Kherson’s rabbi soldiers on as his congregation drains away

Rocket fire is a daily feature of life in the Ukrainian city and now with the flooding Dnipro river adding to the hardship, 90 per cent of the Jewish population has left the city


Rabbi Yosef Wolff’s SUV screeches to a halt as we cross the rebuilt bridge leading into the flooded city of Kherson.

He races to the back door of the vehicle, pulls out a flak-jacket and straps it on expertly, before buckling on a black helmet — both acquired, he says, from Israel.

“I have strict instructions to wear these all the time I’m inside the Kherson warzone,” the rabbi explains.

“I got those orders from my mother — and I have never disobeyed her in my whole life.” Seconds later he has his mother on WhatsApp video, confirming he is following her instructions.

“In your article, don’t describe me as The Rabbi Who Always Listens to his Mum — though that’s true,” he pleads. “Describe me please as a soldier, yes, but a soldier of the Rebbe.”

As a 21-year-old newly qualified Chabad rabbi, he recalls, he had two choices: to join his 22-year-old brother, the Chabad shaliach (emissary) already in Kherson, or take up an offer in Los Angeles. “I asked the Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Schneerson]. He said: go to Kherson.

And, now that I’ve been here 30 years, I’ve realised what an extremely great, wise instruction that was. It’s as if everything I have learned at yeshiva and as a community rabbi in this far-flung place has prepared me for what we are now facing.”

Entering the city, Rabbi Wolff drives us up to a tall building that the day before had been struck by an incoming rocket. Two apartments on the upper floor had been ripped to pieces.

I ask him to pose for a photograph there, but that request has its perils: Ukrainian security men order me to put down my camera, but eventually relent.

Shelling or rocket fire has been a daily feature of life in Kherson since the Russians pulled back across the river last November, the first and only retreat the invaders have made from a city they have occupied in this war.

The rabbi’s 12-year-old son — like many in Kherson — has become an expert in warfare weaponry. “It makes me sad,” says Wolff. “He can lie in bed and say, ‘Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing’ as he hears the weapons and identifies them.”

Next on our impromptu city tour, we swerve speedily around a large sign indicating Kherson Port. It’s close to the swollen Dnipro River, whose dam wall collapsed, almost certainly blasted by pre-positioned Russian explosives, on June 6.

Ironically, shelling and rocket fire from the other side of the river has become less frequent since the Dnipro overflowed — the waters also flooded Russian gun and artillery emplacements and sent many of the invaders scurrying up buildings and trees or beating a hasty retreat to higher ground.

However, rockets and longer-range missiles can and do still exact a toll from further afield. I was kept awake by warning sirens and bangs — what a local referred to as “a little night music”.

As the water levels rose, the rabbi and his small Jewish team organised the evacuation of around 20 Jewish families, persuading them, after their initial reluctance, that danger was imminent and that rescuing precious possessions was subordinate to the risks to life.

As the torrent flowed downriver and into the Black Sea the waters, mercifully, receded. An ecological and agricultural disaster is still expected, but we could reach most of the previously flooded areas in Kherson itself on foot. We traverse muddy roads and enter empty houses, their contents devastated.

The rabbi shows me on his mobile phone a drone’s video of Krasnalflotskaya Street during the height of the flooding. Only roofs of bungalows poke out from the water, and the real, original river route can be seen in the far distance.

Now in his SUV we pull up close to House 50: there are patches of mud but also some dry ground. A man in a black T-shirt kindly puts our legs into black plastic rubbish-bin sacks to protect our shoes and trousers, while showing us, on his mobile phone, the video he had taken on a boat during the flood.

He leads us into House 50, next door to his own home. It belongs to a Jewish family, evidenced by the mezuzah on the front doorpost. Wolff briefly examines it, pronouncing it far too wet and presumably smudged to be kosher now.

Inside, it is clear the waters had gone up to the ceiling, which in one room has collapsed, laying bare the wooden floorboards of the attic above. For his Facebook page the rabbi records his thoughts as he sloshes around: “I am going to cry.

"There’s nothing left. The water was till the roof… So, so sad.” For me, it is equally poignant to see what has not been destroyed or swept away.

Circular flower tiles remain stuck firmly around the front door. Some small pots and pans hang from hooks on the kitchen wall. A kitchen clock has stopped ticking at 7.55. A large white refrigerator lying on its side still has fridge-magnets attached.

“A young lady, Ilana Pnina, who lived here with her parents, got married in my shul a few years ago,” says the rabbi.

She and her husband, a religious young man from western Ukraine, had gone to live in Israel, but her parents, Irina and Anatoly, remained, until they found the stresses of war too much and crossed the river by a bridge to relative safety — just days before the Russian forces themselves suddenly withdrew from Kherson.

The parents remain trapped on the Russian-held side. They are safe but miserable, says Ilana Pnina, when the JC tracked her down to a village near Haifa.

“I think about the home that meant so much to me. I have been sent photos of its inside and outside. I cry,” she says.

“What saddens me more is that I have not seen my parents for two years, as they were, and still are, in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine. I cannot go there with my four-year-old son.

"It’s too dangerous, and my dad cannot travel to Israel via a huge long trek through Russia to Georgia, because of a serious heart condition.” Also painful for her is the disappearance of the family pet, Lubka (Paws), a beloved female dog they acquired as a puppy seven years ago.

