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Rabbi Moshe Asman: “You need to start improving the world by first improving yourself”

The chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine from the All-Ukrainian congress of Jewish religious communities talks about the refugees from the Jewish communities of Donetsk and Lugansk, anti-Semitism, and the friendship between the Ukrainian and Jewish peoples, about the friendship of the Ukrainian and Jewish peoples, about peace in Ukraine and the miracles of Hanukkah

He jokingly calls himself a “people’s” rabbi. The native of St. Petersburg refers to himself with Jewish humor as a “Yid Banderite”, has an excellent knowledge of Ukrainian and dresses up as Ukrainian Hetman for Purim.

From his activities, you could write a large part of the history of Ukrainian Jews since the time of Ukrainian independence, for it was this person who defended the Central synagogue of Kiev, which for many years was turned into a puppet theater, and now works with hundreds of Jewish families of refugees from the ATO zone.

Moshe Asman talked about where and how refugees live, about the dispersal of Maidan not far from the synagogue a year ago, about prayers for a strong regime, and the miracle of Hanukkah in an exclusive interview with Jewishnews.com.ua.

About five months ago, the first migrants began coming to the community. The rabbi of the Lugansk Jewish community, Rabbi Shalom Gopin, came to us. He said that people were fleeing Lugansk en masse, many of them Jews, who were looking for protection in the community. We have to find a solution: how to help them, how to receive them, where to send them. Shortly before this, the Kiev community bought an old, abandoned summer camp for our children in the village of Krymki by the town of Shpola in the Cherkassy Oblast. It was in such a terribly state that we didn’t even know how to repair it! And we also didn’t have the necessary funds at that time. We didn’t have enough financing to maintain the existing programs and the school. So work on renovating the summer camp for the community’s children was postponed.

But Rabbi Shalom’s problem could not be delayed: people’s lives had to be saved!

We opened a base and began to look for ways to improve the Soviet remains of the camp, so that we could bring refugees there.

Several days later, Rabbi Shalom rang and said that the first group of people from Lugansk had successfully arrived at the camp. The community joined together, and in several days we started to create elementary conditions for them, gradually providing them with necessary goods: places to sleep, to wash and to eat… We started gathering funds. They fled from Lugansk, “in what they were wearing”. They didn’t have warm items and not even underwear – they had nothing, not even documents. With combined forces, we [the community] provided them with everything – from A to Z.

In autumn we faced the problem that the former pioneers’ camp was a summer camp [the camp is near a picturesque forest], and did not have infrastructure for the children to stay there in winter. There was no heating for the winter. In a very short period, we had to install heating, put in windows and tidy up the area…. We used everything we could to provide fit living conditions.

Refugees continue to come to us: those who were only able to escape from there now.

The number of people living permanently at the camp varies from 100 to 200. After they recover at the camp, some of them start their lives over again in another city in Ukraine (we help them or they find work and accommodation themselves). We took some of them to Israel, and there they continue to build their future. There are elderly people who cannot organize their lives, to get to their feet again, because of their age or health. They are even people who left the camp, did not manage to settle down, and returned to us. Every person is an individual destiny, and we try to examine and solve the problems and needs of each person individually.

We try to find every Jew who is faced with threatening living conditions.

We don’t stop work on providing support and help to each member of the community. With this aim, we work closely with the Jewish organizations “Joint” and “Sokhnut”, for this is our common cause: we must unite to help and save people who are still in danger.

Rabbi Pinkhas Vyshedstki, the Donetsk rabbi, moved to Kiev some time ago with part of his community. He prays in our synagogue (the Brodsky Choral synagogue] and tries to help his community from there: the members who have not yet decided to leave Donetsk, although there are not many Jews left there.

The Lugansk rabbi, as far as I know, is now in Israel. A large part of the Lugansk community lives here in the children’s camp. Are there many Jews left in Lugansk? I can’t give a precise figure, but there are a considerable number. Most of them are elderly people who cannot physically leave, and were not able or were afraid to leave their property… There are various social reasons for these decisions.

