Twenty years ago this week, I traveled to Kharkiv, Ukraine for the first time.
It was my first trip abroad since the terror attacks the previous September. Then, as now, there were real questions of what it meant to be a Jew and an American in an increasingly complex world.
Just a few short weeks after September 11, 2001, I learned I had been selected to join a handful of other Washington, DC students to spend Passover with the Jewish community of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
I was a student at the George Washington University. I would join other active Hillel students in and around Washington, DC for a trip to celebrate our faith with Ukrainian Hillel student leaders. Over two life changing weeks, despite language barriers and childhoods in radically different societies, we would learn more about what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century than we could ever learn in a classroom or synagogue.
Over sleepless nights, the last month has brought back a whirlwind of vivid memories from my time in Kharkiv. Unlike twenty years ago, in the middle of the night on the East Coast of the United States, I can now check with my smartphone the news from besieged Kharkiv.
On the first day of the war, I smiled watching a video circulating online of Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz layning tefillin with congregants despite the sounds of war in the distance.
Yet, within the first week of the war, the Kharkiv Hillel – which had grown over the 20 years to work with 600+ students – was reduced to rubble. The synagogue has become a soup kitchen and bomb shelter.
The first seder in Kharkiv 20 years ago was a night of personal firsts. It was my first seder away from family. It was my first seder with over 100 people. It was my first seder where the only words I understood were the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Haggadah. Our group overcame language barriers, being jet lagged and homesick and we immediately built bonds with our Ukrainian Hillel counterparts.
It was out of tragedy that our friendships grew stronger. That first seder night a suicide bomber murdered 30 Israelis and injured 100 more as they were celebrating the start of Pesach at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel.
The morning after our prayers at the beautiful and historic Kharkiv synagogue (that today is unrecognizable) took on extra meaning. While Russian accented, I remember davening in this congregation the same uplifting Hallel liturgy in the same tunes I learned as a boy in Pennsylvania.
The deadliest act of terror during the Second Intifada brought us together and strengthened our resolve as a Jewish community. Over the course of that Passover, our group of American Hillel students built unbreakable bonds with our Ukrainian Hillel peers. We laughed and we cried and we learned. We embodied the famous metaphor from the story of the exodus from Egypt – “B’Lev Echad K’Ish Echad” – “With one heart like one person”.
I left that seemingly once in a lifetime trip inspired in a way I had never been. Hearing stories of courage from Holocaust survivors through translators unable to hold back their emotion retelling stories six decades later. Hearing their grandchildren – our peers – talk about their favorite Birthright experiences from the previous the summer. Hearing entrepreneurial young professionals – in the early days of the internet – building businesses with their cousins who had made aliyah to Israel.
Over Passover 2004, I was honored to lead a new group of Washington, DC area Hillel students to Kharkiv. Fortunately, there was not a terrorist attack in Israel, but the unity we felt with our fellow Jews was just as strong. The memories just as vibrant over sleepless nights this past week.
In 2006, I returned with a friend to Kharkiv right before Chanuka. I had the chance to visit the studio of a Jewish artist. He presented me an oil on canvas interpretation of the Chanuka story with the words in Hebrew, “A Great Miracle Happened There.” A grown man with dried paint on his hands, hugged me saying in broken English it was a miracle that a young Jew from America would visit his humble home studio in a Soviet era concrete walk-up apartment.
From suburban Maryland, I watch the developments from Kharkiv and across Ukraine helpless. I pray for a miracle. I reflect on the meaning of the Psalms we say during Hallel.
In 2016, I made another trip to Ukraine. This time I did not get a chance to visit Kharkiv, but I did visit Uman. The ancient city is the final resting place of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the most influential and creative Jewish communal leaders of his day. While he died before his 40th birthday, his interpretation of Jewish tradition has impacted and inspired countless Jews for nearly three centuries.
Rabbi Nachman would often remark, “You are wherever your thoughts are, make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.”
While it is traditional at Passover to pray, “next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.” Next month at the Passover seder, I will reflect on the resiliency of the families who lost loved ones and rebuilt after the massacre in Netanya. I will pray to spend next Passover in a rebuilt Kharkiv Hillel.