The spiritual leader of Jews in Great Britain has praised his community for the tremendous support they have given Ukrainians following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine – and not just people of his own faith. Numerous members of his congregation and many rabbis had urged him to write a special prayer for the suffering people of Ukraine.
Ephraim Mirvis, whose official title is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and who carries a global voice, said his religion had many prayers, so it was not usual to add one more in rare circumstances.
“As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, I immediately recognised that this qualified for one of those rare circumstances. This was because of the immediate danger to life and wellbeing,” said the Chief Rabbi. “There was going to be a refugee crisis on a major scale and the implications of this and the domino effect of what might be in years to come.
“The prayer was for the people in Ukraine, but also it was a prayer for Europe and a prayer for the world, such could be the implications and consequences of this particular invasion.”
By the first Sabbath after the invasion, which fell on Saturday, February 26, the prayer was already in the possession of his followers, as it was distributed across the country. “It was composed from the depths of my heart,” said the Chief Rabbi. “It was an expression of my thoughts and sentiments”.
The South Africa-born Chief Rabbi, who took on the role in 2013, said there were some outstanding charities in the UK, of which World Jewish Relief was one. He was patron of WJR, which has been working in Ukraine for more than 30 years and has raised millions of pounds.
“There are thousands of Jews in Ukraine that continue to suffer, have left the country, but our efforts have been for all Ukrainians,” he said.
Due to its strong links with Ukraine, WJR was able to get humanitarian aid to 100,000 people once the bombardment had started. This had included 3.4 tonnes of much-needed medicines and 75,000 packages of food and hygiene products.
The Chief Rabbi had planned to go once refugees started to move towards the Polish border with Ukraine, but a bout of COVID had delayed him. Six weeks on and his itinerary had changed, so he visited the Jewish Community Centre in the Polish city of Krakow to see how the money raised by WJR in the UK was being used to help all Ukrainian refugees, not just Jews.
“It was an exceptionally moving visit in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Krakow, and to see so many people queuing up,” he said. “There was a shop where you could take what you wanted from the shelves and just walk out.”
The Chief Rabbi was exceptionally moved by the personal accounts of the people and their indebtedness to the Jewish community in the UK, because they were aware of where the help was coming from.
The genial Chief Rabbi told me about a woman who was not Jewish, who was determined to thank him and the charity for providing food and shelter.
“Anna in her 30s had called her mother in Kyiv and told her that her life had been saved quite literally.
“Her mother said ‘that is God thanking us because our family hid Jewish people during the Holocaust’, and this was not even known by this woman. She felt such a close connection, overwhelmed by emotion, telling me the story.”
The Chief Rabbi said he had been in contact with rabbis across Ukraine, some of whom have left, while others stayed. He described rabbis still living in Ukraine as “exceptionally heroic”.
He mentioned one example where he had been in close contact with a large orphanage in Odesa called Tikva, where hundreds of children, teachers, medical staff and psychologists, had to flee for their lives, being moved out of Ukraine temporarily to another centre in Europe.
The Chief Rabbi also said it was tragic that elderly Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s living in Ukraine were being forced to flee. He questioned how this could be happening in 2022.
The Chief Rabbi said the Russian people were also victims of this invasion of Ukraine. “We certainly see this through first-hand reports. I was hearing from people with connections to Russia that there are non-Jews starving, due to an economic crisis, there is a serious loss of life on the battlefield, and the toll of this war on the people of Russia is very significant, and that is something we should not forget,” he said.
The Chief Rabbi has visited Kyiv in the past, been to the memorial at Babyn Yar, which he described as an important centre for Jewish people. Babyn Yar is a ravine where Nazi German forces during its campaign against the Soviet Union in the Second World War massacred some 33,771 Jews.
“We have connected well with communities there. These place names mean something to us,” he said.
People closer to home in north-west London’s leafy Hampstead Garden Suburb, the Chief Rabbi said the synagogue there, which had been twinned with Lviv for more than 20 years, had also been touched. It had raised significant sums of money and brought people over here.
“There are many personal ties, people here with historic family connections, and those who feel emotionally connected,” he said. “I am very proud of my community to which they have rallied at this time, for Jewish refugees, but I would say far more so for all refugees, and it has been very impressive.”
The Chief Rabbi said that it was in the Jewish nature to care and respond to the crisis in Ukraine, as they had suffered themselves over the millennia.
For me his prayer, with its powerful words, was another special document which supported Ukraine’s right and its people to exist, that would be cherished by all Ukrainians of whatever faith for future generations. In his Prayer to Ukraine, the Chief Rabbi called on God to strengthen the hands of those who pursue peace, not war.
“Bring harmony where there is hostility; relief where there is pain, and hope where there is despair. May he who makes peace in high places make peace for all on Earth.”
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