In the province of Lugansk, Ukraine and city of the same name, Jewish children and their families were witness to a Passover a miracle this year.
Their school building and its kitchen in particular was able to remain open for the entire Passover holiday, and no one was injured despite fierce clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine government troops.
News reports to the contrary were false, the city’s chief rabbi, Shalom Gopin, told Chabad.org this week. Reports on some news outlets claimed that representatives of the separatist Lugansk People’s Republic violently seized the Beit Menachem-Or Avner Chabad Jewish Day School building in Lugansk.
But Gopin, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Lugansk, told Chabad.org the reports were untrue.
“At the end of March, representatives of the LPR entered our school building in Lugansk and told our guards that it appeared the Jewish community was forfeiting the building and they were taking it,” Gopin explained, adding that they left without incident after Jewish community officials arrived on the scene to dispute the claim.
Until the start of the war, Beit Menachem School had more than 130 students. Opened by Gopin and his wife Chana in 2006, it has served as a central point for the Jewish community during the conflict, even after the rabbi was forced to leave under heavy gunfire a little less than a year ago. He nevertheless continues to serve the community from other locations; for example, a 10-day Passover retreat was held for Lugansk Jewish refugees at the Chabad-Lubavitch of Zhitomir’s campgrounds in western Ukraine. More than 60 people showed up.
In Lugansk, 150 people signed up for 15 local neighborhood seders where Gopin distributed kosher-for-Passover food, matzah and wine from the school’s kitchen. Because it is no longer safe to go out at night, the traditional central public seder plan was scrapped and the gabbai at the synagogue held a seminar to teach local Jews how to lead a seder at their homes.
Gopin and others have since reached out to the Lugansk Minister of Religion, who personally assured the Jewish community the seizure was a mistake.
“The kitchen at our school was operating during Passover and the community’s food for the holiday was prepared there,” said Gopin. “We have been running a soup kitchen out of the synagogue kitchen and plan on opening one at the school, too,” the rabbi said. “We also hope to restart our Jewish preschool at the premises soon.”
The emissary said they have since received a personal guarantee from Igor Plotnitsky, head of the unrecognized rebel republic, that there will be no further attempts to seize the building.
Passover for Lugansk refugees in Zhitomer brought members of the besieged community closer together in a way that one could not have predicted, Chana Gopin commented.
“It has been 10 months since the fighting started but one outcome of all this is how much closer our community has become to each other. Passover together in Zhitomir gave us the opportunity to be together again, and it gives us all the strength to cope. No one knows when this will all end, and being able to gather together and eat, sing, pray together, just to be together – it gave us strength as a family and as a community.”
JewishPress.com thanks Chabad.org for its contribution to this article.
Hana Levi Julian