I am writing this note on the 14th yahrzeit of the founder of Aish, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory. While we have many memorials and tributes planned, the greatest legacy for Rav Noach is in the power of his students who continue to lead the way around the world. Rav Noach taught us all the meaning of the word “responsibility.” We are honored and proud to continue “taking responsibility” for the physical and spiritual well-being of our brothers and sisters.
It is within this spirit that I relate to you the details of my most recent trip to Kyiv, Ukraine. When I accepted the invitation of the Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman to visit, I didn’t really process the magnitude of the trip. All I really considered was that there were Jews who needed to know that we had not forgotten them.
As there are no working airports in Ukraine, I arrived in Kyiv last Wednesday after an eight hour car ride. As I checked into my hotel, I was assured that there was a backup generator on the premises in case the power went out. I was also told that there was a serious curfew from 11pm until 5am so I shouldn’t leave my room. Sure enough, I looked out my window shortly after 11 to find the city deserted.
Thursday morning we were ready to start the day by visiting Anatevka, the Jewish village outside Kyiv where Rabbi Azman built a beautiful school. While there, we would help pack boxes of food to be delivered to Jews around Kyiv. Suddenly I received an alert on my newly installed app that there were Russian missiles heading towards Kyiv. So we headed down to the basement of the shul and our departure was pushed off for a few hours.
After the ‘all clear,’ and eleven reported Ukrainian deaths from the missiles, we set out to Anatevka. The operation that Rabbi Azman built to feed so many Jews remaining in Kyiv is extremely moving. They are delivering 35,000 boxes a month. I urge all of you to donate to their cause.
I was blessed to deliver quite a number of boxes to Jewish homes and meet the most amazing people. I met three Holocaust survivors who compared fleeing the Nazis to their current situation. It was heartbreaking. One woman told me that her whole life she felt that being Jewish was a burden. Now that the war had come and she was benefiting first hand from the Jewish community, she told me she has never been more proud to be a Jew.
We also toured Irpin, a city just outside of Kyiv. We saw the destruction and devastation first hand; bombed out buildings and cars that had been shot up were everywhere. There was a Jewish orphanage which was evacuated one day before the city fell. Overpasses were blown up to prevent enemy tanks from rolling into Kyiv. There were checkpoints everywhere. It became apparent to me how close Kyiv had come to being captured.
On Friday, which was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Rabbi Azman coordinated a memorial service at Babi Yar, the site of the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews. The site is a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where the Nazis butchered the local Jews. As President Volodymyr Zelensky was set to attend, the security was extremely tight. Only a handful of rabbis and about two dozen ambassadors were permitted to join the ceremony. We all received candles to place at the memorial and were instructed how the ceremony was to be conducted.
After the brief service, President Zelensky came over and spoke to us. What stood out to me was how tired he looked. I had a chance to speak with a number of ambassadors to learn how their nations were dealing with the war. I spent time connecting with US Ambassador Bridget Brink especially over the fact that we both had lived in Michigan. We then headed back to Rabbi Azman’s synagogue for Shabbat.
There was a terrific spirit over Shabbat. I truly enjoyed spending time with the community and getting to know the parishioners. I felt blessed to share many words of Jewish wisdom with the congregation. I am especially grateful to Rabbi Azman’s son, Rabbi Yossi Azman and his son-in-law, Chaim Klimovitsky, who made my trip so meaningful.
On a personal level there were so many takeaways from my trip. At the end of the day, we must always be there for each other. Rabbi Azman was making sure each and every Jew was being cared for no matter their needs. He had organized many bus loads of Jews who fled the war. Yet, he remained to care for whoever stayed behind. That is a sign of a true leader. He did not judge anyone in their decision to stay or go. He just made sure they had the resources to do what was needed. I truly look to Rabbi Azman as a Jewish hero and feel blessed to now consider him a close friend. I urge all of you to pay attention to the conflict as so many of our brothers and sisters are caught up on both sides. I urge you to contribute to help the Jews of Ukraine get the food they need to survive. Mostly, I feel blessed to have been able to go as your representative to tell the Jews of Kyiv that the Aish family has not forgotten them.
I do not believe it was a coincidence that I went a few days before Rav Noach’s yahrzeit. His rallying call of taking responsibility for the Jewish people must always spur us to be there for each other.