Kyiv Rabbi Opens Synagogue to Shelter Jews Who Can't Flee Ukraine

The Chief Rabbi of Kyiv, Ukraine was sheltering dozens of people in his synagogue on Thursday, where he and his wife had been preparing for the Russian attack that came overnight.

Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch and his wife Elka Inna had stockpiled 5-6 tons of food as well as water, fuel and 50 mattresses in the basement of their synagogue. "There's no bomb shelter here," Markovitch told The Times of Israel, "but at least we can be together."

There are approximately 2,500 Jews in Kyiv, although the Markovitches could not say how many had stayed in the city. But they claimed that roughly 200 members of the community were bedridden and many more were poor and elderly, as the couple typically distributed food to 800 Jews in need.

"Those who left are the wealthy and young," Elka Inna said. "The people who stayed here were people who were not able—for medical or financial reasons—to leave."

The Markovitches both have Israeli citizenship and were urged repeatedly by the Israeli Embassy in Kyiv to leave the country. On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called for Israeli citizens in Ukraine to flee immediately. Haaretz reported that the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem was "flooded" with requests from Ukrainian Jews since early Thursday morning. An estimated 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

Dozens of Jewish refugees also crossed the border to Moldova on Thursday, assisted by rabbis in the capital of Kishinev. Aside from the Jewish population, hundreds of Ukrainians have begun to arrive in neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.

Nonetheless, Jonathan and Elka Inna said it was their duty to stay and help those who could not leave. In an interview on ILTV before the invasion, Jonathan said that other rabbis across Ukraine were similarly preparing to shelter Jews in their own communities. "I understand it's better to leave," he said, "but we are not leaving, we are staying."

Kyiv Rabbi Opens Synagogue to Shelter Jews
There are approximately 2,500 Jews in Kyiv, Ukraine, although the Chief Rabbi could not say how many had stayed in the city. But he claimed that roughly 200 members of the community were bedridden and many more were poor and elderly. sandsun/iStock / Getty Images Plus

The couple was opening the synagogue only to members of the Jewish community, saying they were afraid to let in anyone they didn't recognize.

Jonathan and Elka Inna said they were worried about looting and riots, such as those that broke out during the 2014 pro-Russian separatist uprising. Their immediate concern was security for their synagogue. "People know we have food stocks in the Jewish community center," Elka Inna told The Times of Israel.

The rabbi said he personally had not experienced significant antisemitism in Ukraine, contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin's bogus claim about "denazifying" the country. Still, he recognized that war and unrest tend to bring out the worst in human nature, and he was preparing for the consequences.