TikTok rabbi helps Jewish Ukrainian refugees feel comfortable in Moldova shelters
A familiar accent goes a long way for refugees who have struggled to communicate with Israeli, American and other non-Russian-speaking volunteers.
CHISINAU, Moldova (JTA) — MacBook under his arm and sporting the latest AirPods, Shimshon Izakson looked — with a change of outfit — like he might have stepped straight out of a hipster cafe in a hip Moscow or Bucharest neighborhood.
But he was in the gym of a Jewish center in downtown Chisinau, helping Jewish refugees who had just arrived in Moldova from Nikolayev, a strategic port city on the Crimea-Odessa route that has suffered repeated missile attacks since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 2. 24. A group of children were playing in the corner, exuding a sense of calm in a room strewn with exercise mats and wooden pallets converted into beds.
Izakson, dressed in a black hat, a suit and a neat beard, spoke demurely in a Russian with a Belarusian accent and laughed with some of the excited children. Another toddler pushed past Izakson in a colorful plastic car.
“A lot of the little ones get excited because they think they’re going on vacation,” Izakson said with a sad smile.
Izakson, an Orthodox rabbi who was born into a secular family in eastern Belarus and lived for years in Moscow, has a clear connection to Jews who traveled to Moldova. A former rabbi in Vitebsk in northern Belarus and Vilnius in Lithuania, he helps oversee local relief efforts led by the Jewish Community of Moldova, an Orthodox organization.
Very few Ukrainian Jews speak Hebrew, and many have struggled to communicate with the many Israeli or American Jewish volunteers who know little about Ukraine and have flocked to Moldova to offer help. But if the official language of Moldova is Romanian (despite a decades-long debate over whether to call it Moldovan), many Moldovans speak Russian, which has been helpful for Jewish refugees, especially those in Odessa, who often also speak Russian. They can stay and find work more easily. In neighboring Romania, for example, where many settle, few people speak Russian.
Around Izakson, half a dozen Israelis deployed to organize relief for the refugees wandered – including Zaza, a “medical clown” who received disgruntled looks from some older Ukrainians who realized she was not a doctor.
“We’re trying to make the place as normal as possible,” said toddler Izakson, who was telling people about his stuffed Orangutan toy.
“We then try to move people at the first possible opportunity to where they want to go, whether it’s Germany, Israel or Romania. We need to move them quickly because we don’t know how many more refugees will come,” he added.
Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine and one of Europe’s poorest countries, has so far taken in more than 400,000 Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. Few want to stay long: According to the Moldovan authorities, less than 100,000 are still in the country.
Izakson has a desire to connect with young Jews who are ambivalent about religion and Russian-speaking Jews in Western Europe – two groups that often cross paths. He intended to move to London this summer to become a rabbi for the great but often forgotten Russian-speaking Jewish community, estimated at over 10,000, in Britain.
“I don’t think I need a synagogue,” he said. “No one would want to go to a Russian synagogue. Russians—all of them—do not want to be Russians when they are abroad. It could be some sort of networking place, with co-working and a bit of a Jewish flavor, run by me.
He has also carved out a place for himself in another non-synagogue space: on TikTok, amassing over 40,000 followers. posting videos about Jewish life and religious practice tuned to the latest viral music trends.
“I really like TikTok,” he said with a chuckle. “I also have Telegram and Instagram accounts – nobody does that in Britain, but there are a lot of Russian-speaking rabbis working on those platforms.”
“It’s the only way if I want to bring back young people who didn’t grow up with Judaism,” he added. “I have to reach out. Everyone here thinks the Jewish tradition is right…”
He laughed and mimed praying and bowing. “‘Why?'”
The Jewish community of Moldova, the main Orthodox community in the country, shares a building with half a dozen other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It is housed in a recently reconstructed community center on one of the main pedestrian streets in the center of Chisinau.
The other two synagogues in Chisinau — one affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement and the other run by a Hasidic rabbi affiliated with the Belz Hasidic sect — have also provided support for Ukrainian Jewish refugees.
Izakson says he did not expect the worldwide mobilization of Jewish organizations to help Ukrainian refugees.
“Normally, you look for something small and you can’t find it. Now, when the need is much greater, help is coming from all directions,” he said. “I hope we learn something from it.”
There has also been some financial support from particularly wealthy Jews in Moldova and other former Soviet states, but more will be needed. Financial disaster looms for many Jewish communities that have been on the front lines of the refugee response, Izakson said.
“We need money,” he said. “We feed 450 Jews who are in our centers every day. We pay all these bills. When we do the accounts, we will be in the minus of at least €100,000. In a few weeks, it will be more than that.
Izakson, who still has most of his family in Belarus, was unable to tell them about the situation and whether the Putin-allied autocracy might enter the fighting in Ukraine. “We can’t talk about these things on the phone,” he said with a hearty laugh. “In Belarus, everyone knows that you are not the only person who can hear what you say.”
Back in the gym, Irina Marmuta looked at her two-year-old son, Artyom, with one eye. They were on their way to Germany, where a friend of Nikolaev’s had found them a family ready to welcome them. Until she found the best way to get there, Irina stayed in one of five shelters run by the Jewish Community of Moldova.
“You can’t see, but I can tell inside he’s really scared,” she said in a tone that barely concealed panic. “He wakes up at night covering his ears and shouting ‘mum, mum, there are sirens.’ I tell him he’s having a nightmare, but he still falls asleep with his hands over his ears.
Izakson has also started posting from Chisinau about what Jews in Moldova are doing to help, but he’s not always happy with social media.
“I think they don’t promote Ukraine-related content,” he said of TikTok. “They don’t grow.”
He pointed to his phone, showing one of his latest videos. “It only got 350 likes,” he said.
By Jacob Judah