A US rabbi bears witness to the trauma in Ukraine one year after Russian invasion

by | Feb 24, 2023 | Religion

(RNS) — One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine and started a war that has wreaked untold damage — tens of thousands of deaths, cities flattened and more than 8 million refugees, many of whom fled to neighboring European countries.Religious groups have responded generously. Samaritan’s Purse, to cite one prominent Christian relief organization, has made 42 airlifts of food, water and medicine to the war-ravaged country since the start of the war on Feb. 24, 2022.
But Ukraine is a diverse country religiously, and Americans of different faiths have offered prayers and provisions. Before World War II, Jews comprised some 26% of the population of Kyiv, the capital. Famously, its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish. American Jews, many of whom are descendants of the Jews of Ukraine, have not forgotten, sending supplies, money and emotional ballast.

RELATED: Across US, faith groups mobilize to aid Ukrainian refugees

Rabbi Charles Feinberg is a retired rabbi from Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation. Photo courtesy Charles Feinberg
Earlier this month, Rabbi Charles Feinberg joined an interfaith delegation that traveled to Kyiv and its surroundings to learn more about its religious communities, bear witness to the unfolding loss of life and limb and show solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
His mission, organized by a Polish group called “Europe, A Patient,” included a British imam, a British rabbi and two Polish Catholic priests. The group of seven stayed at a Dominican monastery in Kyiv during their five-day tour, Feb. 7-11.
RNS spoke to Feinberg, now 76 and retired from Adas Israel, a prominent Washington, D.C., Conservative synagogue. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to take this trip?
It sounded like an important opportunity. The Ukrainians extended an invitation, and I felt honored by it. I arrived Tuesday morning and left Saturday evening. You can’t fly into Kyiv. The airport is closed. I flew to Warsaw (Poland) and then took a series of train trips, from Warsaw to Krakow and then from Krakow to Przemyśl and then an overnight train from Przemyśl to Kyiv.
Isn’t it dangerous to travel to Ukraine?
There was an element of danger to this. But the people of Kyiv go about their normal business. There were two air raid sirens when we were there. We went into a shelter for two or three hours. We found out later that the Ukrainian air force had shot down 10 drones over Kyiv. We didn’t hear anything. I read that since the start of the war there have been 600 air raid alerts in Kyiv alone. Another town south of Kyiv was hammered really hard with about 17 missiles (while we were there). So you never know where there might be a missile or drone attack. We were told there would be rolling blackouts. But we didn’t experience that. There is a curfew from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. So we had to hustle to be back (at the monastery) before the curfew.
Does Kyiv look destroyed?
Not at all. It’s a beautiful city on the Dnieper River. We went to some of the towns in the 60 kilometers around Kyiv — Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka — where the war was battled fiercely and saw a lot of destroyed buildings and evidence of human rights abuses and atrocities. …

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