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“Everything will be fine with the community, I am sure of that. Now the most important thing is our victory”, – Volodymyr Zeev Vaksman

    Odesa is one of the largest cities in Ukraine, which suffers from constant shelling by Russian troops. This city is well-known for its rich Jewish history. Before the full-scale invasion, there were several Jewish communities in Odesa: Chabad Lubavitch, Litvak, Reform, and Conservatives. The migration caused the Litvak and Reform communities to cease to function. The community of Conservative Judaism is one of two communities that maintain their religious activities in Odesa, supporting and consolidating their members. Volodymyr Zeev Vaksman, chairman of the religious community of traditional Judaism “Tipheret” in Odesa, told us about the life of this community.

    Thank you, Volodymyr, for your time to talk about the community of Conservative Judaism in Odesa. First of all, please tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the community.

    My name is Volodymyr Zeev Vaksman. I am the chairman and founder of the Conservative Jewish community in Odesa. The community has been functioning since 2014, and I have been heading it all this time. The first Conservative community in Ukraine was founded in Chernivtsi, followed by the community in Kyiv, and then in Odesa.

    How many members did your community have before the start of the war?

    There were about 200 members according to the lists.

    So, what was the life of the community before the full-scale invasion?

    We carried out the usual religious activities for the Jewish community: regular Shabbat and Havdalah celebrations. We had Sunday school for children and various educational and religious courses, including a course on giyur (conversion to Judaism), a course on Jewish traditions, and a course on Jewish history. We also had a full-time kindergarten. Moreover, we organized small (for 20 people) day camps for children that lasted for a whole week. 

    When it comes to middle-aged and elderly people, we had charity programs.   Although the Hesed Charitable Foundation operates in Odesa, we also supported our elderly members.

    But the main feature of our activities in Odesa was helping animals. We visited shelters, collected food and items for animals. Each children camp had a whole day dedicated to Tikkun Olam (restoration of justice in the world), when children volunteered at the shelter. We believe that Adam was given two most important commandments: not to eat from the tree that is in the middle of the Garden and to protect the Garden, and the Garden is our entire world. We strongly believe that ecology and animal protection are extremely important, which is why we help animals. As for the environment, we do not use disposable tableware at all, for instance, as it contradicts our attitude to the world and nature.

    Unfortunately, such an attitude toward ecology and nature is not widely shared by the conservative movement in Ukraine. I try to persuade other communities to at least stop using disposable tableware, and I have succeeded with some of them. This is better than nothing!

    When the full-scale invasion started, were you in Odesa? 

    On February 24, 2022, I was in Chernivtsi, and my wife Hanna and our son were in Odesa. Two days later, she left for Moldova and later moved to Germany. She made a shelter for our refugees in Moldova. She owns a house near Chisinau. She bought mattresses, food, and invited many people to live there. They lived there for a month and then they moved to Germany together. I came back to Odesa from Chernivtsi because I have cats here. I had the opportunity to leave, but I realized that I could not abandon my pets. 

    For about a month and a half, I was engaged only in delivering humanitarian aid to community members, and I also delivered food for animals. We were not engaged in any public activities at that time. However, we realized that we needed to return to religious activity. We resumed our activities little by little. Half of our community left and the other stayed. Many refugees also came to Odesa from such cities as Mariupol, Mykolaiv, and Kherson. At that time, our community had the same number of members as before the war. I mean, the number remained the same, but the people were new. 

    In June 2022, my wife returned to Odesa. She took a lot of people abroad, but she said she would rather stay at home. In September 2022, I had to go abroad myself. I studied at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and had to go there for exam period. It turned out to be a trip for seven months. While I was not in Odesa, my wife Hanna actually headed the community, and she was totally involved in its activities.

    Let me make sure I’ve got this right: the community of Conservative Judaism in Odesa resumed its activities offline a month and a half after the start of the full-scale war, didn’t it?

    Yes, that’s right. I don’t like online activities. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we kept our activities going, little by little, but still. 

    Do you conduct religious services in the community by yourself? 

    For many years I conducted services myself, and in Judaism, any member of the community can do this, so there is nothing surprising here. In 2023, I hired a professional cantor, Halyna Slobodaniuk. She graduated from Machon (a theological school of Conservative Judaism) and she also has a musical education. Now our services are very beautiful. Today, just like in old synagogues, people come to listen to the cantor sing.

    The Conservative movement as a whole has quite a progressive attitude towards women in religion. For example, we ordain women as rabbis and cantors, and all other jobs. According to the Jewish tradition, the one who was created later is more spiritual. This is why the cantor in my community is a woman, and the community head used to be a woman.

    Has the community resumed all of its pre-war activities?

    No, the kindergarten is not operating now. We have changed some of our activities. For example, we have opened an Unbreakable Point. Our community is located on the ground floor of the building, and we also have a basement in the same building. We have been here since 2019, and we have Torah scrolls, so it is actually a synagogue. Baruch Hashem, our building was not damaged. On November 6, 2023, a missile struck just 200 meters from us, near the Odesa Art Museum. Fortunately, we are surrounded by other buildings, so the blast wave didn’t even hit us. Anyway, it was very loud, and I was in the synagogue when it happened.

    The basement is certainly safer during the war. We installed a stove, a generator, stored food, bought air mattresses and chairs. We also always have a supply of food for animals. We have everything for people to come here when there is a blackout in the city. Children can do their homework here, get warm in winter, and just communicate. This Unbreakable Point is available to community members and their friends. We have no signs, but if someone comes from outside, we certainly let them in.

    Today we really need financial assistance. The Jewish community in America helps us a lot. However, now we need funding to pay for the services of psychologists who would support people’s emotional state. This is of great importance. We have a lot of refugees, and, generally speaking, when you are surrounded by war for so long, you get depressed… Dull short days under constant shelling, uncertainty about the future… all these things make you feel down. 

    We resumed religious activities at once, but we are only planning to resume kindergarten and Sunday school activities. To do this, we also need money.

    We know that some Jewish communities organized the evacuation of their members. Has your community done anything like this?

    No, there was no organized evacuation of people in our community. The Conservative movement in Ukraine, led by Rabbi Reuven Stamov, organized the evacuation in Chernivtsi. They took a bus to take people to Germany. Later, my wife Hanna brought there several members of our Odesa community, who went to Moldova first. I mean, she took care of all the logistics, rented a small bus to Iasi, and then they flew to Berlin from there.

    I think it’s time for everyone to come back. I believe that the financial aid that European countries are currently paying to refugees would be better spent on weapons for the Ukrainian military. Now people can come back and restore the economy.

    Then let’s talk about the future. What are the development options for Odesa Conservative community?  Do you have any expectations?  

    Basically, this is a matter of our fast victory. I am sure that everything is going to be fine with the community. We have people, we have a desire to do something, we have ideas, so I have positive thoughts about all of this. The most important thing now is our victory.

    The interviewer:  Anna Mariya Basauri Ziuzina

    The conversation was recorded on December 21, 2023

    The interview was a part of the project “Religion on Fire: Documenting Russia’s War Crimes against Religious Communities in Ukraine”, implemented by the NGO “Workshop of Academic Religious Studies” with the support of “Documenting Ukraine”, a project of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna.