Rabbi Mayer Stambler: “Our mitzvah is saving lives”

By Daniel Reichel

One of the hardest times for Rabbi Mayer Stambler, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, was March 2022. Russia’s aggression had just started. The gloomiest predictions – back then considered the most credible ones – envisioned a swift conquest by Putin’s army. In Dnipro, the city where the Rabbi has lived since 1991, as well as in other cities, people worked day and night to make it possible for everyone to evacuate. The sirens wailed all the time.
“Every time anti-missile alarms went off and people hid into the bunkers, the children cried. I have ten children and three grandchildren. Our three-year-old would cling to us so tightly, it was just… I hope she won’t be traumatized for life”. News arrived that the Russian army was advancing, encircling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, about 50 miles south of Dnipro.
“I knew I had to evacuate my family. I texted my wife: get ready, you and the kids are leaving tomorrow morning”. Her answer was no. “Either we leave together, or we don’t”. For the first time he lied to his wife, the Rabbi explained. “I told her I’d catch up with them a few days later”.
It was a Thursday evening and by Friday morning the Jewish Community had organized the departure of three buses. “I called one of the partners I arrange the journeys with and asked: how many free seats are left? ‘Twelve’. ‘I’ll book them all’”.
Helped by his wife, the Rabbi convinced some friends to leave with his family. The pickup time was set at eleven in the morning. “At 10:30 am my partner called me. He was nervous and asked me: ‘Where are you? We don’t have enough seats for everybody. We have three buses with 150-160 seats and out here there are at least 500 people pushing and trying to get on’”. Maybe it’s better to give up. “No no no, come”.
The Rabbi pushed his baggage and family towards the buses. He made his way through the looks of those who could not get on. “The looks of people who, like everyone else in those days, thought: ‘Staying means dying. Getting on the bus, living’”. Among them there was one face that Stambler immediately recognized. “A former student of mine, who had studied with me for twenty years. I had also celebrated her wedding. She told me: ‘I’ve been trying to leave for three days. Your wife called me and told me to come here. And now you send your family away and leave us here’”.
Her words were harsh, yet understandable in that moment of great fear. “I’ll never forget that moment. And I don’t blame her. I understand her. This situation is unbelievable. And I was trying to explain: ‘I’m staying here. Believe me, if my family stays here, it will be harder for me to work and save other lives’. ”
But in that moment any explanation would have sounded unconvincing. “I promised her we’d find another bus. And so we did, on the same day. But in the meantime I told my wife: ‘I’m leaving, I can’t stand these eyes staring at me.’ Since then, I have never been back to see the buses leave”. However, he has continued to work day and night to coordinate the efforts of the Jewish Community aimed at helping people live in this conflict. Or leave it.
He works mostly in his office, from where he spoke to Pagine Ebraiche in days of great tension for Dnipro: a Russian missile has gutted a building, killing dozens of people. Rabbi Mayer Stambler is currently in the dark. As often happens, the city has plunged into a blackout.
A year after the beginning of the Russian aggression, what do you think about this difficult period?
We are living a year-long miracle: the whole world did not believe that Ukraine would be able to survive for more than a week. And yet, here we are. As emissaries of the Chabad movement, we are trained to provide for every need of the Communities: to build Jewish schools, kosher canteens and so on. But no one prepares you to become a logistics centre committed to providing medicines, to coordinating relief efforts. We are blessed to have the strength to do it: when you have to jump in the water you just do it, because no one else can do it for you. And with Hashem’s help we have saved thousands of lives. It is our mitzvah.
How does your solidarity network work?
We have spent the last thirty years building a chain of supply that would provide our communities with all the goods necessary for a Jewish life. So the framework was already in place. But before the war we only had to provide prayer books, candles for Hanukkah… Whereas now we lack basic necessities, medicines, people. And we have to provide them while risking being struck by missiles. What is sad about this is that many of our former donors have now become aid recipients.
This year, the Genesis Prize, the “Jewish Nobel”, was awarded to Jewish communities like yours. What does this recognition mean to you?
I thought about the Holocaust and how the world looked the other way at the time. I think that today the lesson has been learnt and everyone is trying to help the Ukrainian people. There are volunteers from all over Europe, from the United States, who risk their lives to lend a helping hand. Of course, we witness tortures and violence perpetrated by the Russians, but also gestures of great altruism and solidarity at all levels, from civilians to the authorities. And we are grateful for that.

Above, Rabbi Stambler welcomes Israel Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in his recent visit to Ukraine before meeting an 84 years old Jewish woman whose house recently was hit by a Russian grenade in Bocha.

Translation by Alida Caccia, revised by Annadora Zuanel, students at the Secondary School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.