Heroic Ukrainian rabbi reveals his part in daring rescue missions

Visiting Britain this week, Rabbi Azman recalls his spiritual advice to Kyiv’s army chief and the mercy operations he runs


Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman opens his phone and begins flicking through dozens of Facebook messages received in the past 24 hours. Every one, he says, is a request for help.

“Please, I’m a mother from Donetsk Oblast,” he reads aloud. “I have two children, I don’t have anyone, I’m by myself. I don’t have a lot of money. If you can give a little bit to help us, I will be able to provide to my children.”

The Russian-born Jewish leader, who was once arrested by the KGB, has become a totemic figure in his adopted country since it was invaded in February.

He has met President Volodymyr Zelensky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, provides regular spiritual advice to General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s army, and has personally funded rescue missions to the east of the country, transporting tens of thousands of civilians out of the war zone.

This week he visited London to meet Jewish leaders and politicians, including Boris Johnson and former MP Brooks Newmark — who himself has helped thousands to safety in Ukraine — to orchestrate more aid.

In November, the rabbi visited Kherson with a truck of humanitarian aid including food and medicine, two days after the city was liberated from the Russians.

“It was dangerous because Russian troops were still there,” he told the JC during his whistle-stop trip to Britain. “I spoke to the governor, I heard that the Russians stole everything. They stole the buses, stole the computers, the ambulances. They even stole everything from toilets.

“Next day I bought a big, 22-metre crane to repair the electricity… [the governor] gave me the list [of what was needed], I came to the market and bought 100 computers… I sent them many things. When we distributed food in the central square, there were hundreds of people.”

For Rabbi Azman, who came to Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union, seeing the devastation of the Jewish community he has spent decades building up has been tragic.

“At the beginning of the war we had normal life in Ukraine,” he said.

“We had beautiful communities. The war, Russia, they destroyed the communities. People had to run away without anything to become refugees. Jewish people, non-Jewish people.”

Amid the chaos, he has helped many flee who are “twice refugees” or even “three-time refugees”. Some Holocaust survivors and Righteous Among the Nations escaped the Second World War, then the 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine, and are now again reduced to running for their lives, he said.

The Chabad-Lubavitch emissary was first sent to Ukraine in 1991, when he began working to aid children affected by Chenobyl before helping to restore the historic Brodsky Synagogue.

Having grown up in the Soviet Union before escaping to Israel, he is familiar with the country’s brutal methods, he said.

“I know what is Russia and what is the KGB. Putin is from Leningrad, I’m from Leningrad. Same city. But he worked at KGB, I was arrested and investigated by KGB.”

As the Russian government clamps down ever harder on civil society, Rabbi Azman said, it is vital that Jews leave while they still can.

“I think Russia is not a good situation for Jewish people now. I said that a few times that we have a better situation [in Ukraine].

"Why? Maybe we have danger but we are free people. I can say whatever I want. They cannot even say ‘shalom’, ‘peace’, they are not allowed to say it. You go to jail, because even to say the word ‘war’ [is dangerous]. Putin says ‘it’s not war, it’s a special operation’.”

Asked if more Russians will leave he said he was recently speaking to a rabbi in Kazakhstan, who told him he did not have a minyan before the war, but now his shul is full of emigrés.

“I called for Russian Jews to leave Russia because the Iron Curtain will begin coming down again,” he added.

As to whether Ukrainian Jews will ever return to their homeland from Israel, he says: “If they go to Israel, baruch Hashem; if they stay in Ukraine, baruch Hashem.”

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