As the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Messianic Rabbi Michael Schiffman assumed his Torah class would be canceled.
“If there’s ever a good reason to cancel a class, that would be it,” he remarked. From his Florida home, Rabbi Schiffman teaches a Sunday afternoon Torah study over Zoom for students in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Despite the war, his students still wanted to meet: “The studying means very much to us. We love your teaching, and we want to learn.” Unfortunately, falling bombs made it impossible to continue the class, and so long as the war continues, the future of the Zaporizhzhia Torah study seems uncertain.
Ukrainian Refugee Crisis
Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman has a prominent role in the Messianic Jewish movement, serving on the MJRC (Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council). Dr. Schiffman is also the executive director of Chevra, a humanitarian organization that provides food security to hundreds of displaced Ukrainian Jews as well as relief aid to people of all faiths in the war-torn areas of the former Soviet Union. The recent war in Ukraine has effectively closed down the soup kitchens sponsored by Chevra, but they have shifted their efforts to address the refugee crisis spilling into Ukraine’s neighbors. The refugees are mostly women and children, as Ukrainian men remain behind to fight against the Russian army. “The backup of traffic is thirty miles from the border. Women and children are walking in freezing temperatures. People are hungry and cold, walking for miles. It’s not like you can stop at McDonald’s,” Rabbi Schiffman explains.
To meet the need, Chevra has coordinated with international ministry partners to ship semitrailer loads of essential supplies to the Polish border. They have secured warehouse space to store the shipments and organized a small army of workers to help distribute them. “We’ve also arranged places, such as school gymnasiums, where people can sleep indoors. It’s part of a larger international effort. We have partners in ministry from Holland and Germany. We are doing what we can up to this point.” Chevra has also been working with airlines to arrange flights to Israel for Jewish refugees wanting to leave Eastern Europe.
Jews of Ukraine
Ukraine has one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. Even President Zelenskyy is Jewish. The European Jewish Congress estimates the number of Ukrainians with direct Jewish ancestry sufficient to make them eligible for Israeli citizenship to be as high as 400,000. Under Tsarist Russia, pogroms pushed Eastern European Jews into the so-called Pale of Settlement, which included much of modern Ukraine. The Pale was the world of the shtetl, Fiddler on the Roof, and the birthplace of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Chasidic Judaism) and his grandson Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (founder of Breslov Chasidism). This part of Eastern Europe is also the birthplace of modern Messianic Judaism, which first took shape in neighboring Moldova under the pioneering work of Joseph Rabinowitz and the writings of his brother-in-law Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein. A generation later, the Messianic Jewish movement flourished internationally under the propagation of the Ukrainian Messianic luminary Abram Poljak. Before World War II, 1.5 million Jews lived in Ukraine. Only a third of them survived the Holocaust to suffer under the religious persecution of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of Ukraine’s remaining Jews left for Israel, leaving behind a remnant of the elderly and the very poor.
These elderly and poor Holocaust survivors first stole Rabbi Schiffman’s heart when he began making teaching trips to Ukraine in the 1990s. His work in Eastern Europe began as a volunteer teacher with a ministry operating out of Krakow, Poland. When he saw the poverty of the Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, he created the ministry of Chevra to focus on humanitarian outreach. Rabbi Schiffman says, “There are elderly Jewish people who, when they go to sleep at night, don’t know if they are going to eat the next day. That’s an intolerable situation to me. We throw out more food in this country than people have at all in Eastern Europe. I felt that Jewish people who had been through the Holocaust or suffered under Communism shouldn’t end their lives starving to death. That was my motivation to feed them. I take very seriously the teachings of Yeshua. I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was naked, and you clothed me … Whatever you did for the least of these my brethren, you did for me.”
The Torah in Ukraine
Rabbi Schiffman’s work among Ukrainian Jews goes back to the 1990s, when he made a trip to conduct a training seminar for thirty-five local Messianic leaders. Since the seminar extended over Sabbath, he proposed conducting a synagogue service. Most of the people had never seen one. The event organizers warned him, “If the Jewish people from the villages hear about this, as many as 5,000 might want to attend.” The facility had the capacity for only 135. They kept it quiet, limiting the number to twenty people from each of five local villages. A rabbi from a nearby city agreed to lend a Torah scroll, and he brought it to the service himself. As the Torah procession passed through the congregation, people began to cry. They had not seen a Torah service since the Nazis invaded. Rabbi Schiffman recalls, “Afterward, we prepared a chicken dinner for everybody. At that time in Ukraine, meat was scarce. Somehow we got forty chickens because we didn’t want to send people home hungry on Shabbat. For them, that was probably the only meal they had that day.”
When other Jews from one of the local villages heard about the synagogue service, they expressed their displeasure over being excluded from the event. They invited Rabbi Schiffman to conduct a Messianic Jewish service in their village. They provided a large hall and filled it full. “I was sharing about what we believe about the God of Israel, about trusting in him, and that God sent his Messiah, when this Evangelical pastor who had invited himself started to quiz me on theology. He wanted to know if I believed in the writings of Paul. At one point, he asked, ‘Do you believe you’re saved by the Torah, or do you believe you’re saved by grace?’ Before I could answer, a Ukrainian Jewish man interrupted the pastor: ‘You don’t understand! Salvation is something God does! Torah is a way of life.’”
The Hands of God
Despite the potential for propagating Messianic Jewish teaching in rural Ukraine, Rabbi Schiffman decided he would serve Ukrainian Jews as the hands of God rather than the mouth of God. Every place he went, he found Jewish people hungry not only for teaching but also hungry for food, but he did not want to use humanitarian relief as a tool for evangelism. “I let them know who we are, but I told them, ‘You don’t have to believe in God, you don’t have to believe in anything. If you are hungry, we will feed you.’ People aren’t stupid just because they are hungry. They know if you’re trying to buy their soul for a loaf of bread. We never tried to pull that kind of stuff. We just tried to honestly represent who we are as Yeshua’s followers.”
Back in the United States, Rabbi Schiffman began speaking about the situation in Eastern Europe. He launched Chevra to raise support for his work and to sustain soup kitchens in conjunction with an international effort with branches from Holland, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. Since launching Chevra, Rabbi Schiffman has flown more than a million miles back and forth to Eastern Europe. The work has expanded from Ukraine into neighboring Moldova and even to Israel, where elderly survivors live in poverty.
Since his first trips to Ukraine, Messianic expressions of faith have flourished in Ukraine. It’s ironic that Messianic Judaism, which first developed there more than a century ago, has reemerged in Eastern Europe only in the last few decades. All of the larger Ukrainian cities have one or two congregations that identify as Messianic Jewish. Three Messianic Jewish congregations existed in Crimea before the Russian annexation in 2014. As is the case in Israel, Ukrainian Messianic communities tend to reflect the mission organizations that planted them, ranging from Christian evangelical-charismatic to a more tradition-based type of Messianic Judaism. In all cases, the growth potential for Messianic Jewish teaching in Ukraine seems enormous.
However, the Russian invasion poses new obstacles for the work of Chevra and other Messianic Jewish ministries in Ukraine. “We had to close our soup kitchens. All the cities are being bombed. The banks are not working. We would have to bring money in by courier ... We hope as soon as things calm down, we will be able to resume our soup kitchens,” Rabbi Schiffman says. Still, he’s confident that God has prepared his ministry with Chevra for such a time as this. “Until now, people weren’t interested in Ukraine. Suddenly, I realize that the past thirty years of work have been for this moment. We’re hoping to rise to the occasion to do whatever we can.”
Support the Work
You can support this work of Chevra in Ukraine. Visit the website for details: mychevra.org