Ukraine Chabad Emissaries Tell Of Life And War In Kharkiv

Before Feb. 24, Sora Levinson and her husband, Rabbi Chaim, weren’t sure if Russia was going to invade Ukraine. In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where they served as Chabad emissaries, no one seemed very worried.

“The local people were very calm, which is actually different than in 2014, when Russia also invaded,” Sora said. “At that time, everybody was very nervous and very panicky…this time, everything was life as usual.”

But early morning on Feb. 24, Russian artillery targeted Kharkiv and other cities across the country, upending the lives of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian Jews who had worked so hard to rebuild Jewish life after the Soviet Union.

The Levinsons escaped the war a few weeks later by traveling to neighboring Moldova — an unceremonious exit after 24 years of welcoming and teaching Jews in Ukraine.

“It was obviously such a tough decision,” Chaim said. “If we’re leaders in the community, how could we just say goodbye because we have the possibility to leave?”

The Levinsons told the story of the life they left behind in Kharkiv on Monday night at The Draw, the annual gala benefit for the Lubavitch Cheder Day School in St. Paul. The event was a homecoming of sorts for Sora, who grew up in St. Paul and attended the cheder as a child.

“Growing up, I wanted to be on shlichus [doing emissary work],” Sora said. “So I think we’ve come full circle today, coming back from Kharkiv and being able to give back to the cheder that I have the fondest memories of.”

The Chabad movement is renowned for sending emissaries all around the world to open centers for Jews to celebrate Jewish holidays, find kosher food, and experience Jewish learning. Chabad’s late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (often known simply as the Rebbe), made global Jewish outreach a key mission.

The Rebbe himself was born and raised in what is now Ukraine. The Chabad movement also has its origins in the area of Ukraine, where Hasidic Judaism emerged in the 18th century with the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. 

Being in more than 100 countries also places Chabad on the front lines of international conflict, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where Chabad has been actively providing aid to both Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians. Early on in the war, Kharkiv’s Choral Synagogue served as a shelter for over 100 Jews. 

But long before there was war, coming to Kharkiv was the fulfillment of childhood dreams and the Rebbe’s passion. Chaim grew up in Crown Heights near the home of the Rebbe. 

“It was engraved in me, the whole idea of shlichus, of being part of the Rebbe’s army,” he said. “I couldn’t even see a different option.”

It helped that Chaim fell in love with helping Russian-speaking Jews when working at Jewish summer camps in the Former Soviet Union (FSU).

But passion didn’t make the journey an easy one. Sora did not have a passport before she went to Kharkiv, and she recalled the story of the 12 Israelite spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan.

Only Sora had no opportunity for scouting before making the move to Kharkiv. “I did not check it out, I didn’t get the chance,” she said. “I landed there to live there.”

Once there, however, the Levinsons found themselves happily busy with the Rebbe’s mission: Reaching the first generation of Ukrainian Jews who could freely explore their faith after decades of communist oppression.

“On one hand, they were so disconnected from the Judaism. At the same time, people, after three generations, came with such a thirst which I couldn’t understand,” Chaim said. 

“It reminds me of what we learned in yeshiva about a flint stone: That you could put a flint stone for 80 years into the river and take it out, and get a spark from it. A Jew was disconnected from his Judaism, 70 years. And then the spark just comes out.”

The Levinsons engaged many Jews who didn’t know they were Jewish, or who only recently found out a family secret about having Jewish heritage. At times, that meant certain adjustments to the way the couple was used to welcoming Jews. 

For example, Chaim learned that asking strangers if they are Jewish or not — a common practice by Chabad in New York City to get any and every Jew to do a Jewish act — didn’t quite work in Kharkiv. Rather than the yes or no answers found regularly in Manhattan, a Ukrainian Jew might say they aren’t Jewish…but their grandmother or mother is (meaning, in fact, that they were Jewish).

To clear up any confusion, Chaim began asking bystanders if anyone in their lineage was Jewish, instead. 

Once Russia’s invasion started, however, there was no more regular day-to-day Chabad activity like engaging strangers on the street. 

The first Shabbat during the war, the Levinsons stayed over at the house of another Chabad emissary family. At first, it was because they had no basement in their home to shelter from Russian attacks in. But Shabbat turned into several days of living together as a Ukrainian curfew took effect. 

“The kids felt like camp, and the adults had other to try to keep them calm,” Sora said. And though leaving Kharkiv was emotionally difficult, and physically dangerous with Russian attacks at all times of the day, Sora stayed calm.

“Hashem protects us,” Sora remembered thinking. “We really believed that everything would be ok, that we would get out.”

While some Chabad emissaries have gone back to Ukraine in recent weeks, the Levinsons now find themselves with a new version of the Rebbe’s mission. Fleeing the war, Kharkiv’s Jewish community is now spread across about 15 different countries. 

The Levinsons help organize humanitarian and spiritual aid to the community they once served in person. “It’s a little bit complicated to deal with every person wherever they are, but this is our job now,” Chaim said.