Chief rabbi of Ukrainian Army talks about experience, tasks at war

22 July, 04:12 PM
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Broken Russian military equipment in the Kharkiv Oblast (Photo:REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova)

Broken Russian military equipment in the Kharkiv Oblast (Photo:REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova)

The chief rabbi of the Armed Forces ofUkraine Hillel Cohen talked to NV about his personal experience and the tasks and spiritual needs soldiers are facing at the front.

NV: I want to ask you, how do you treat war in the Jewish tradition?

Cohen: How might the Jewish tradition treat war? Very bad. Jews have always suffered. If we talk about Israel, it has been suffering for so many years, it has been a daily war since the first days. And Israel has bad neighbors from all borders, terrorist attacks take pace inside almost every day. War is the most terrible thing that can happen. As Jews, we pray three times a day, we have a prayer that ends with: God give us peace, blessing. And war is far from blessing.

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NV: By asking this question, I understand that we're talking about Israel, a country which, unfortunately, is in a state of permanent war. I'm not an expert at all, but it seemed to me, or maybe I'm wrong, that there is no tradition of forgiveness in the Jewish concept, that there is a tit for tat rather than forgiving everyone and turning the other cheek. Could you tell us more about that?

Cohen: It's not just about tit for tat, but let's better talk about today, Feb. 24 or 2014.

Ukraine and Israel are in similar situations. Civilians are attacked in both countries. Russia is terrorizing you. It wants to capture the entire Donbas and rule there like they rule in Crimea. They stole that piece of land, but at least people didn't die there. This is also a terrible theft. But when civilians suffer, die, perish, disappear, no one could believe it. Although I am embarrassed to say that, as a resident of Ukraine, I useds to feel safer in Ukraine than my brothers and sisters in Israel. I thought if something terrible happens there I could always take them to Ukraine.

I am a religious Jew. There are so many of us walking freely in Odesa, Dnipro, Kyiv, Vinnytsia and other cities of Ukraine.

And when we began to read about denazification, about Nazism, and some nonsense spread about Ukraine, I could not stand aside.

NV: If I understand correctly, in addition to religious rites, a very important function of a rabbi is precisely to listen to people. What do you get told the most? I mean, of course, no personal information, personal stories. What do you hear most often?

Cohen: I listen to people who are fully motivated, people who experienced a lot, volunteers who wanted to help Ukraine. I'm in contact with at least 150 Israelis, with dual nationals, who have decided to leave their home in Israel and come here.

Despite the fact that they have dual citizenship, they could continue to stay in Israel and say, pardon the expression, "I don't give a damn about it," like many others. But everyone reads the news about Ukraine daily. Many Israelis came to Ukraine, wanting to help, to be useful to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I helped, connected many people with the army. I love people, who have ideology and motivation. Because if a person does something well, from the heart, it shows who he is.

On the other hand, there's a big minus – not enough weapons, not enough ammunition and other stuff.

I help as much as I can, I listen and say a good word. This is the work of the chaplaincy and this is the task of the rabbi and the friend in general. First of all, you have to speak. You know, there is this concept of post-trauma in Israel. We’ve learned how to be with a person who has gone through tragedy, disaster, conflict, etc.

NV: Now they say that all Ukrainians will one way or another have post-traumatic syndrome, it's inevitable. Of course, this is even more relevant for those on the front lines.

Cohen: I'm 44 years old, I slept very well before the war. At first, I was very active, helping to rescue and evacuate civilians. I was in Bucha, in Vorzel on difficult hot days.

We pulled people out in Chernihiv. I will tell you that after saw what as a meat grinder I have no good sleep anymore, I'm suffering a lot. Probably this is a trauma. I'm working with a psychologist, an Israeli specialist in trauma, and this is very important.

Even lifesaving air raid sirens are pretty traumatic for our children. I'm not talking about the effect bombs; explosions have on all of us. These young people, people of all Ukraine will be under this all their lives. I'm not even talking about real or physical suffering. Psychological suffering is a whole science. If a parent sees that his child behaves differently, has become more aggressive or closed, you should immediately go to a psychologist for any change in behavior.

NV: Do I understand correctly that, in some sense, at some stage, a rabbi can also help here? Do you have a universal piece of advice on how to cope with fear and post-traumatic syndrome that you give to frontline soldiers if they ask for it?

Cohen: This is all in the process, I was not ready for this on a large scale. The first question was help. People went to the front with nothing, I send them spiritual items they could use for prayers. When things are bad, people remember about the God and want to pray to him. When I stand next to a soldier, not en masse, naturally, we sing a bit, raise each other's spirits, tell stories. It's very important for a soldier to tell what he has been through, where he has been, how bad or good he is, whether he's down with something, I mean psychologically. That's what I'm trying to do.

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