The scene in Odesa is far from normal following the Russian invasion, but local Jews say that while 'it's hard to estimate how many left, we still have prayer services and the synagogue was full on Rosh Hashanah
Members of the Odesa Jewish community celebrate Rosh Hashanah.Credit: Courtesy of Hillel Odessa
ODESA, Ukraine — “We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible,” Tzvi Hirsch, a member of the Odesa Jewish community declared, striding through the city’s Jewish museum on Thursday afternoon.
“It’s hard to estimate how many left, but we still have prayer services and the synagogue was full on Rosh Hashanah” even if “it’s not possible to do everything like normal,” he said, summing up the feelings of multiple residents of the storied southern Ukrainian city who spoke with Haaretz to describe a community battered but not broken by Russia’s invasion earlier this year.
Almost immediately after the start of the invasion, many local Jews joined the stream of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the city, which is a key seaport and was widely believed to be a critical target for Russian forces. Many of those who left were pensioners and the residents of the city’s two orphanages – as well as a large contingent from the local non-Hasidic Orthodox community of Rabbi Shlomo Baksht.
Elderly Jews at a dance class at the Hesed social services center at Odessa’s Beit Grand JCC.Credit: Sam Sokol
“Nobody is there. Everybody is in Romania,” Baksht told Haaretz in a text message about his community on Wednesday evening. “Only a few individuals remained behind. More than a thousand left with us.”
Rabbi Avrohom Wolf of the local Chabad Hasidic community also sent away members of his community’s orphanage – while the local Hesed, a social services organization operated by the American Joint Distribution Committee(which also runs the JCC), began running daily buses to evacuate the elderly.
But even with the exodus, around 90 percent of the city’s Jews likely remained behind, the JDC’s Inna Vdovichenko told Haaretz during an interview at Odesa’s Beit Grand Jewish Community Center, which houses, among other things, the city’s Hesed organization.
Marina London, Jewish Programs Director at Beit Grand JCC in Odessa.Credit: Sam Sokol
The JCC, one of two in the city, reopened earlier this month after switching completely to remote operation at the beginning of the war due to Russian airstrikes which forced the city’s residents to repeatedly scramble into shelters.
In the seven months since the beginning of the invasion “many left and some came back, but there’s also a large percentage of the population which remained in the city the whole time,” said Marina London, the director of the JCC’s Jewish programming, noting that attendance at the newly reopened center’s events is roughly equal to what it was before the war.
London said it’s hard to estimate how many Jews remain in the city, adding that “from acquaintances and friends, I heard that half of the original Odesa population has left [and] many have not come back.” But despite the uncertainty regarding, the Hesed is currently providing aid —including food, medicine, and homecare— to thousands of people around the city, including many people categorized as the "new poor" the JDC told Haaretz, indicating that the population still numbers in the thousands.
Anti-tank defenses were used to block streets across Odessa during the early days of the war but most have be pushed aside in order to let traffic flow.Credit: Sam Sokol
According to Rabbi Wolf, there may be around 20,000 Jews in Odesa, counting both those considered Jewish by halakha and those who qualify under Israel’s less strict Law of Return. Recently released demographic data collected by the Jewish Agency indicates that there may be as few as 40,000 Jews in all of Ukraine, although this number rises significantly when those eligible for aliyah are included.
Regardless of numbers, the community still appears vibrant, with the JCC hosting everything from a free hair salon for the elderly to a pro bono drugstore, tailor’s shop and dance classes.
“I can’t say that the Jewish community suffered [as] greatly because of the war” as did the communities of some other Ukrainian cities “because most were able to relocate, and we were fortunate enough that nobody died and nobody’s property was damaged,” said Hesed director Anatoly Kesselman.
Jews pray in the city’s Chabad synagogue.Credit: Sam Sokol
Humanitarian aid piled in the hallways of the Hesed social services center at Odessa’s Beit Grand JCC.Credit: Sam Sokol
And, like the JCC, Rabbi Wolf’s institutions are still operational, even if a significant number of Jews have left. Almost 100 children are still studying in the community’s elementary school out of a pre-war student body of 500, while the kindergarten, which had 120 students before the war, now has around 40.
In the synagogue on Wednesday evening, around 30 men arrived for the afternoon service and on Thursday morning a small group was gathered around a table in the main sanctuary for a Torah lecture. Seven hundred families receive monthly food packages and the community provides hot meals to around 150 people daily.
The war has hit everybody hard, even those who were not forced to flee. Walking through the crowd of people waiting for their packages, the rabbi recalled how one apparently wealthy community member had approached him to complain how hard the war was for him. When the rabbi replied that at least he had food in the fridge, the man responded that he could no longer afford to buy groceries and asked if he too could receive a package.
The Chabad synagogue.Credit: Sam Sokol
Chabad Rabbi Avrohom Wolf outside his community’s orphanage, whose wards are currently in Germany.Credit: Sam Sokol
“We chose to continue and do what we have to do and do it to the maximum we can. It’s not easy [but] I won't let them go to the street,” Wolf said, asserting that “we are succeeding, thank God.”
And even amidst the ruins and suffering, there is renewal. In the wake of the destruction of the Hillel House in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Odesa’s Hillel House moved into a new, semi-underground location earlier this month, celebrating with a festive gathering, said Hillel director Zhenya Kharzhevsky.
Multiple young men affiliated with the Jewish student organization have joined the Ukrainian military in recent months. “I bought them ammunition,” Kharzhevsky said defiantly.