The Flight of Odessa’s Jewish Community

March 10, 2022 | Yair Rosenberg
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Rabbi Refael Kruskal, the vice-president of the Jewish community in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, had prepared for a Russian invasion long before it began. As he explained to Yair Rosenberg, “I had supplies on trucks. I had generators prepared. I said, there’s gonna be a rush on gas stations, so I had gas prepared for the buses on the way.” In late February, Kruskal evacuated his hometown, along with his staff and hundreds of people who benefit from the charitable programs he oversees. Rosenberg reports:

Kruskal oversees Tikva Odessa, a network of Jewish schools, orphanages, and community-care programs that encompasses some 1,000 people. When Russian bombs began to fall last Thursday night, and one exploded near Tikva’s girls’ home, Kruskal and his team decided it was time to leave. The call was made at 7 a.m. on Friday. By 10:30 a.m., he and his staff were on the road with hundreds of orphans, heading for prearranged shelter beyond the Carpathian Mountains. Others from their community headed for the border and crossed into Moldova.

“There were people in the Second World War who didn’t believe [that disaster was imminent], and they and their communities were wiped out,” he said. “We prefer to be cautious and to make sure that our communities are safe.”

Before the convoy set out, Kruskal posted a brief video from the evacuated central synagogue in Odessa, his voice catching as he asked those watching to pray for them.

Religious Jews like Kruskal and the children in his care normally do not travel or use electricity from sundown on Friday to Saturday night, in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. But Jewish law permits the violation of the Sabbath for pikuaḥ nefesh—the preservation of human life. And so the community drove through Shabbat, stopping at a gas station to make kiddush, the traditional blessing over the wine. “You never expect to be standing in front of hundreds of people in your care in the middle of a cold gas station in Ukraine and making kiddush for them and they’re crying,” Kruskal said. “It was very overwhelming.”

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