Two Rabbis from Ukraine Tell Stories of Sacrifice and Heroism

By Herschel Hartz
Assistant Director, Office of Student Life

Rabbi Levi Raices and Rabbi Chaim Levinson from Chabad of Kharkov, Ukraine, where they have been working for almost 30 years, joined over 30 students and northern Manhattan community members at the Yeshiva University’s Shenk Synagogue on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, for a discussion on the situation in their beleaguered country. It was the first time since the war broke out that Ukrainian refugees and Jewish leaders joined Yeshiva students in-person on the Wilf campus.

 

raices levinson ukraine
(l-r): Chaim Levinson, Herschel Hartz, Levi Raices

The two rabbis shared stories of tremendous sacrifice and heroism, showing devotion to the continued operation of their Jewish community and the saving of human life.

While government offices were being bombed, they stayed in Ukraine to support their congregants in the observing of Jewish traditions and law, the distribution of food and in the organized exit of more than half of the community.  Once the Russian bombing campaign extended to civilian homes and buildings, Rabbis Raices and Levinson, along with hundreds of others, fled to Western Ukraine and eventually to the United States.

On the eve of war, the Kharkov Jewish community celebrated the 30th year of its local Jewish school. The next morning, the bombing started.  Shocked congregants refused to board  buses to Western Ukraine, but Rabbis Raices and Levinson, as well as other community leaders, encouraged them to leave to save themselves and their families.

Rabbi Raices related how one of his congregants, a soldier in the Ukrainian army, broke into the synagogue during the middle of a Russian air strike to retrieve a pair of tefillin for a Bar Mitzvah boy, who Rabbi Raices had been working with in preparation of his Bar Mitzvah.

The boy’s mother spoke to Rabbi Raices via Zoom and shared photos of her son putting on tefillin, asking if it was being done correctly. Rabbi Raices was amazed by the mother’s devotion to Judaism, noting that many of his congregants are newcomers to Jewish religious observance. According to Jewish lore, G-d’s tefillin have written, “Who is like you, the Jewish people?” Rabbi Raices emotionally stated that he experienced this feeling himself, remarking that the Bar Mitzvah boy and his mother did all they could do in the midst of war to ensure tradition continued.