KYIV, Ukraine – It was a striking image: a bearded rabbi with a bulletproof vest over his tallit, pounding the ground for cover as shells exploded around him.
Video footage of the moment Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman came under fire during a humanitarian mission in flooded southern Ukraine on June 8 has been viewed more than 1.5 million times on Twitter. It has put a new spotlight on Ukraine’s chief rabbi, whose fame predates both then and his humanitarian efforts since the full-scale invasion of Russia.
“People recognize me,” the rabbi said, eyes sparkling, from his office in kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on a recent afternoon.
Rabbi Azman, 57, sprang into action when Russia invaded in February 2022, working to help evacuate Jewish Ukrainians and recording calls for help and a halt to the war. The bed that still sits in his office at the Brodsky Synagogue in kyiv bears witness to the intensity of those early days, he said. The rabbi initially worked even on Shabbat, the traditional day of rest, and began filming video messages that went a long way.
His role as chief rabbi has particular resonance in a war that President Vladimir V. Putin has falsely claimed is aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine, a country whose current president is Jewish and whose Jewish community has always been persecuted.
Born in Leningrad, the rabbi emigrated to Israel in the 1980s to escape the former Soviet Union. After marrying a Ukrainian, he came to Ukraine in the early 1990s to help children affected by the Chernobyl disaster and later led the rehabilitation of Kiev’s main synagogue.
When Russian-backed fighters launched a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Rabbi Azman helped evacuate civilians from the fighting. Later, he created a village on the outskirts of Kiev which he named Anatevka – after the fictional shtetl in the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – for displaced Jewish families.
The rabbi’s work has earned him national honors. Photographs of him shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and other figures line a wall in his office.
But some of his high-profile connections have sometimes cast a shadow over his work.
He was a staunch supporter of Donald J. Trump and has a long-standing relationship with Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose attempts to persuade the Ukrainian government to launch investigations he said would benefit Mr. Trump were key. of the impeachment inquiry against the former president. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman – associates of Mr Giuliani who have been convicted of campaign finance violations – were at one time board members of the rabbi’s US charity Friends of Anatevka.
Asked about the saga, Rabbi Azman comes to life, insisting that he is not interested in politics.
“I don’t vote in America,” he said, adding, “I work for Ukraine.”
The rabbi stressed that he is simply a “quiet guy” trying to reach a wide audience in support of his humanitarian efforts, which he says have cost millions. He sees his job less as a calling than an “obligation,” which brought him to Kherson to help with the flood response and bring attention to the devastation.
Although he no longer works on Shabbat, the rabbi maintains a busy schedule and posts frequent updates on social media about his aid efforts and Russian atrocities. On a recent afternoon, he received an evacuee brought by ambulance to Anatevka.
Many people ask why he remains in Ukraine despite the dangers, he said.
“I thank God for putting me at the right time and the right place so that I can save people, help people, 24/7,” he said.