Eugenia Noshenko spent Friday night huddled in her basement in Poltava, Ukraine, helping comfort a nearby woman’s two young children as the four of them listened to the explosions of war unfolding above their head.
Two women, two children and a cat, in a dark room, waiting for dawn.
“Today we are back home, but yesterday we slept in the basement,” she told J. in a phone interview in Russian on Saturday. “We hear explosions all around Poltava. We pray for Kyiv – the city is in a very difficult position.
Noshenko, 39, is the leader of the small progressive (Reform) community of Poltava, supported by Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., for more than 20 years. Noshenko stepped in when the former community leader made aliyah to Israel last year, and now she leads Friday evening services and organizes holiday celebrations for the small, isolated congregation.
The congregation was larger, says Cherie Half of Beth Am, chairwoman of the Poltava-Odessa committee. But Poltava, a city of 280,000 in central Ukraine on the main road between Kharkiv and Kiev, has been something of a staging post for Jews leaving breakaway Russian-controlled regions to the east. .
“There’s a lot of transition, Ukrainian Jews from the east coming to Poltava and then going to Israel,” Half said. That makes it difficult to maintain the community — many young people grow up with a Jewish upbringing and then head to Israel, with Noshenko’s 19-year-old daughter among them.
So far Poltava has been spared the Russian invasion, although heavy fighting has taken place all around, including attacks at Mirgorod, some 30 miles to the west. On Saturday evening, Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands, but heavy fighting is taking place in the streets and a massive buildup of Russian tanks has been seen near the Kharkiv border, preparing for another push towards the Ukrainian capital. The Ukrainian government distributed weapons to civilians and teaches people how to make Molotov cocktails; more than 120,000 Ukrainians have already crossed the country’s western border into neighboring countries.
Noshenko said Poltava is under a night curfew from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. She uses her daylight hours to try to buy food for herself and her congregation. “We can go out to look for food, but it’s not recommended,” she told J. “But we have to buy food for the old people who can’t go themselves. ” However, it’s not easy to find basic necessities — “the shelves are empty,” she wrote in an email.
Half said Beth Am tried to send money to the Poltava congregation, as well as another much larger Reform congregation in Odessa that her synagogue began supporting three years ago.
“We collected money, but we can’t get it to them,” she said. “There is no way to send money through the usual channels.”
Ukrainian banks and government agencies have been hit by cyberattacks for more than a week. Although Russia has not taken responsibility, experts agree that hackers carry out such attacks with the tacit blessing of the Russian government.
As a result, it is almost impossible for Ukrainian citizens to have access to cash. “Banks are closed, ATMs are not working,” Noshenko reported. While credit cards are accepted, Noshenko is used to paying cash – cash that is no longer available.
“My daughter is in Israel, in the Israeli army, and my husband is fighting [the Russians] somewhere, I don’t know where,” Noshenko said. “I take care of these two children because I have a private house [not an apartment]and my husband built a shelter in the basement in case of an emergency.
Speaking to J. from Israel, Noshenko’s daughter said she was terribly worried about her relatives and friends in Ukraine. “I’ve lived there all my life,” she said, adding that she immigrated to Israel a year and a half ago after being very active in the Jewish community in Poltava. “We celebrated Shabbat and all the holidays, I went to a Jewish camp, I participated in an Israeli program and now I am in the army,” she said. Her grandfather and a cousin live in Ashdod, so that’s her home base.
“I was really scared when I couldn’t reach my dad,” she told J. “He wouldn’t answer my texts. But we’ve been able to talk recently, and he’s fine.
“Poltava is safer than Kyiv and other regions. I hope it will stay like that. My mother has food, water, shelter. She’s on the internet all the time, keeping track of what’s going on.
Noshenko, asked what American Jews can do to help, began with a sigh. “Unfortunately, I don’t know,” she said. Due to money transfer issues, she can’t ask for anything concrete.
“We are very grateful for the moral support,” she said. “We know we are not alone. The whole world supports us. We are all praying for this to end.
This article was originally published in Jweekly.com. Republished with permission.