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Real-life Anatevka
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Real-life Anatevka

Ukraine’s Jewish refugees build a community

Jewish refugees in Anatevka celebrate the opening of the community’s new synagogue, Feb. 29.    
Jewish refugees in Anatevka celebrate the opening of the community’s new synagogue, Feb. 29.    

ANATEVKA, Ukraine — At the age of 53, Sergey and Elena Yarelchenko fled their native city of Lugansk with three suitcases and moved into a wooden room in a muddy refugee camp outside Kiev.

Like hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine’s war-torn East, life for this Jewish couple in 2014 went from a normal bourgeois existence to a hellish struggle for survival and flight from a city that within days became the arena for vicious urban fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists.

But unlike many refugees, the Yarelchenkos’ story is no tearful account of rootlessness.

Thanks to one rabbi’s unique project for Jewish refugees from the East, the Yarelchenkos are part of the nascent community of Anatevka, a small village that sprang into existence six months ago near the capital, where 20 families are now building a future based on Yiddishkeit and self-reliance.

Named after the fictional hometown of Tevye the Dairyman from the famed Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof — and the iconic Sholom Aleichem short stories on which it was based — Anatevka is a tribute not only to that town but to the real Jewish shtetls that dotted Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Spread on a plot the size of three football fields, Anatevka features a wooden synagogue with two mikvot. A rickety path made of splintered wooden pallets connects the three-story synagogue building to a dormitory-style residence with 20 apartments and a central kitchen. A ways off is a school newly built from concrete with 25 classrooms.

“Our son in Israel is pressing us to make aliya, but Anatevka looks like a better option for us,” said Elena Yarelchenko.

Her husband, Sergey, is a carpenter making a small salary in Anatevka, which is largely built from wood. As she helps prepare food for all the other residents, Elena gestures at her husband’s small workshop outside the residential complex.

“Sergey’s a workaholic who either sleeps or works,” she said. “Do you think Israel’s holding its breath for a 53-year-old carpenter who doesn’t speak Hebrew?”

Between the school — the only structure in town that is not made of wood — and Anatevka’s muddy access road are the fresh concrete foundations for a clinic and rehabilitation center that workers, some of them local residents like Sergey, are laying under the watchful eye of the man who created Anatevka: Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev.

A burly man with a bushy gray beard and a full head of hair, the 50-year-old Azman comes into the residential complex and peels off several layers of thick snowy clothing in the foyer of the building, whose design is reminiscent of a rustic ski lodge.

“It can get pretty hot in here,” he notes with satisfaction at the effectiveness of the central heating system.

Working with money from his own pocket and private donors, Azman has spent more than $1.5 million on Anatevka, which he designed not only to serve as a refugee center, but as a living, breathing community.

A maverick rabbi who remained influential here even when he broke with the official institutions of the Chabad movement over a contractual dispute, Azman says he is “trying to survive from day to day” because of debts he incurred while realizing his plan for Anatevka, which critics doubted would ever come to pass.

“I’m aware of the risks I’ve taken,” Azman said solemnly, adding that he recently had to borrow money from a friend for gasoline so he could remain mobile throughout this week.

“I’m in debt to my eyeballs, but I’m not afraid because this is God’s mission. Besides, each day that Anatevka is running is another day that my community lives in dignity. Builds a future. You can’t put a price tag on that,” he said.

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