The city of Kherson, Ukraine hasn't known peace since the Russian invasion began. Despite the many upheavals the city has experienced over the past year, it still cannot catch a break.
"We live here in a routine of bombings," says the city's rabbi and Chabad emissary Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Wolff. "Our city is under constant bombarding, literally on a daily basis. Sometimes it happens several times a day, sometimes even at night, just all the time. It is not recommended for anyone to wander around the city. Those who don't have a real reason - do not leave their homes."
Since the outbreak of the war, Rabbi Wolff has transformed the synagogue into a massive outreach center, not only for the local Jewish community but for all the city's residents. "The door of our community is always open," he said, "but since the war, we have opened it to all the residents. We have become an address for many residents. Over the past year, we have distributed countless food packages, along with essential and life-saving medications."
According to Rabbi Wolf, the emphasis in the past year has been on physically rescuing people. "We distribute anything that can help the people, especially food," he says.
Recently, the assistance provided by the Jewish community has skyrocketed. "With the help of Chabad's JRNU relief center in Ukraine, we announced in the city the distribution of a cash grant to every person in need, Jewish and non-Jewish, with the sum of $200, which is a very generous amount in the local context. Of course, this is done through organized registration. We never anticipated the number of people who would turn to us. From hundreds, it jumped to thousands in a short period of time. I myself was astonished by the constant influx of people."
A local girl's heartbreaking request
The Jewish community in Harsin has become a savior for the entire city's residents. "From the moment the terrible war broke out, every resident in the city understood that we are their address for any assistance. At the beginning of the war, we received a phone call from Germany that there was a group of students from Hungary who had eaten their last cracker," Rabbi Wolff recalled. "I told the person who approached me to tell them to come to the synagogue. They were welcomed here with open arms and received food packages."
Rabbi Wolff also shared a chilling story that illustrates the assistance provided to non-Jewish residents. "Some time ago, a girl arrived here, and you could see a look of death in her eyes. It turned out she suffers from juvenile diabetes and urgently needed insulin, which was not available anywhere in the city," he recounted.
"Through a good friend, a local hospital manager, we managed to save her. When I asked her why she came specifically to the synagogue, after all, we are not a pharmacy, she gave a very surprising answer: 'Friends of my father from Israel told him to send me to the synagogue, and there I will surely get help.' Every resident of Kherson knows that at the synagogue - we are there for them."
The assistance to non-Jewish residents, according to Rabbi Wolff, stems from the work that the Jewish community has done which made it an inseparable part of the local environment. "We are all here in extreme situations, and in such situations, assistance is not selective but given to everyone," explained the rabbi. "The city's residents know that only good things come out of the synagogue."
The astonishment of the deputy military governor
In recent days, the deputy military governor, who heard about the synagogue's deeds, came to visit. "The Deputy called me from outside," Rabbi Wolf recounted, "and he said he couldn't come in because of the crowd. I went out to him so that I could escort him in."
As of today, 4,000 residents have already benefited from the financial grant out of the budget of nearly one million dollars received by the Jewish community. "Thanks to this aid system that we can provide to both the Jewish community and the city's residents as a whole - the Jewish community has gained a very positive and special place amidst the chaos of the war."