Shabbat Among the Exiles
Singing the liturgy with Jewish refugees in Moldova—'Our King, who redeems us from the hands of tyrants'—the words aren’t a memory, but a description.
After about the fifth day without showering, your skin starts to feel both too hot and too cold. A gray wool sweater only makes the problem worse. But a sweater it’ll have to be. Shabbat is coming to Kishinev, Moldova, and I don’t want the 70 or so Ukrainian refugees gathered at the Hotel Chisinau to be distracted by my wrinkled white shirt. For the first Shabbat in over a decade, I will appear before other Jews unbathed. Still, I’m easily one of the cleanest people in the room.
A dozen volunteers from all over Israel set up dinner while we sing in the Sabbath. Like a lot of religious Jews, I find our prayers a mix of collective remembrance and what I guess I’ll call personal spirituality. I pray three times a day, but try as I might, I don’t often see God enchanting my world.
But tonight is different from all other nights. “Stand and leave the tumult; too long have you lived in the valley of tears” reads the third verse of Lecha Dodi, the central hymn of Friday night’s liturgy. Tonight, God’s brought these people to a safe way-station between war in Ukraine and a Jewish nation free in its land.
A man in his early 30s standing next to me knows the first few lines of the Shema, the central Jewish prayer recited twice each day, which he says eyes shut while holding an infant son. After he finishes his own recitation, he gestures at me to say the rest of my own prayer louder, so he and his child can hear what our ancestors have said for thousands of years. After the Shema, we continue: “He is the Lord our God, there is none besides Him, and we are Israel His people. The one who saves us from the grasp of kings—our King, who redeems us from the hands of tyrants.”
In Kishinev, these lines aren’t a memory but a description. My Shema companion, his son and the others are traveling to new lives under the guard of a Jewish army, itself much of the answer to two millennia of dispersal and powerlessness.
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The main Shabbat dinner is presided over by Chief Rabbi Pinchas Zaltzman, who—with the help of his redoubtable chief of staff, his omnipresent wife, and his mischievous teenage daughter—has turned his pulpit into a full-scale rescue operation responsible for the food, shelter, medicine and transit of hundreds of refugees, few of whom stay more than a week.
Zaltzman is supported by private volunteers like me, plus a team from Ichud Hatzalah, the worldwide Jewish, first-aid organization, which brought more duffle bags than I thought existed full of medicine and food and other supplies. Their orange-swaddled medics, paramedics, doctors and fixers yell at each other and into walkie talkies about buses from the border, meds for refugees, and flights from Romania to Israel.
Volunteers have arrived here from all over Israel. Doron heads up Shabbat lunch for hundreds. Sophia is a businesswoman from Haifa tasked with helping Ukrainians with dire medical conditions north of the border. She does not stop working. There is the woman I call Saint Olga, a Kishinev local, who’s been ferrying refugees back and forth from the border near Odessa. Avichai works as a tour guide in Israel, and over Shabbat he served food to the refugees and taught them a little Hebrew on the side.
Among them are Sasha, his wife, and their eight-year-old son. This is not their first time on the run. “Putin broke my life two times,” Sasha tells me.
In 2014, the family was living in Donetsk, where Sasha managed a bookstore and café. Then, the Russians invaded, and local thugs loyal to the Kremlin declared a separatist, pro-Russian republic. But Sasha and his family felt no love for Russia. “God saved us,” Sasha said, “and we came to Kyiv.”
Work and an apartment were hard to find. In Donetsk, Sasha says, he was discriminated against for being anti-Russian. But in Kyiv, they suspected him of Putinist sympathies for being from Donetsk. With help from the local Jewish community, he cobbled together a living as a taxi driver, a mechanic, car refurbisher and salesman, a translator, and a tour guide. “I’m not sitting and doing nothing,” he said. “I must support everybody because I am the man in my family.”
On February 24 , 2022, his wife woke him up to tell him the war had started. Gas stations in Kyiv were filled with cars, grocery stores were emptied of everything but coke and chocolate. “And then I started to understand that I am back to Donetsk time. We are again at war with Russia, with Putin.” Sasha laments that his father and grandmother wouldn’t leave Kyiv. “We have a kid,” he says, “so we need to run. For his future.” The family’s last stop before the Moldovan border was the grave of Rav Nachman of Breslov in Uman, the site of an enormous annual religious pilgrimage. Sasha credits his prayers in Uman for his family’s safe passage south. “God and Rabbi Nachman—they helped us.” Now the family waits for passports.
Once the travel documents come through, they’ll go to Israel, where Sasha sees parallels between the Jewish state and the “steel eggs” of the most famous living Jew, Volodymyr Zelensky. “For me, Zelensky was Jewish man who started to be Ukrainian president.” The Jews’ centuries of persecution, he says, prepared them for wars of all sorts. “We are lions,” Sasha tells me. “We are going only forward,” Sasha says. But he’s nervous about being an immigrant. “I’ll be a goy again,” he wryly remarks—just as he was in Kyiv after fleeing Donetsk, unwanted by people with whom he strongly identifies.
As Putin grows more desperate, Ukraine will become less livable, and more and more refugees will pour over the border. So we are preparing for their arrival, despite the local salt shortage and kashrut problems with Moldovan milk. It would help if the Israeli government got its bureaucratic act together, quadrupling the number of consular officers in Kishinev, and lowering standards for entry into Israel during wartime.
I’m not one for American-style contempt for the purely theoretical. When I’m not in Kishinev, I’m getting an M.A. in philosophy and studying in yeshiva. I’ve wanted to be an academic for some time. Whenever a friend or family member questions how I spend my days, I smile and think about Aristotle’s defense of the contemplative life—to say nothing of the Jewish tradition’s veneration of learning for the sake of learning..
Philosophy will remain the center of my intellectual life; Torah study the center of my religious life. But today I bought a kid who just lost his home green Skechers and he beamed at me and thanked me in broken English. I once claimed to my brother to have solved the theological problem of evil. Well, he said, now there’s just actual evil left. Reasonable people can dispute my philosophical arguments. But it’s a certainty that the world is way better off with one more boy who’s Israel-bound in a new pair of sneakers.