A Kyiv-based rabbi is once again a refugee, coordinating the evacuation of his congregants amid Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine – eight years after he and his community were first displaced from Donetsk due to a Russian-backed insurgency in 2014.
“With the start of the war on Thursday [Feb. 24], we slowly started to get people out," said Israeli-born Pinchas Vishedski, speaking to Haaretz by phone from a rented room in Iai, Romania on Saturday evening. "When the situation got more complicated on Friday, we continued to evacuate people and even on Shabbat.”
Vishedski described a hagira (migration) that is in some ways similar to one he led in 2014. During that displacement, members of the Donetsk Jewish community fled to the southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol before moving on to Dnipro, Kyiv and other cities.
“On Monday we organized a large convoy, and from Monday afternoon until Tuesday evening, more than 250 people got out with us. It was very dangerous, very complicated, but God helped,” he said.
Vishedski is a longtime Ukraine emissary for the Hasidic movement Chabad, whose Kedem synagogue in Kyiv catered to refugees from Crimea and the Donbas. He said that while a significant number of community members have been able to escape abroad, others are still stuck in the war-torn country, including some who are barred from leaving because they are of military age and thus subject to enlistment in the Ukrainian armed forces.
The rabbi said he has still not mentally processed his latest exile, which is part of a larger flight of over 1.5 million people who have escaped Ukraine thus far, according to the most recent United Nations estimates.
“I don’t even know how it feels. I don’t have time now to think about how to feel. Now I am working like a machine, simply doing what is necessary to help other Jews. After all of this I will get into thinking how I feel,” he said, adding that he was running out of resources to care for those turning to him for help.
- Bennett’s Meeting With Putin Was the Right Move, but What Can It Achieve?
- What Israel Can Do for Ukraine – and What It Can't
- Israel’s Rejection of Ukrainian Refugees Shows It’s the Darkness Unto the Nations
- 'I Fled the Nazis, Now the Russians': Jewish Refugees Find Shelter in Moldova
“I am in Romania very close to the Moldovan border, where there is an airport. We understood we needed to be in a place, and we succeeded to find a place, a transit point. We sent people to Israel and there will be another flight tonight and there are people who are still arriving all the time. On Shabbat, we had more than 150 people here with us, and we are trying to feed them,” he said.
In a Haaretz interview from prior to the invasion, Vishedski had said, “We’re looking at our central mission as one of strengthening Jews, giving them faith and certainly not hysteria and panic.” At that time he had believed Ukraine's civilians were in significantly less danger now than in the 2014 conflict, when Russian annexed Crimea and stoked a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that led to years of fighting and more than 14,000 deaths.
The UN officially reports hundreds of civilians killed since the current hostilities began 11 days ago, but the real number is likely to be in the thousands.
In that interview he also said he believed his previous experience would help aide a new wave of refugees. “We are, unfortunately, experienced.”
Unlike Kyiv Chief Rabbi Yonatan Markovitch, who landed in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening, vowing to lobby Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government to provide increased aid to Ukraine, Vishedski said Saturday that he has no intention of going to Israel.
“I am still not returning,” he said. “I still have things to do here.”