Prayers for Peace: Reflecting On Jewish Ukraine

JDC Entwine's Rabbi Joshua Mikutis reflects on the crucial role that Ukraine has played in global Jewish life.

By Rabbi Joshua Mikutis - Jewish Learning Designer, JDC Entwine | February 25, 2022

Rabbi Josh Mikutis (first row, second from left) with Jewish community members at the Moishe House in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Ukraine boasts a rich and dynamic legacy of vibrant Jewish life, from Isaac Babel to popular Yiddish tunes. As the crisis in Ukraine continues, Rabbi Josh Mikutis reflects on the beauty and resilience of Jewish Ukraine, his personal experience in the country, and the Jewish values that power JDC’s work there.

The first time I traveled to Ukraine I did not need my passport; I just needed a library card to check out a book by Isaac Babel from my college library. I had signed up for a course on Russian history in the 20th century, and our first assignment was to read Babel’s Odessa Stories, his collection of stories about the rambunctious, diverse, multilingual Jewish community in early 20th -century Odesa. 

The first time that I traveled to Ukraine in real life was with JDC, and I watched wax drip down a havdalah candle at a Moishe House in Kharkiv. A group of young professionals — just like you would see in San Francisco or Sydney — had their arms draped around each other, as they sang the blessings, breathed in the sweetness of Shabbat’s end, and wished one another a good week in Ukrainian, reinforcing it in Russian, adding in English for my benefit, bringing in Hebrew, and lastly, Yiddish for good measure.  

But right now, so many of us can access Ukraine only through our computer or TV screens, as we watch with shock as a previously unthinkable war begins. At a time when we might feel paralyzed, here’s how we can act: Connect to this remarkable place and its people beyond the headlines. 

Ukraine is a place core to the Jewish story. Hasidism, the Jewish mystical tradition, has its roots throughout Ukraine. Many of the most famous Zionist thinkers called Ukraine home — representing the ideological diversity of Zionist thought, from Jabotinsky to Ahad Ha’am. If you have ever hummed “If I was a rich man” or “Matchmaker, matchmaker,” you have Ukraine to thank — Solomon Nahumovich Rabinovich (better known by his pen name Sholem Aleichem), the author of the stories that would become Fiddler on the Roof, began his creative career there.  

Ukraine has had more than its share of horrors — from pogroms that decimated Jewish communities to the murderous Nazi occupation to the Soviet Union’s effort to snuff out any trace of Jewish identity or culture.  

Ukraine is many places at once.  

At this frightening moment, we can all find ways to take action. If you have friends or family there, send a message to let them know that they are loved. Explore some of the artists and activists who have made this such a vibrant place. Learn about and support the Jewish community that carries the legacy of so much and of the needy Jews we care for every day.  

In Vayikra Rabbah, a thousand-year-old collection of reflections on the book of Leviticus, we learn that peace is so significant that it is one of God’s many names (and peace is embedded in Sholem Aleichem’s name, which translates to “peace onto you”). As we head into Shabbat, we pray and hope that peace will unfold.  

One day, we will travel back to Ukraine in real life, but for now, let us actualize the principle of kol yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh, that all Jews are responsible for each other — through learning about and connecting with the Jews of Ukraine and acting on behalf of them. 

Rabbi Joshua Mikutis is the Director of Program Design and Jewish Learning at JDC Entwine and the Rabbinic Director of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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