A continent and an ocean away from where Ukraine was fighting back the attack of its neighbor, about 100 people gathered near the Russian Embassy in Washington on March 16 to denounce the onslaught.
“This embassy desecrates the soil of this city and the soul of the Russian people it is supposed to represent,” Rabbi David Shneyer, of Am Kolel in Rockville, told the gathering.
The day of the rally is called in Jewish tradition the Ta’anit Esther, or the Fast of Esther, named after the heroine of the Purim story who asked the Jews of Shushan to fast before she petitioned the king to save them from Haman, the nemesis who had set into motion the slaughter of the Jews.
“So we’re invoking that to say there’s mass killing right now in Ukraine at the hands of the Russian invaders,” said Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda. “And while the occasion for us is a Jewish holiday, our demonstration is on behalf of all the people of Ukraine.”
“Today we face a modern-day Haman, who has unleashed staggering destruction upon the people of Ukraine,” Rabbi Gilah Langner of Kol Ami in Arlington told the gathering. “Like the residents of Shushan in the story of Purim, we too find ourselves stunned and bewildered that the world could be turned upside down in just an instant.”
In Jewish tradition, public fasts have been called in time of calamity. The idea to tie the Fast of Esther to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have been the idea of Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, who tweeted a call for a Jewish fast day dedicated to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish. “This is a Jew in the world who needs our strength right now,” said Borovitz. who works with Hillel International in Berlin.
In addition to the Reconstructionist and the Aleph Renewal movements, whose rabbis were represented at the embassy protest, the Washington Board of Rabbis and the Union of Reform Judaism also endorsed the public fast.
“For more than two weeks we have witnessed the heartbreaking suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands of a leader who reminds us of Haman, and whose effort at subjugation must be stopped,” the groups said in a statement. “In the spirit of the Batei Din, the Rabbinic Courts of old, we call for a Taanit Tzibbur, a Communal Fast, to demonstrate our solidarity with the Ukrainian people.”
Shneyer said he spoke to friends and colleagues in the Washington Jewish community about what can be done for the people of Ukraine from thousands of miles away.
“We Jews need to get together as a community to express solidarity with the people of Ukraine,” Shneyer said. “How can we not do this as a community and as a people?”
As people waved anti-war signs and Ukrainian flags, Schwarz suggested that Putin is losing support in his country because of the war.
“We understand from press reports that many Russians are quite upset,” Schwarz said. “I heard that more than 20,000 Russians have left their own country out of shame for what Russia is doing. And furthermore, some of the leaders of the Russian establishment and military are not in favor. But Putin is a one man rule. He comes out of the KGB and that’s his mentality.”
Attendee Miriam Gusevich immigrated to the United States from Cuba, as her parents immigrated to the Caribbean country from Poland decades ago. She said her heart goes out to the millions that have been killed and displaced.
“As Jews, we know what freedom means,” Gusevich said. “And we know what persecution means. And I think that Ukraine has a very complex history with Jews. But they are trying to build a true civic society that is inclusive of everyone.”
Schwarz said he hopes the fast and rally raise consciousness about the war.
“Hopefully the Jewish community and the world will see that people of faith will not stand idly by while our neighbors’ blood has been shed,” Schwarz said. “In this case, our neighbors are the Ukrainian gentiles and Jews.”