Dear Shluchim and Shluchos, selfless leaders serving the Jewish communities of Russia and Ukraine,
Let me begin by taking a moment to wish you a Gmar Chatima Tova, may each of you be signed and sealed in the Book of Life for an awesome 5784. May you have an easy and meaningful Yom Kippur and may you experience G-d’s infinite grace in every facet of this year. It’s a time of annual introspection, between the high holy days Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and I am reflecting on the people who shined brightly in 5783 and to whom G-d will undoubtedly look to when blessing Am Yisroel with a super 5784, and it’s you who comes to mind.
I am writing this on Tzom Gedalia, the day on which we fast and commemorate the life of a Jewish hero named Gedalia Ben Achikam, who, like you, defended his people selflessly, and in his case, sadly lost his life in the process. Like rabbis the world over, I’m operating in slow-motion today, as I recover from a very busy Rosh Hashana in our ever-growing community. During the forty-eight-hours of Yom Tov, over one-hundred-and forty-five Jews came through our welcoming doors to pray, enjoy mouthwatering holiday meals, listen to the Shofar blasts, cast away sins at Tashlich; ushering in what is to be a promising 5784. Walking home from downtown, late yesterday afternoon, having blown the Shofar for an additional thirteen Jews who couldn’t make it to Shul, the sun was baking strongly, and my feet were hurting. I was getting cranky, and then I thought of you guys, and it shifted my perspective.
Sure, I was still hot and achy, but I was living free of war, in beautiful Montana, with no worries of missiles crashing into the house next door, no fright that we’d need to run to a bunker in middle of services, no fear that an armed drone would hit the skyscraper down the block and wreak havoc, no concern that my donors wouldn’t be able to support our holiday programs because of sanctions or because they’ve left the community. It was like my feet slowly healed and my sweat dissipated; I was blessed to be in Montana and blown away by what y’all are enduring during this very same time. I know many have “moved on” from the Russia/Ukraine war, but not us at Chabad Lubavitch, as we live and breathe the war through our colleagues daily.
With Yom Kippur just days away, I think of the heart-wrenching words of the “U’nesane Tokef” prayer and how real it must feel for you. I mean, it’s real for me too, we all deal with the fragility of life, but knowing how many of your congregants are enlisted in their respective armies, how many of the flock that you shepherd was hurt or sadly died, how many of your local Jews have escaped the war and moved elsewhere, I feel like the words ring really true for you. “…on Yom Kippur it will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created, who will live and who will die…who by water and who by fire, who by sword…who by famine…who by thirst, who by storm…. Who will rest and who will wander”. I could only imagine having the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, open during these soulful prayers and how close to home it hits for you and your beloved congregations.
Each of you, rabbis and rebbetzins, are living heroes and heroines, who despite living under harsh realities of war, have chosen to stay with your communities and service them with the love and inspiration that the Rebbe of blessed memory instilled in us. There’s enough challenges and hiccups doing our work on a good day, without having to worry about tanks rolling in, electricity being knocked out, and not having functioning hospitals in your region in case they are needed. I don’t know what I would do if I was in your position, perhaps I’d be inspired as you are and do the same, but that doesn’t take away one iota of how impressed I am with your altruism and absolute devotion to our people.
I’m sure, some who will read this will wonder if I am equating the realities in Russia and Ukraine. I am not, but that isn’t relevant to the content of this letter, which is not about the politics of war and the geopolitics of the region, it’s about the bright lights in both countries. Governments orchestrate wars and it’s their citizens who are the victims; it’s just really sad all around. In the 21st century we should be better, we should do better, we should care more about our fellow human beings. There is too much money in the war industry, too many countries use war as a first option, too many leaders want to have a macho public persona to cover up their insecurities, and it’s their people who suffer the consequences. If only they had a therapist or spiritual guide, the world would be a lot more peaceful.
As Chassidim, as Torah Jews, we were educated and trained to almost never accept war as a righteous path and to always seek peace, whenever it’s even remotely possible. I know that each of you would prefer a peaceful solution to the conflict, where all citizens can feel safe again and no more blood will spill into the streets of your cities. Criticizing the war is a punishable crime in both of your countries, so I don’t expect you to speak up, as our role isn’t to take on the government, but rather to illuminate our communities. At a time, when other rabbis have abandoned their positions, sought their own comforts, and poured salt on the wound of cowardice as they act as mouthpieces for political expedience with self-aggrandizing stunts, you guys, the Rebbe’s men and women, and your families, with unparalleled faith and perseverance that is of biblical proportions, stayed with your Jews, your beloved congregants, and kept their spark of a hopeful and bright Judaism aflame.
This Rosh Hashana, a dear friend in our Shul, Henoch Leib, came over to me and Chavie and said that “it’s the first time in seventy years that he’s heard the Shofar”. It was an amazing moment, priceless, invaluable; it’s what Hashem yearns for from His people. Because you stayed in your communities amid all the chaos, I read about many such priceless moments. a Bris in Kharkov, a Torah inauguration in Dnipro, a group praying at the Alter Rebbe’s resting place in Haditch, a new school for special needs children in Novosibirsk, a Bris in Lipetsk, a new Mikvah being built in Kaliningrad, and a new Shul in Vitebsk in neighboring Belarus, a country that is also struggling with the drumbeat of war. I saw the Ukrainian team of Shluchim meet with President Zelensky before Rosh Hashana and I saw Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar meeting with President Putin in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, and I was glad that both countries recognize those who serve their Jewish population. Each of you interacts with your government, leaving politics aside, doing what’s in the best interest of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in your spiritual jurisdiction.
In Pirkei Avos we are taught that we must “pray for the welfare of our government”, praying to G-d that our leaders make the best decisions that help their citizenry. Whether it’s Shluchim and Shluchos serving in China, Turkey, Morocco, Israel, DRC, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Venezuela, or the USA, it’s expected of them to work with their government officials, not fight them, which would only make things harder for the local Jews. It’s childish, and even dangerous, to assume that in the name of getting into a CNN or Fox headline we should destroy the Jewish experience for the local populace who will be there for the long haul.
My dear colleagues: the suffering you have endured over the last eighteen months is great. I think so often of my dear maternal cousins Rabbi Yossi Wolff in Kherson, Rabbi Avremi Wolff in Odessa, and Rabbi Benny Wolff in Sevastopol and all that they’ve experienced since the conflict commenced. I think of my paternal cousin Rebbetzin Malkie Bukiet from Zhitomir, who, together with her husband Rabbi Zalman and their senior Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, relocated their entire orphanage to Israel. I think of my cousin Rabbi Mendy Glitsenstein in Chernivtsi who has welcomed tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees seeking temporary shelter in their calm city, near the border of Romania and my cousin Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook of St. Petersburg who has stayed with his community, serving with heart and soul through very difficult days. I think of the Shluchim in Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Poland who have opened their doors to hundreds of thousands without hesitation. I think of Rabbi Kaminezki who still employes seventy couples as they serve the fifty thousand Jews in Dnipro, the financial capital of Ukraine. I think of Rabbi Deren in downtown Moscow who must wonder when the next drone will hit a building in his neighborhood or Rabbi Zaklos in Bryansk who must help Jews in his region where missiles land almost daily.
In a world where spiritual leadership and unwavering social services is often tainted by a need to wade into the political arena, I am in awe of you my dear brothers and sisters, who stay laser focused on caring for the Jews and fellow gentile citizens as G-d would want of you, and I know that G-d will take that into consideration when blessing His people for 5784. Food, medicine, hugs, water, respectful burials, family Simchos, hospital visitations; you’ve done it all and more, and you did it with a smile.
Moscow and Kiev, Kremenchug and Rostov, Lubavitch and Mezibuz, Malakhovka and Poltava, these are names of cities and towns that gave birth to the founders of Chassidism and its students who carried the torch of its teachings through fire and water. It was in these locales that our ancestors were trained in the ideals of Mesiras Nefesh, learning to love G-d, Torah and our fellow Jews with every fiber of our beings, even if life itself is on the line. You, my beloved colleagues, who are still living in these places and carrying that same selflessness, you’re the Persons of the Year in my book and will be a source of inspiration for generations to come.
Don’t let any forces get in the way of your smile, your care, and your inner spark. Pontificators and Jews in western Ivory towers will give you advice, tell you what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing, they will at times encourage you to be something different; ignore them. Keep doing what you’re doing and know that on Yom Kippur when G-d is seeking to atone the mistakes of our people He will look down on Eastern Europe and see how Jewish life is flourishing through all the challenges, giving Him the greatest incentive to bless Jewry with an awesome year.
As I stand in our Bozeman Shul at Ne’ila, singing the Napoleon March, which is our Chabad tradition, I will think of victory. Not victory of one country over another, but victory of peace over war, good over evil, courage over cowardice, and I will think of your lamp of kindness and faith that has shined through these eighteen months of hell. I will pray for the moment when we will all be in Jerusalem with the coming of Mashiach in a world that is peaceful and joyous.
I am honored to call you colleagues and pray for your wellbeing daily.
I know that our Rebbe is proud.
Your brother in Montana,
May G-d guard our brethren in Israel and the world over from harm and send us Mashiach speedily. May G-d protect the armed forces of Israel and the United States wherever they may be. Good Shabbos! Good Yom Tov! Shana Tova! Chazak!!! L’Chaim!!!