Rabbi Mendel Moscowitz from the northeastern city of Kharkiv never imagined his family would be forced to flee a second war after leaving Ukraine for Israel last year.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the family of seven settled close to relatives in southern Israel to start a new life there.

Their peace was disrupted on October 7, when Hamas militants carried out the deadliest ever attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people and seizing 240 hostages, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s relentless retaliatory offensive has killed around 18,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in the besieged Palestinian territory.

With limited time to decide what to do, Moscowitz and his family rushed to a place that had provided shelter to them before -- a Jewish “rescue village” on the shores of Lake Balaton in Hungary.


“We didn’t want it to be traumatic for the kids after what they went through in Ukraine,” 33-year-old Moscowitz told AFP.

In the weeks following the Hamas attack, around 4,000 Ukrainians left Israel, according to embassy figures.

- Safe haven -

Located in Balatonoszod, 130 kilometres (80 miles) southwest of Budapest, the lakeside Machne Chabad complex used to be a holiday resort for government officials.

In early 2022, the complex was refurbished to accommodate Ukrainian Jews, serving as a safe haven for a once large community that has survived a history of pogroms, the Holocaust and Communist-era purges.

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It is financed by the small Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH), the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine and the government of nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

About 200 people currently live in Machne Chabad. Half of them have fled Ukraine and Israel.

“Every time a war begins, everything becomes shaky -- in your job, your house, your family -- and it’s very hard to find stability,” said Moscowitz, who serves as the camp’s rabbi.


Here, residents have access to childcare, classes, excursions and psychological support.

Three times a day, chef Almos Ihasz and his kitchen staff -- made up entirely of Ukrainian refugees -- prepare meals according to strict kosher rules.

- Nowhere to go -

“This place is unique because it gives people a sense of security and a break from the tension.

“We were kept warm and cared for,” said Hana Shatagin, a 29-year-old Ukrainian lawyer.

After six weeks at Machne Chabad with her husband and their baby, she decided the situation has calmed down enough for them to return to Jerusalem.

However some residents, like 73-year-old Zeev Vinogradov from Dnipro, wonder when they might ever be able to leave the lakeside community.

In March 2022, he and his wife fled Ukraine for the Israeli town of Metula, near the northern border with Lebanon.

But the Israeli Defence Forces evacuated the settlement shortly after October 7, saying there was a risk of an attack by Hamas’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

With nowhere else to go, Vinogradov spends his days at Machne Chabad praying and teaching religion to young Ukrainians over the phone.

Once the war in Ukraine is over, he hopes to be able to return to the country where he left everything behind -- “an apartment, a car, friends, a community”.


- Financial struggles -

The future of the Hungarian rescue village is uncertain.

The EMIH is struggling to keep Machne Chabad’s lights on because financial contributions from some sponsors have tailed off.

“In the last six months, the Ukrainian religious community has not been able to make significant contributions,” EMIH head Rabbi Slomo Koves told AFP.

“The attention of the donors was slightly diverted from the situation in Ukraine,” he added, alluding to the war raging in Gaza.

Affiliated to the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement, EMIH maintains close ties with Hungary’s Orban, known for his anti-immigration stance.

The Hungarian leader has repeatedly been accused of flirting with anti-Semitism and his government has run poster campaigns targeting Hungary-born Jewish financier George Soros and his son Alex.

Orban argues there is zero tolerance for anti-Semitism in Hungary, saying it is “an island of peace” for Jewish people and synagogues are being renovated.

His government allowed the EMIH to use the ageing state-owned lake resort for free and currently pays around one third of its operating costs.

For now, as the wars drag on in Ukraine and Gaza, the complex will continue to serve as a place where people can meanwhile “feel like they have a family and a community”, said Moscowitz.

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