Children are driven 80 kilometers every day to the nearest Jewish school in the city of Cherkassy [at the Cherkassy Jewish school with the cooperation of the city’s chief rabbi and the Levaev foundation, a boarding house was founded where the schoolchildren from Krymki live]. Thanks to Rabbi Dov Akselrod, as he created all the conditions there so that they could continue to study. The families who moved to Kiev from the East are also settled, and their children continue to study at the school of the “Mitvah” Jewish community. We also provide meals three times a day at the camp: we regularly deliver kosher products from Kiev.

We try to ensure that people are provided with everything they need, and at the same time receive a spiritual element – there is an active Jewish life in the camp.

For example, we built a sukkah for Sukkot, and on Hanukkah people came from our yeshiva, to light the Hanukkah candles together. And there is a woman who teaches Hebrew.

With G-d’s help, we will soon be able to build a mikveh in the camp, and a synagogue. These are our plans. Incidentally, recently we were about to build a house on the grave of the Tzadik “Shpoler zeide” [“grandfather from Shpola”], a renowned righteous man who is buried within the town limits of Shpola. After his death, the local community built a small temple on his grave. Over the last decades, the Jewish population in the down has dropped, and the house fell into disrepair. We were able to find people who gave funds for the temple, and we built a large red house in the place of the old one. And with G-d’s help, the community of Shpola is being… I would like to use the word “reborn” [sighs], but… At least the time has come for the rebirth of Jewish life there.

Who could have thought just two years ago that we would buy a children's camp [initially it was planned to purchase and renovate a summer camp in the Kiev Oblast], and that it would be needed for the Jewish refugees of Ukraine? But in literally 1.5 years, all the circumstances led to one area, the Shpola region: the grave of the Tzadik, the children's camp, the events in Ukraine and the redesigned camp. It was divine providence!

We don't know what will happen in Ukraine tomorrow. But we hope all the refugees can settle down: we will help them to make aliyah to Israel, and those who cannot or do not wish to leave can settle in Kiev or other cities. We also have plans for projects for social accommodation for refugees. We will decide this with each family individually. So far we are coping with the number of refugees, but new families constantly arrive. Only the Almighty knows how long this situation in the country will continue. We will help as long as we need to.

If we're talking about the situation in the country, I don't want to speak empty words, everyone already understands what is going on.

The situation in the country is difficult, of course. But I can say for certain: the people in Ukraine have united around the problems.

The Kiev community is also doing everything it can: we pray, hold charity campaigns, to help the people prevail in these difficult times. This community spirit comes from the spiritual side – this is a bonus for the country.

Ukraine must create a powerful state on these dogmas! To realize this, fair courts are necessary. This is one of the seven commandments for humanity, for the family of Noah, which the Almighty gave it. Courts that can be bought off violate the tenants of Genesis. Judges should learn not to take bribes, and to work honestly. If the regime has announced a new path, then it needs to be built properly in all the power verticals.

To start improving the world, you must first improve yourself.

Ukraine has fertile land. This country can feed itself and others (like it used to do), and develop export. The Jewish community prays and tries to make its contribution to Ukraine's prosperity. It is Hanukkah at the moment, the holiday of light, and we traditionally light candles in the center of Ukraine and Europe, so that the light of Hanukkah spreads and settles in souls, and people become warmer to each other. And then the Almighty will give His blessing: material and spiritual well-being.

A month ago there was a report that Israel had allocated financing for migrants of the Jewish community. I don't know about this either, but I know about it from the news. They announced that they would give money through the «Joint» organization. We are waiting for their help, but I do not know the size of the sum and how it will be distributed. We submitted an application to receive this help, for the camp is not the only place where aid is required. There are also migrants in other Oblasts, and in Kiev. We hope that the aid requested from Israel will reach those who need it.

