Rabbi’s Brush With Danger in Ukraine Went Viral

KYIV, Ukraine — It was a striking image: a bearded rabbi with a flak jacket over his tallit, hitting the ground to take cover as shells boomed around him.

Video footage of the moment Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman came under fire while on a humanitarian mission to flooded southern Ukraine on June 8 has been viewed more than 1.5 million times on Twitter. It put a fresh spotlight on the chief rabbi of Ukraine, whose renown predates both that moment and his humanitarian efforts since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“People recognize me,” the rabbi said, eyes twinkling, from his office in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on a recent afternoon.

Rabbi Azman, 57, sprang into action when Russia invaded in February 2022, working to help evacuate Jewish Ukrainians and recording appeals for help and a halt to the war. The bed that is still set up in his office at Kyiv’s Brodsky synagogue is a testament to the intensity of those early days, he said. The rabbi initially worked even through Shabbat, the traditional day of rest, and started filming video messages that went far and wide.

His role as chief rabbi has particular resonance in a war that President Vladimir V. Putin has falsely claimed is about “denazifying” Ukraine, a country whose current president is Jewish and whose Jewish community has historically suffered persecution.

Born in Leningrad, the rabbi emigrated to Israel in the 1980s to escape the former Soviet Union. After marrying a Ukrainian woman, he came to Ukraine in the early 1990s to help children affected by the Chernobyl disaster and later led the rehabilitation of Kyiv’s main synagogue.

When Russian-backed fighters launched a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Rabbi Azman helped evacuate civilians from the fighting. He later set up a village on the outskirts of Kyiv that he named Anatevka — like the fictional shtetl in the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” — for displaced Jewish families.

The rabbi’s work earned him national honors. Photographs of him shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and other notable people cover a wall in his office.

Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, rear right, watches as Valentyna, 82, is resettled into her new room at the Anatevka Jewish Refugee Community.Credit…Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

But some of his prominent connections have at times cast a shadow over his work.

He was a vocal supporter of Donald J. Trump and has a longstanding relationship with Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose attempts to persuade Ukraine’s government to launch investigations that he believed would benefit Mr. Trump were key to the impeachment inquiry against the former president. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — associates of Mr. Giuliani who were convicted on campaign finance violations — were at one point board members for the rabbi’s U.S.-based Friends of Anatevka charity.

When asked about the saga, Rabbi Azman becomes animated, insisting he has no interest in politics.

“I don’t vote in America,” he said, adding: “I work for Ukraine.”

The rabbi emphasized that he’s simply a “quiet guy” trying to reach a wide audience to support his humanitarian efforts, which he says have cost millions. He considers his work less a calling than “obligation,” one that took him to Kherson to help with the flood response and to draw attention to the devastation.

Although he no longer works on Shabbat, the rabbi maintains a packed schedule and posts frequent social media updates about his aid efforts and Russian atrocities. On a recent afternoon, he greeted an evacuee brought by ambulance to Anatevka.

Many people ask why he remains in Ukraine despite the dangers, he said.

“I thank God that he put me in the right time and the right place that I can save people, help people, 24/7,” he said.

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