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Yom Kippur observed in Odessa amidst a war and kapparot

After a relatively quiet Rosh Hashanah — in other words, only a few sirens blaring at night, and no Russian missiles falling on their city itself — the Jews of Odessa looked ahead to Yom Kippur. To prayer services. To day-long fasting. And to kapparot. The pre-Yom Kippur ritual — in which a chicken or rooster is waved over one’s head, symbolically taking on the participant’s sins, and then slaughtered and given to a needy individual — is mostly observed by Orthodox Jews, but in Odessa, it is also widely performed among non-Orthodox Jews.

Zoya Nagorskaya, right, sharing an apple from a Rosh Hashanah care package with a JDC volunteer, left. (Misha Kovalev)

“It’s always been,” says Inna Vdoivichenko.

The Odessa-based external relations director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, who recently spent three recent weeks in the US, returned to Odessa following Rosh Hashanah, and found the interest in kapparot unabated.

She said the number of people likely to take part in kapparot was more than 100, no less than in pre-war years.

It’s one sign that the Russia-Ukraine war has not scared Odessa’s Jews from participating in traditional Jewish activities.

Kapparot was only one sign thereof; “hundreds” of Jews observed Rosh Hashanah in some way, in shul, in homes, at JCCs, at a Jewish orphanage, “everywhere,” said Vdoivichenko in an interview over Zoom.

In a time of war, after the deprivations of Covid and a year-and-a-half of war, holiday prayer services, even if marked alone in one’s apartment, or online, took on added significance.

Like communal seders, Rosh Hashanah services are a highlight of the local Jewish calendar, a rare chance for often isolated members to gather together in large numbers and celebrate being Jewish.

Many of the Jewish community’s High Holiday activities — as during the rest of the year — are under the auspices of the New York-based, 109-year-old JDC (“the Joint”).

It has assisted more than 40,000 people in Ukraine and neighboring Moldova, and provided more than 800 tons of humanitarian aid in the last 18 months.

The Jews of Odessa were “rejoicing with each other,” said Vdoivichenko.

The weather in Odessa on Rosh Hashanah, she said, was “sunny, warm, pleasant,” she told the Intermountain Jewish News.

Next week, at least one JCC will build a sukkah in its courtyard, Vdoivichenko said.

Odessa is typical of the Ukrainian cities that have managed to carry on day-to-day functions — and the occasional holiday festivities — despite the war.

The current Jewish community has a rich history.

Once, more than two centuries ago, Odessa, then one-quarter Jewish, was home to the second-largest Jewish community in the world. It was a place to which immigrants fleeing persecution and poverty in other parts of Europe and the Russian Empire fled. Pogroms, Zionist migration and the Holocaust, greatly reduced the size and prominence of Odessa Jewry.

No one, Vdoivichenko said, has exact population figures for the Jewish communities in Ukraine, especially since the war set off a wave of migration — “some left, some came back.”

Since early 2022, Ukraine’s Jews have migrated both within the country and to lands in the region with open borders.

The JDC has sponsored a wide variety of humanitarian, social, religious and educational activities throughout Ukraine since communism fell in the former Soviet Union more than three decades ago.

The level of activities increased since Russia began its war in Ukraine in February, 2022. The organization has worked on a non-sectarian basis to assist in evacuation (mostly women and children, who were allowed to leave the country); and reached out to Ukrainians who have remained (many moving to safer venues in the western part of the country), and who have found refuge in neighboring countries.

Most of the JDC’s work in Ukraine — done in conjunction with Chabad and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to avoid duplication — is conducted through the Joint’s network of 18 Hesed social service centers.

The JDC, whose thousand-plus volunteers in Odessa have delivered necessities to the homes of people, especially the elderly, who fear to venture on the streets, sponsored cultural and educational events online (Zoom played a major part) in the early months of the Covid pandemic. With Covid restrictions on the wane, more in-person programming returned.

Then came the war.

Odessa’s Hesed has become a hub for distribution of humanitarian aid elsewhere in Ukraine.

In the weeks before the High Holidays, Vdoivichenko said, the Hesed-coordinated work included musical programs, culinary classes, and instruction — including sessions in the informal “university without borders” — about the holiday prayers and about other holiday traditions.

The volunteers brought thousands of people sweet-year “food aid’ packages of apples and honey, especially appreciated by the aging members of the city’s Jewish community, some of them indigent Holocaust survivors.

In addition, the JDC issued a downloadable 5784 High Holidays supplement centered around the shehechyanu prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

“The liturgy instructs us that repentance, prayer and charity — teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah — can ‘lessen the severity of the [Divine] decree,’ helping to ameliorate whatever difficult fate may await us in the new year,” the supplement states.

It mentions such topics as aid for the poor, support for Israel, Jewish identity and “our role in repairing the world,” and declares, “We must continue to be a bulwark of support for [the Ukrainian Jewish] community — and Jews across the former Soviet Union — who have turned challenge after challenge into opportunity and bravely face the future full of hope and determination.”

The JDC efforts in Odessa are supported by the JFNA and the Claims Conference.

This year, other Jewish institutions in Odessa that sponsored Rosh Hashanah activities included Hillel International, whose offices were damaged in a Russian missile attack, Chabad’s Mishpacha Orphanage, which has accepted at least a half-dozen infants since the outbreak of the war, and the BBYO-affiliated Active Jewish Teens network.

Odessa’s Jewish community has long ranked as one of the biggest and most-storied in the country. “The most Jewish city in the former Soviet Union,” Vdoivichenko said.

Since the war began, and especially in recent months, Odessa, a major Black Sea port city, has been one of the most viciously attacked targets of Russian bombardment — a 63-square-mile bullseye, following Russia’s withdrawal from a grain deal that had allowed Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea to continue during the war.

The attacks have left Odessa residents often without electricity or potable water, telephone or internet service; shortages of such staples as food and medical supplies are common.

This, Vdoivichenko said, has meant sirens and missile attacks, curfews and blackouts, lost jobs and empty ATMs, trauma and sleepless nights and hunger for the Jews — and their fellow Odessans — who have decided to remain in their homeland.

Russian attacks took place early this month in Odessa and in all other major cities.

“Now,” she said, “there is no safe place in Ukraine.”

“Pray for us,” Vdoivichenko said during a pre-holiday press conference at the JCD mid-Manhattan headquarters. “That’s the only thing we have to rely on.”

The people’s mood? “They are tired. They don’t sleep,” because most of the sirens, signaling incoming Russian missiles, sound at night.

Vdoivichenko said her best estimate of Odessa’s Jewish population before the current war began is about 40,000. She offered no guess at the current figure. Many of the city’s Jews remained, despite the danger of the war, often because elderly members of the community were unable or unwilling to leave their accustomed apartments. Younger families wished to stay intact, not leaving behind men between the ages of 18 and 60 who are eligible to be drafted into the Ukrainian army to fight the Russian invaders.

Praying on the High Holidays during a time of war comes naturally to the Jews of Odessa, Vdoivichenko said.

What do they pray for?


Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Contributing Writer

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