sent my family to Israel, but some of my children have come back here with me, and they help me work. But no, we are not safe here. Every day we have air raids and attack drones, and we don’t know where it’s coming from. Ukrainians are not safe.”

In the weeks before February 24, 2022, when the Russians first attacked, “we knew that the war would begin — we didn’t believe it, but we knew it. When I was a child, in Leningrad, we studied about how World War II began. It was in 1941, when the Germans invaded at 4 in the morning, and people said then, ‘It’s war.’”

Rabbi Azman works with Ukrainian army volunteers to deliver air conditioners to wounded soldiers.

Now, he said, it’s the same thing. The same feeling. The same understanding — when he heard about Russia’s invasion.

“It’s war,” he said he thought then. “I knew it was coming, but emotionally, I never expected it.

“I was here in Anatevka, and I heard bombs 10, 15 kilometers from here, and a helicopter, and I said, ‘It’s war.’

“It gave me the shivers. I never expected that the day would come when the Russians would come here to kill people.”

Rabbi Azman and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat comfort an elderly woman who was displaced by the war.

Mr. Klimovitsky detailed Rabbi Azman’s work, as Rabbi Azman listened and occasionally amplified or clarified his son-in-law’s words.

“Right now, the focus is on keeping the Jewish community up and moving,” Mr. Klimovitsky said. “Weddings, chevrei kadisha, getting kosher food, having Shabbos and Shabbatonim for college students, having Sunday events, opening the school for kindergarten kids — kids have been out of school for so long, for three years, first with covid, then the war. Keeping the spirituality alive. A lot of what Rabbi Azman does is around keeping the spiritual life alive.”

He also responds to emergencies. “When Kherson happened — nobody knew what happened at first, it was a mess — Rabbi Azman got six vehicles, including an amphibious one, and a team went down there and started evacuating people. He’s been trying to get supplies down there.”

He works with both Jews and non-Jews, Rabbi Azman said; it’s important to him to do that, and for the world to know that. People under attack are people under attack.

Rabbi Azman distributes military aid with a chaplain, who is a priest.

Once people are rescued, the trauma they’ve endured poses new demands on them. That’s true of soldiers as well. Mr. Klimovitsky talked about his father-in-law’s visit to wounded soldiers last year. “Inside the hospital, it was 35 degrees,” he said; “Celsius,” he clarified. That’s 95 Fahrenheit. “The next day, we delivered air conditioners, and they can be used for heating in the winter. We deliver medical supplies, some of them from America. We’ve delivered wheelchairs.”

Mitzvah for Ukraine welcomes donations of things as well as money. Water filtration systems are particularly in demand.

Why? Remember, he said, “These are our boys.” And, he added, “This is a fight of light against darkness.

“This was a tyrant attacking a country that wants its freedom, its land, its nationhood. The vision of a free democracy. The country still is figuring out what it will look like.”

Ukrainians gather outside Rabbi Azman’s shul — the Brodsky Synagogue in Kyiv — as they wait for aid.

What about the Jews? “The Jewish community there now doesn’t want to leave,” Mr. Klimovitsky said. “There are so many Jewish soldiers that the head chaplain asked for a Jewish chaplain.”

He talks about Gary Tabach, the Russian-born (he was Yuri then), Philadelphia-bred U.S. military retiree who was chief of staff for NATO’s military liaison mission in Moscow. Now, he “is in Ukraine, risking his life,” Mr. Klimovitsky said. He’s fighting not just for the Jewish community, but for Ukraine. He’s a role model.

Jews have had a complicated history in Ukraine, Rabbi Azman and Mr. Klimovitsky acknowledge, and some of it was horrible, but now Ukrainian Jews identify with their country, are accepted as Ukrainians, and want the rest of the world to know and understand that.

“This war started over a Jewish issue — denazifying Ukraine,” he continued; that was Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s false claim that Nazis had taken over Ukraine’s government, and that many government officials, including its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, were Nazis. (That’s not really why Putin invaded.)

