In a typical year, the members of the ARIEL Jewish Center, a hub of activity for Baltimore’s Russian-speaking Jewish population, mark Passover with a pair of community seders, ritual dinners of the faith at which Rabbi Velvel Belinsky recalls the liberation of the Israelites from slavery millennia ago.
Modern America being a considerably freer place than ancient Egypt, Belinsky usually focuses not on literal freedom from bondage, but on his followers’ internal struggles with sin.
This year will be different.
With Russian troops waging war in the streets and cities of Ukraine, the community will focus on commemorating and praying for Jews in the shattered East European country as Passover begins Friday at sunset. Call it a fortified version of a long-familiar rite.
“The Torah tells us that oppression doesn’t only come from the outside, so we usually look inward at our own negative habits on Passover,” says Belinsky, 45, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, who helped establish the Orthodox community center and synagogue in Pikesville 17 years ago. “This time we’ll be focusing on our brothers and sisters in Ukraine, including those who are trying to escape from the horrors of this war, and on those large numbers of us who have friends and family there.”
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In the Old Testament, the pharaohs in Egypt harbor such fear of an increasing number of Israelites in their midst that they force the Jewish people into slavery, then keep them in that dread condition for about 200 years. God commands Moses, the Jews’ prophet and patriarch, to tell the Israelites to mark their doorways with lamb’s blood one night, then sends the Angel of Death to kill the firstborn son in every house not so marked. The next day, the Jews leave Egypt to start anew.
Their descendants celebrate the exodus around the world with the eight-day holiday known as Passover, or Pesach, every spring.
“The theme on Passover, like on many Jewish holidays, is, ‘They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s drink,’” says Gene Drubetskoy, a native of Kyiv, Ukraine, who came to Maryland with his family as a child and grew up here. “It’s about beating the odds, surviving, keeping our religion alive.”
Drubetskoy, 41, is one of about 15,000 people in Greater Baltimore on the rolls of the American-Russian Institute for the Enrichment of Life, as the ARIEL Jewish Center is formally known. Most members are Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants from the 15 states of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, or their children or grandchildren.
For many, the theme of emancipation from oppression had a personal resonance long before Vladimir Putin ordered tanks to roll across Russia’s southwestern border.
Russia has a history of antisemitism, from laws that discriminated against Jews starting in the 1790s through government-approved pogroms, or bloody anti-Jewish riots, that took place during the 19th and 20th centuries. During World War II in Ukraine, Nazi death squads killed an estimated 1.5 million Jews, often with the help of local collaborators.
Ukraine is home today to 150,000 to 300,000 Jewish people, according to most recent surveys, making the group a minority in a nation of about 41 million. Some 70% of Ukrainians say they adhere to some form of Orthodox Christianity, which will observe Easter on April 24, while an additional 7% subscribe to other branches of the Christian faith.
Visitors to Russia and Ukraine over the past decade or so say antisemitism is a less severe problem now. But Jews who emigrated to the U.S. during the two most recent waves — first in the 1970s, then in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed — recall a postwar world in which Judaism was effectively banned and discrimination was the norm.
Steve Ashkenazi, a painting contractor who lives in Pikesville, grew up in Kyiv in the 1960s, where the Soviet government allowed only one synagogue to remain open, older Jewish people feared teaching their children the faith, and becoming known as Jewish could lead to beatings.
His mother decided to move the family to America after being called “a stinking Jew” in public one too many times. The journey took Ashkenazi, then 29, and his family through refugee camps in Austria and Italy, and involved bribing several KGB agents.
Like many Soviet émigrés, he knew little about Judaism until he arrived in the U.S. Members of the ARIEL Center — a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch, an international movement that emphasizes teaching the faith to secular Jews — helped his family get settled and offered educational and worship services.
That taught him he had landed in “the greatest country in the world.”
“When you don’t know about your own faith, it’s like walking in a corridor without lights,” he says. “When you learn it, you can see where you want to go. It really opens your eyes.”
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Belinsky says Ashkenazi, now 60, is one of many Russian immigrants who spent a couple of decades establishing themselves financially and culturally in Baltimore and now have the time and opportunity to focus their energies on spiritual questions.
Vladimir Podaritch, 52, a onetime star on the Ukrainian national junior soccer team, is another. He remembers growing up in a country with “an anti-Jewish government,” where Jews who wanted to attend college were required to do so away from the big cities, and where few knew anything about the faith’s holidays.
He moved from Kyiv to Baltimore with his family 30 years ago, met and married a Ukrainian woman, found himself welcomed by the local Russian Jewish community, and spent years building a general contracting company.
Now he’s proud to say his children have attended Hebrew school, love the faith’s rituals and traditions, and keep him apprised of what they’ve learned. They’ll be attending a Jewish day school in the fall.
“Here, everything is available,” Podaritch says. “You don’t have to be afraid to be Jewish.”
Putin’s shocking invasion of Ukraine doesn’t target Jews, but the bombing and killing is traumatizing the relatives of ARIEL Center members.
Andrii Pyovovar is one of the lucky ones. The 39-year-old trucker from Ukraine has lived in Baltimore County since 2016. When he learned in February that several nations were closing embassies in Ukraine, he guessed something terrible was in the offing, flew to his hometown of Vinnitsa, and brought his reluctant wife and children back to the U.S. with him.
The invasion started nine days later. Last he heard, 15 Russian rockets had slammed into Vinnitsa, wiping out its airport, military storage areas and TV antennas. At least 15 people have died there, and many are staying in their basements.
“Everybody [in my family] is saying, ‘Thank you,’” he says.
Drubetskoy has had a window on the devastation. His cousin, a hockey coach, lives in Kyiv.
“He has an iPhone, and I talk to him every day through FaceTime,” says Drubetskoy, a real estate agent. “I can hear the shells going off in the background. They’re all asking, ‘Why the U.S. can’t close the skies?’”
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Belinsky visited Ukraine in December, just two months before Russia invaded. He was there to address college students from across the country.
Like most Americans, he has since followed the action closely through news reports and social media, seeing the “pictures of bombed-out houses, destroyed roads, people crying, terrible things,” he says.
He has stayed in touch with the contacts he made there, many of them other Chabad rabbis, and helped ARIEL members with friends and relatives in Ukraine check on their welfare or get them messages. In some cases, he has used his connections to help refugees arrange safe passage into neighboring Poland, Moldavia and beyond.
During the Purim holiday last month, several of his Ukrainian fellow rabbis sent him photos of their celebrations, services they presided over — even in synagogues whose neighborhoods were devastated by shelling. He showed his congregants the photos, in part to demonstrate that the faith survives in Ukraine today, just as it has survived for more than 4,000 years through oppression, discrimination and war.
As he leads two public seders at Slade Mansion in Pikesville this weekend — Friday night’s will be conducted in English, as usual, Saturday night’s in Russian — Belinsky says he’ll include the Ukrainians in his prayers. He’ll weave the story of their suffering into the ancient tale of the Jews’ escape from slavery.
The dinners, like the ARIEL Center’s Purim celebrations, will serve as fundraisers for their brothers and sisters overseas.
“If they can celebrate Purim there,” Belinsky says, “we can definitely celebrate here. This Pesach we are going to be thinking about them.”