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April 18, 2022 10:35 am
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‘It Was Our Choice to Stay’: A Wartime Seder at Kyiv’s Brodsky Synagogue

avatar by Helen Chervitz

Opinion

Tables are set for Seder at Kyiv’s Brodsky Synagogue. Photo: Helen Chervits

My husband and I were both born and raised in Kyiv, but it was early on made clear to us that we would not be treated the same as Ukrainians or Russians. Though we were not religiously observant, we were Jews, period. 

No sooner did we apply for emigration than we were stripped of our Soviet citizenship and fired from our jobs. In the late 1980s, we hit the road — to liberation, to an unknown but better life, as Jews.  After refugee camps in Austria and Italy, we landed in the US, where I quickly discovered that here, being Jewish was something to be proud of, not hidden.

But we would later return to the Ukrainian capital for my husband’s work, and when war with Russia broke out in February, we decided to stay. By being inside the heart of this disaster, we knew we could do much more for our native city and the families around us.

I thought of all this as I joined the Seder on Friday at Kyiv’s central Brodsky Synagogue. It is a Passover that feels more relevant here than ever: a story about freedom, and the sacrifices made on the road to liberation.

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Escorted by security guards with Kalashnikovs, the first thing that caught my eye were rows and rows of Seder packages to be distributed to the elderly, the sick, and even members of the military, to make sure all had the opportunity to fulfill the obligation of eating matzah on the first and second nights of Passover. 

The tables were set for some 150, thanks to the help of several women who have been volunteering in the synagogue since the war. Only one of the group is Jewish — the others spoke excitedly of dyeing eggs for Easter — and when I asked why they were there instead of Kyiv’s St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, the answer was unpretentious: they want to help, and Brodsky is the place taking in refugees. 

“When the synagogue hosted more than 300 evacuees from embattled Chernihiv, Jews and non-Jews, we were there. People needed help, and we could provide it,” one told me. For all my young life in Ukraine, I always felt we, as Jews, were very much separated from Ukrainians; it was my first time realizing that we are together here, and that the togetherness would last.

Rachele, the Jewish woman among the volunteers, is a force of nature. She seems to cook 24/7 as head of Brodsky’s kitchen, while serving as a member of the territorial defense, a Hebrew school teacher and a mother of three. She too once fled antisemitism in Ukraine, emigrating to Israel, but returned when her native land began moving toward democracy. 

She thought it was perfectly valid to compare the Jewish Exodus from Pharaoh’s oppression to the Ukrainian cause against Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Ukrainians are a free-spirit nation,” she continued. “It’s impossible to make them do something against their will. The same with Jews; that is how they protect and preserve themselves as a nation.” 

Another guest, Sander, told me that Ukrainians, Jews and even Russians living here are united in the country’s fight for “freedom.” A wartime Passover was not unprecedented, he said. “We Jews have been through a lot and we always follow our traditions and celebrate our holidays, and then we deal with our pains and stress.”

I met two Jewish men who came from Kirovograd, later called Kropyvnytskyi. “We came because of the rabbi … he is a true hero,” one told me, talking of Rabbi Reuven Azman. “Well-respected, energetic, brave. Our local rabbi fled the next day.”

The men descended, singing, from upstairs where they were praying. We were running behind schedule and I grew worried about going home after the curfew; but members of the territorial defense assured me they knew the pass-word (which changes daily), and promised me an escort home. (The chic Hotel de Paris, steps away, was also offering free luxury accommodations for those celebrating the holiday.)

Rabbi Azman has a character and energy that fills the room — loud, with sparkling eyes, and a wonderful singer. The guests broke into laughter and cheers when, in a Freudian slip, he referred to Pharaoh as “Putin.”

Of the 150 expected, there were less than 25. Alex, serving in the territorial defense, introduced himself as a soldat: a soldier. At the main table with Azman sat a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, and others close to the rabbi. It was a diverse group: intellectuals and not; mostly men and three Jewish women; later, two Americans, including one from my adopted home of New York. 

I imagined Seder at Brodsky would be traditional, maybe even boring (we hear the same story every year, and it’s a long one). But by the end of the night it looked like a wedding. Ample servings of food were coming and coming; potato salad, gefilte fish, stew, pickled tomatoes. Matzah from the United States! Jokes, arguments, discussions — everything felt like a casual pre-war gathering rather than a war-time religious ritual.

“The traditions of Seder are the same,” Rachele told me earlier. “The child asks the questions to the leader of the congregation; as it was years before. Nevertheless, we hope that the next Seder will be completely different.”

Next year in Jerusalem? “Those words mean that it was our choice to stay in Kyiv to help our city, our country to get independence,” Rachele said. “I do believe in the next year we might be in Jerusalem as free people. I don’t see why not.”

Helen Chervitz is a fashion marketing and branding expert who was born in Ukraine. She has lectured on the history of fashion, consulted young designers, and judged fashion competitions. Since the war, she also teaches English and volunteers with aid projects.

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