Moment is publishing regular updates from Helen, a Soviet American Jew living in Kyiv. Read all the diary entries here.
It was quite a challenging experience—and, I would say, a noteworthy one—when I went to the Kyiv Central Synagogue for the first time. I’m not a religious Jew, and the reason I ventured to the synagogue was to find out more about it to share with Moment readers. I wanted the global Jewish community to better understand how the synagogue is helping the Jewish population remaining in Kyiv and those Jews who relocated from the Ukrainian cities and towns that were heavily bombarded by the Russian army. I also wanted to learn how the synagogue is helping its congregants and other Jews escape from life-threatening locations, and how it is assisting the elderly left behind due to mobility issues cope with scarcities caused by the war. I was also curious about the feasibility of the forthcoming Passover celebrations.
The doors to the synagogue were open, and when I entered the dimmed hall I saw three men with Kalashnikov guns. Without any greetings, they asked quite aggressively for my documents, and after a quick glance at my American passport, they requested I leave. “All the best,” one of them told me, but his facial expression and tone sounded more like “go away.” Undeterred, I told them that I was writing an article for a Jewish publication, and I had some questions for the rabbi. The aggressive “go away” was repeated twice this time. I said that I am a Jew who wants to see the rabbi, or to make an appointment to speak with him when he is available.
One of the armed men repeated his admonishment, but this time he rotated his Kalashnikov, which was on his back, to his front.
Why, I asked, is it impossible to communicate with any of the synagogue representatives? How can I convey information about the synagogue to Jews outside Ukraine, who are extremely supportive of Ukraine in such horrendous times?
I did not get any answers; he kept telling me to “go away.” I had no choice but to leave.
There’s a little store next to the synagogue, and I decided to talk to the man who was standing in front of it. After the encounter at the synagogue I felt rather shaken and wary, so I was relieved when he actually spoke to me.
I asked him the same questions, but I didn’t get any answers. Then he was the one asking questions: where was I born, what school had I graduated from, who were my parents and grandparents? Still, he was kind to me. He told me to come on Friday night for Shabbat and maybe I would get a chance to meet the rabbi or someone else who worked at the synagogue. I suppose we’ll find out soon.
Read the next installment here.