Hillel Kharkiv: Hope in the Darkness



February 23, 2023

February 24 marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Leading up to that day, we will share stories and experiences from Hillel students and professionals who have been impacted by the war over the last year. Stay tuned for more stories in the coming days. 

One year later, the war in Ukraine continues to impact families, students, and Hillels across the country. Yuliya Pototskaya, Director of Hillel Kharkiv, understands this better than most. 

When the war broke out, Yuliya and her staff jumped into action to make sure their students, young adults, and families connected to Hillel were safe and had access to food, electricity, and shelter. They decided that they would offer the Hillel building as a space where members could stay if they needed a safe, warm place to sleep and eat. 

Yuliya and her team had just started discussing the logistics of that plan on March 2, 2022 when they received the devastating news that the Hillel Kharkiv building had been destroyed by a Russian missile. “There are two days that stand out to me as the hardest days of my life,” Yuliya remembered, “The one that came first is the day that Hillel Kharkiv was bombed.” 

For the first month after Russia invaded Ukraine, Yuliya was determined to stay with her family and community in Kharkiv for the duration of the war. But with the incessant barrage of missiles being fired by Russian troops just over the nearby border, there were more difficult days to come. Yuliya’s heart hurt for her children who were in shock from the noise and the violence caused by living under constant attack in Kharkiv. She and her husband, Yuriy, realized that they needed to remove their family from the immediacy of the war, and Yuliya decided to relocate temporarily to France with their children. 

While Yuliya stays in France (she is adamant about the fact that she still lives in Ukraine), she remains closely connected to her staff on the ground in Kharkiv and the other four cities in Ukraine where Hillel operates. 

As much of the immediate violence began to abate in Kharkiv in the fall of 2022, students and professionals who are active in Hillel have built up a remarkable network of service and programs for their community. Over 30 Hillel Kharkiv participants have returned to active engagement in the Jewish community despite ongoing bombing in the city. Each week, participants from Hillel Kharkiv gather together for Shabbat, Torah discussions, game nights, and inspirational Havdalah services. 

Hillel participants also plan programming for children in their neighborhoods that are designed to bring a sense of fun and excitement to children whose lives have been uprooted. They bring meals to older adults and make sure members of their communities have electricity, food, and water. 

As Yuliya reflects on the last year, she says, “Hillel gives us hope against all odds.” The courage of the students and professionals of Hillel Kharkiv gives her hope that she and her family will return to Ukraine, reconnect with their community, and rebuild their lives in the city and country that is their home.