Opinion | I pray for Kharkiv

Ari Mittleman
Ari Mittleman (Courtesy of Ari Mittleman)

By Ari Mittleman

Twenty years ago this month, I landed at Boryspil International Airport near Kyiv 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 in an increasingly complex world.

Just a few short weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, I learned I had been selected to join a handful of other Washington, D.C., college students to spend Passover with the Jewish community of Kharkiv, Ukraine.

I was a student at the George Washington University. I would join students from other schools in Washington as well as Maryland and Virginia for a trip to celebrate our faith with our peers — Ukrainian Hillel student leaders. We would meet their younger siblings, their parents and their grandparents. Over the course of two 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. (Earlier this month, the Hillel building in Kharkiv was destroyed in a shelling by Russian troops.)

Before our trip, professors, nightly news guests and the foreign policy establishment had spent that autumn and winter talking about a “new world order,” “reevaluating the transatlantic alliance” and “America’s role in an increasingly interconnected world.”

Over sleepless nights, the last few weeks have brought back a whirlwind of vivid memories from my 10 days in Kharkiv.

Unlike 20 years ago, in the middle of the night on the East Coast of the United States, I can now check with my smartphone how the day is beginning in besieged Kharkiv.

On the first day of the war, I smiled watching Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz layning tefillin with congregants despite the sounds of war in the distance. I remember davening in his congregation the same Hallel liturgy in the same tunes I learned as a boy in Pennsylvania.

As last week began, I watched soldiers in a firefight in a park with monkey bars. While uncertain it was the same park, I remember, despite the language barrier, making an immediate connection with new friends — Ukrainian Hillel students — as we did a pull-up competition walking back to our hotel after the first seder.

In the middle of last week, the world watched as Freedom Square — one of the largest in Europe — was torn apart in senseless shelling. I remember leaving our hotel adjacent to the square to “go for a walk,” not wanting to show my tears after learning that the Park Hotel in Netanya had been attacked by a terrorist the first night of that Passover killing 30 innocents and injuring over 140 others.

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 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, D.C., area 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 Chanukah. I had the chance to visit the studio of a Jewish artist. He presented me an oil on canvas interpretation of the Chanukah story with the words in Hebrew, “A Great Miracle Happened There.” A grown man with dried paint on his hands, he 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.

I watch the developments from Kharkiv helpless as I pray for a miracle.

The same Washington professors, nightly news guests and the foreign policy establishment are using the same phrases as they did after 9/11.

I am scared for friends who are proud to be Jewish and proud to be Ukrainian as they huddle in bomb shelters trying to make sense of what “denazification” could possibly mean.

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 diverse Jews over the last two-and-a-half 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 Jerusalem,” next month at the Passover seder, I will pray to spend my 40th birthday next year in a rebuilt Kharkiv.

Ari Mittleman lives in Pikesville and works in Washington, D.C., at the nexus of politics, policymaking and the press. He is the author of “Paths of the Righteous” by Gefen
Publishing House.

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