Since last November, when her parents left, she had arranged for her pet-loving neighbour to feed the dog every day, but she has no idea where Lubka is, or if she’s alive or dead.

“We’ve been contacting all the pet sanctuaries in Kherson. No joy yet,” Ilana Pnina laments.
I’m not sure whether to tell her that Lubka’s wooden kennel is now visible on top of the neighbouring house’s shed. It had obviously floated up there in the rising waters.

Across the road, a woman in her thirties points to her home, which she explains had twice been hit by incoming rockets and which was largely destroyed. “So the flood, I am pleased to say, had no effect. It was already a wreck,” she says.

She is camping out next door. In contrast, the synagogue was built late in the 19th century on a spot that, “by a miracle”, says the rabbi, was 20 metres above the level of the river. It takes just 45 seconds from Ilana Pnina’s flooded house for the rabbi to park his SUV at the shul.

“This beit knesset has survived everything: czarism, communism, capitalism, then last year and this, Russia’s rule, and Ukrainian rule,” he says.

“When we redesigned and refurbished the shul I left these external walls, to bear witness to Jewish survival. But we rebuilt everything inside.” A front-wall plaque proclaims its grand upgraded opening in 2010.

The synagogue was the centrepiece of a community of 10,000 Jews, but since the war began early last year, about nine-tenths of the Jewish population has left the city. That exodus accelerated after the Ukrainian success, because of Russian bombardment from the other side and a harsh winter, with water and electricity absent for months or in short supply.

However, power and water have largely been restored.

The shul itself has a morning service with a minyan every day, but the Maariv service is impossible as people need to get home before night-time curfews or the risk of bombardments. One large room has been serving as a supply centre for humanitarian aid.

Hundreds of plastic bottles of water line the courtyard.

At the end of the Shabbat morning service, a surprise: mazel tovs and singing ring out. The rabbi has formally given a middle-aged lady a name in Hebrew.

At a post-Musaf gathering, one local man, Peter, tells me how it feels to have remained in Kherson throughout the war. “It’s like a game of Battleship. You don’t know where and when the killer blow is about to fall, or whether will you wake up next morning.” But he still refuses to move.

Other locals tell me snippets of their wartime stories.

Yosef Yitchak, a former engineer, tells me he has taken the same first two names as the rabbi for his Hebrew appellation. This 51-year-old had insisted on having a circumcision eight years ago, and now calls the rabbi “my sandek”, though as he was aged 43 at the time, “I was rather too large to be placed on the sandek’s lap”.

Another man, 48-year-old Chaim, even tries to put a positive spin on what others would say was a shocking event. During recent Russian shelling, he was at the river to get water, which was in extremely short supply.

He looked around and saw a former schoolmate. They exchanged waves, and a shell just then smashed into his friend, killing him. “At least his last bit of life was to smile and wave,” says Chaim.

Another congregant describes his near-death experience: he was on his balcony when he saw a rocket heading straight at him. He just stood there, transfixed. The rocket struck the apartment one floor above him, killing a woman inside.

We return to the rabbi’s home, a half-hour walk through what was once an area inhabited 95 per cent by Jews.

It still looks the same. The rabbi points out yellow piping for a communal gas supply. There is a hole in the ground, made by a shell or rocket. It had failed to explode, otherwise the gas could have burst into flames and killed many who lived or walked nearby.

“Another miracle,” declares the rabbi.

At lunch, he serves his own delicious tehina and matbucha, delicacies one would hardly expect in a war-torn Ukrainian town. “The recipes are secret,” he laughs.

Alongside us are Alona and her husband Vitaly, a very special couple living at the rabbi’s house. Alona is a schoolteacher but only three of her original 33 pupils are left in the city.

She teaches a total of 20 children now by the ubiquitous Ukrainian wartime technology: the internet. The same applies at the once-thriving Jewish school: all learning is done remotely.

Though not Jewish himself, Vitaly’s father Vladimir still lovingly and without payment maintains the site where in the Second World war the bodies of 1,785 Jews were dumped in a pit in their home village an hour’s drive away. That was, explains Vitaly, the pattern of massacres by the Nazis in many Ukrainian villages and towns.

The next day at dawn I take a taxi to the Second World War massacre site of Kherson’s Jews: around 12,000 bodies under the earth in a field, comprising the entire Jewish population still living in Kherson at the time. There is a small monument, but we cannot approach because a sign in the field says: “Danger. Mines.”

Battered by the Nazis, then sidelined and harried by the communists, Jews faced quotas at universities and other major disadvantages. Many left the fold, but of late many have moved closer to their Jewish roots. “They feel our mutual love and support in these tough times,” says Wolff.

“And it’s not just physical help. One man told me: ‘Because of you, I realise who I am. I want to marry a Jewish woman.’

"He moved to Israel and found a bride. If he had not moved, he would probably have married out and the Jewish nation would have lost a good man. That sort of effect keeps me going.”

As I leave, the rabbi gives his final assessment. “I feel that each day my wife and I can apply all that we have learned for decades. So we can give and give, and we are able to say, ‘Thank you Hashem, and thank you, Rebbe, for putting me here in Kherson.’”

He is confident there is a future for the Jews of Kherson, who he believes and prays will return in droves once there is peace.

“Then you must join us for a huge celebration. L’Chaim!”

To support Jewish families in Kherson, go to:

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