In Ukraine, Rabbi Azman, center, and his son-in-law, Chaim Klimovitsky, in black shirt, escort Nir Barkat, left, former mayor of Jerusalem, on a tour of the war-torn country.

Many Ukrainians — including many Jews — fled the country after the Russians invaded, but many of them are returning. Now, Mr. Klimovitsky said. “About 50 percent of the Jewish population who left are coming back.” They’re not returning to the eastern part of the country, which either is under Russian control or heavy constant fire; they’re going to Kyiv and other cities in western Ukraine instead.

Zelensky’s being Jewish — albeit entirely secular — is a point of great pride for both men, and for the Ukrainian Jewish community, they said. “It is very powerful.” But it brings them back to their dissatisfaction with the Jewish community’s response to the war. “Why aren’t they building bridges?” Mr. Klimovitsky said. “Zelensky is standing out there alone. It is a proxy war, and no one is helping them. Why isn’t the Jewish world supporting the fight for freedom? This isn’t a party thing. A political thing. It is a values thing. Abrahamic values are not killing people. This is not Jewish values.”

Ukraine is changing, Mr. Klimovitsky said. “It’s leaving the Soviet bloc and joining the West. Let’s build bridges. Let’s make Jewish events, where we bring Jewish leaders to get advice from each other. And not only Jewish organizations. Let’s get governmental organizations to do that.”

The two men’s biographies illuminate the new Ukraine. Rabbi Azman is Chabad, although his position as chief rabbi is not, he said. He is not a politician, but “a people person,” according to his son-in-law.

Rabbi Azman is with Danny Dannon, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

It’s that trait that brought him briefly to the attention of the American press a few years ago, when former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and two of his supporters, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, came to Anatevka. “They came to us as philanthropists,” Mr. Klimovitsky said. “We were told that he was good for the Jews. And then this whole mess happened.” (That’s the mess of American politics as it intruded on and misunderstood Rabbi Azman.)

“People were like, ‘Oh, you were involved,’ and I was like, ‘No, we were not involved,’” he continued, with annoyance. “Rabbi Azman is not a party person. He is a people person. He is friendly with everybody who can help spread his vision, and that was used against him.”

Now, though, the videos of Rabbi Azman under fire, and the understanding of how he continues his work nevertheless, replace those older, less accurate images.

Mr. Klimovitsky embodies the new Ukraine, which doesn’t exist yet, but its supporters hope will be born at the war’s end. His religious ties are broader than his father-in-law’s; he’s connected to Chabad, went to Yeshiva University, and replaces other labels for his brand of Jewish practice by saying that he’s “just Jewish.”

Rabbi Azman sits with Boris Johnson, then the UK’s prime minister.

Until the war started and he became the head of his father-in-law’s advocacy organization, Mr. Klimovitsky exported furniture to the United States. Ukraine will be a good market, he said. But now, his job is “asking the Jewish community around the world to help the Ukrainian Jewish community survive.”

Rabbi Azman and Mr. Klimovitsky both stress the comparison between Ukraine and Israel. “Everyone is fighting for an identity; the Jews and the Ukrainians both are surrounded by bigger enemies, and face threats from missiles from those enemies. Israel is being blackmailed by Russians, who control Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. And remember that there still are many Jews in Russia,” who are vulnerable to pressure from Russia, used to coerce Israel through them.

It’s all about building bridges, both men said. They urge Jewish leaders to show their support by showing up.

Mr. Klimovitsky explained why it is so important for American Jews to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia. “This is who we are. No matter where we are on the spectrum of Jewish life, these are our values. Deep in our souls, this is who we are. This is the inheritance that we got from our parents and grandparents.”

To donate to Mitzvah for Ukraine or for more information, go to officeofchiefrabbi.org

Who: Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman

What: Will talk about the war in Ukraine, his firsthand experiences, and Mitzvah for Ukraine

When: On Sunday, July 23, from 10:15 to 11:30 a.m.

Where: Congregation Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck

For whom: It’s open to the entire community

RSVP: Requested (but not required): bit.ly/bergencountyjuly23

For more information: officeofchiefrabbi.org

Also: Light refreshments will be served

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