Twenty years ago this week, I visited Kharkiv, Ukraine for the first time.
It was my first trip abroad since the terrorist attacks last September. Then, as now, there were real questions about what it meant to be a Jew and an American in an increasingly complex world.
Just weeks after 9/11, 2001, I learned that I had been selected to join a handful of other students from Washington, DC, to spend Passover with the Jewish community in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
I was a student at George Washington University. I will be joining other active Hillel students in and around Washington for a trip to celebrate our faith with Ukrainian Hillel student leaders. In two life-changing weeks, despite language barriers and growing up in radically different societies, we would learn more about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century than we could ever learn in a classroom or a synagogue.
As the sleepless nights passed, the past month brought back a whirlwind of vivid memories of my time in Kharkiv. Unlike twenty years ago, in the middle of the night on the East Coast of the United States, I can now consult with my smartphone the news from Kharkiv under siege.
On the first day of the war, I smiled as I watched a video circulating online of Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz posing tefillin with congregants despite the sounds of war in the distance.
Yet within the first week of the war, the Kharkiv Hillel – which had grown over 20 years to work with over 600 students – was reduced to rubble. The synagogue became a soup kitchen and a bomb shelter.
The first seder in Kharkiv 20 years ago was an evening of personal firsts. It was my first seder away from my family. It was my first seder with over 100 people. It was my first seder where the only words I understood were Hebrew and Aramaic from the Haggadah. Our group overcame language barriers, jet lag and homesickness and we immediately bonded with our Ukrainian Hillel counterparts.
It is from the tragedy that our friendships have grown stronger. That first night of the Seder, a suicide bomber killed 30 Israelis and injured 100 others as they celebrated the start of Passover at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel.
The morning after our prayers at the beautiful and historic Kharkiv Synagogue (now unrecognizable) took on added significance. While I had a Russian accent, I remember singing in that congregation the same uplifting Hallel liturgy to the same tunes I learned as a kid in Pennsylvania.
The deadliest act of terror of the Second Intifada brought us together and strengthened our resolve as a Jewish community. This Passover, our group of American Hillel students have forged unbreakable bonds with our Ukrainian Hillel peers. We laughed and we cried and we learned. We embodied the famous metaphor of the story of the exodus from Egypt – “B’Lev Echad K’Ish Echad” – “With one heart as one person”.
I left this seemingly once-in-a-lifetime journey inspired in a way that I had never been. Hear stories of courage from Holocaust survivors through translators unable to hold back their emotions telling stories six decades later. Hearing their grandchildren – our peers – talk about their favorite Birthright experiences from the previous summer. Hear from young professional entrepreneurs – in the early days of the internet – building businesses with their cousins who had made aliyah to Israel.
During Passover 2004, I had the honor of leading a new group of Hillel students from the Washington DC area to Kharkiv. Fortunately, there was no terrorist attack in Israel, but the unity we felt with our fellow Jews was just as strong. The equally vibrant memories of last week’s sleepless nights.
In 2006, I returned with a friend to Kharkiv just before Chanuka. I had the chance to visit the studio of a Jewish artist. He presented me with an oil on canvas rendition of the Chanuka story with the words in Hebrew, “A great miracle happened there.” A grown man with dried paint on his hands hugged me, saying in broken English that it was a miracle that a young American Jew was visiting his humble studio in a concrete walk-up apartment in the soviet era.
From suburban Maryland, I helplessly watch developments from Kharkiv and across Ukraine. I pray for a miracle. I reflect on the meaning of the Psalms we say during Hallel.
In 2016, I made another trip to Ukraine. This time I did not have the opportunity to visit Kharkiv, but I visited Uman. The ancient city is the final resting place of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the most influential and creative Jewish community leaders of his time. When he died before his 40th birthdayand anniversary, his interpretation of Jewish tradition marked and inspired countless Jews for nearly three centuries.
Rabbi Nachman often remarked, “You are where your thoughts are, make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.
While it is traditional at Passover to pray, “next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem”. Next month, at the Passover seder, I will reflect on the resilience of families who lost loved ones and rebuilt after the Netanya massacre. I will pray to spend the next Passover in a rebuilt Kharkiv Hillel.
Ari Mittleman works at the crossroads of politics, policymaking and the press in Washington, DC. He has worked with US and international heads of state, elected officials, celebrities, and global business and nonprofit leaders. As a Pennsylvania native actively involved in the Jewish community, the Pittsburgh tragedy compelled him to write his first book, Paths of the Righteous by Gefen Publishing House. A new father, Ari lives in Pikesville, Maryland, with his wife and daughter.