A year ago in the center of Kiev, we planned a major event: lighting the menorah for Hanukkah, where many Jews gathered on one of the squares in the capital. At was at that moment a year ago that Maidan was dispersed. That time force was used: not far from the synagogue there was carnage. When we heard that the peaceful Maidan was becoming dangerous, I cancelled the entire entertainment program, which we had prepared especially for Hanukkah.

A year ago we only lit the candles, there was no celebrating. I explained to then community that we could not make merry in a sincere way when people were being beaten up a kilometer away from us, and peaceful citizens were suffering.

In Ukraine, for almost the first time in the history of the Jewish people, a miracle has occurred! For despite the numerous attempts to inflame the inter-ethnic conflict or accuse Ukraine of anti-Semitism yet again, the facts say the opposite. For example, the number of votes received at the presidential elections by Vadim Rabinovich was higher than for the Communist Party, Right Sector etc. Here you don't even have to explain anything – the ‘facts speak for themselves”, they are the most eloquent response to the propaganda that has been conducted against Ukraine. Now the ethnic groups in the country are very friendly: Ukrainians and Jews... Everyone is trying to endure this difficult time for the country together. On our side, we try to help, and attract financing here.

When people ask me if there is anti-Semitism in Ukraine, I reply confidently: “Yes, there is!”. For wherever Semites live, there are anti-Semites. But there are not more of them in Ukraine than there are in Europe and other countries.

Or to put it more precisely, there is clearly less anti-Semitism here than in many other countries.

We conduct monitoring of cases of manifestations of anti-Semitism: in Europe and Russia they are far more frequent than in Ukraine.

February was a very difficult month, I would even say it was fateful for the country and society. We all remember the dates when over 100 civilians were killed at Maidan. The synagogue was less than a kilometer away. But despite the troubled situation, the community continued to pray for peace, and the prayer did not stop, not even for a day. The only thing is that we tried to stop large crowds of people from gathering at the synagogue. Although there were warnings about various scenarios... For example that the regime was planning an act of provocation against us. We had to be very careful ourselves.

But in the end, even “Maidan Self-defense” offered us protection! They didn't want for any precedents to arise involving the Jewish people and our parishioners: they even installed a radio in the synagogue so that if there were any acts of provocation, they could react and come to protect us. Undoubtedly, the instability of the situation is a very bad thing.

It is written in our books: pray for the well-being of the authorities. If it weren't for the fear of them, people would have long since swallowed each other alive. So any unstable situation, and weak regime, is a bad thing. What happened under the previous regime in the country is quite incomprehensible, you can't even call it laughable. It is good that Ukraine has such a strong regime today, and we should pray for its well-being.

The only thing I would like to wish is for this regime to look the people honestly in the eyes and do its honest work for its people.

Every Shabbat during readings of the Torah, we add a separate prayer for the well-being of the regime, for peace, for the Almighty to protect us from the country's enemies and give it a material and spiritual boost. We also pray for everyone: for the president, for the leadership of Ukraine, and for the people of the Ukrainian nation.

Hanukkah is the holiday of the victory of the few over the many, the righteous over the sinful...

Hanukkah really does teach us many lessons, about when the small army of the Maccabees defeated a mighty enemy. And the most powerful weapon in our hands then was that we were united, dedicated to the Almighty, we fought bravely and won, performing a miracle. And then a miracle took place with the light, when the flame did not burn for one day, but eight, until new oil was made.

This is why we want the Almighty to make peace and send the Messiah. And when He comes, there will be peace throughout the world, everyone will live in friendship, and nations will understand each other. And this will happen soon! For the Lubavticher rebbe said that we are living in the last generation before the coming of the Messiah.

We can see that the entire world is excited at the moment, and this is a sign of the coming of the Messiah.

I would sincerely like to wish for this to happen soon, and in our time.

Amen! [Truly!]

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