By Jim Geraghty
The Washington Post
Sept 21, 2023
KYIV — “Before the war, I was a quiet man,” Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman tells me. The leader of the Brodsky Synagogue in central Kyiv has emerged as Ukraine’s most high-profile and celebrated rabbi, earning praise for his regular humanitarian missions to the country’s east and south — dangerous areas where the fighting is intense. The notion of Azman as a quiet man is a little tough to align with his deep and authoritative baritone voice, his massive body and his erudite conversational English. Or with the social media presence he has established since March 2022, when he and his assistant posted a video of the rabbi holding a Torah scroll and denouncing the Russian invasion and the Russian people’s acquiescence to Vladimir Putin’s military aggression. “War crimes are happening here,” he roars in the video. “The Russian army fought fascists in 1941. Today they bomb Kyiv; they shell civilians!”
It’s difficult to break through the Russian government’s extensive censorship efforts, Azman tells me as we chat in his office at the synagogue, but “many people I know, with WhatsApp” apparently did get the video to some Russian eyes and ears, and beyond. “Units of soldiers saw my video — thousands and thousands. People translated it into French, Spanish, English, all languages.”
This June 8, while in Kherson on a humanitarian mission to evacuate civilians from areas flooded by the demolition of the Kakhovka dam, he came under fire himself. He sounds short of breath on the video he made there as he says, “I just came across the river, in a special [amphibious] car.” A loud boom interrupts him, and he and his assistant, Yakov Komoplov, run for cover. The camera shakes as they scramble for safety amid repeated booms.
Last month, on behalf of the Ukrainian government, Lt. Col. Sergey Kopashinskyi presented Azman with a medal in recognition of his “heroism in defending Kyiv and its region during the siege of the city by invading Russian forces.”
On top of all this, Azman is a singer: As Ukraine celebrated its independence day on Aug. 24, he unveiled a music video that heralds Ukraine as “an unquenchable star.” You will rarely find a more effusive, earnest or full-throated musical expression of patriotism.
Azman tells me that before the war, Ukraine had about 300,000 Jews, and Kyiv roughly 50,000; he estimates that about half of each group has fled abroad. In many corners of the West, it is self-evidently absurd for Putin to claim that his forces are attempting to “de-Nazify” a country that is led by a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “We have 40 million people here; sure, we have antisemitism,” Azman says. “But the Ukrainian people, it is a miracle — they voted for a Jewish guy to be president.”
Azman admits he “wasn’t smiling” when Zelensky was elected, because he feared that a Jewish president could become a scapegoat for any economic or other problems Ukraine might suffer
during his presidency. Now, he says, “all the world is proud of Zelensky. All the parliaments, all the governments applaud him. He’s a hero who didn’t run away.”
But it’s clear that the issue of Ukraine’s controversial Azov Brigade — now integrated with the Ukrainian National Guard — is a particularly sensitive topic. Ukrainians largely adore the brigade, saluting its soldiers as tenacious fighters in some of the most difficult battles, such as the long and hellacious battle in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during the 2022 siege of Mariupol. But it undoubtedly has at least some extremists in its ranks; an Azov spokesman contended in 2015 that the group is only 10 to 20 percent Nazis.
Azman says he knows of at least one Jewish soldier who joined the brigade. Another member, he says, thanked him and the synagogue’s relief programs for medical aid they provided him. And wives of Azov fighters have visited the synagogue to thank the rabbi’s office and its affiliated charities for their work.
The 57-year-old Azman was born in Leningrad but left the Soviet Union in 1987 — “I tried to live in the Soviet Union, but I couldn’t agree to live as a lie” — and emigrated to Israel. He moved to Kyiv in 1995. He’s no stranger to being in a country under air assault; he remembers the Persian Gulf War and Saddam Hussein launching Scud missiles into Israel.
One of his continuing efforts is strengthening the relationship between Ukraine and Israel, which has been tense since the beginning of the war. Though the Israeli government has provided humanitarian support for Ukraine, official criticism of Russia has often been tepid at best. When Zelensky asked for an Iron Dome air defense system, Israel refused. Although transferring the system would have presented its own logistical problems, many Ukrainian Jews feel frustrated, even betrayed. “Ukrainians say to me, ‘Why is Israel not helping us?’ I tell them Ukraine is in a better situation now than Israel was in the war for independence,” Azman says. “Nobody helped Israel at that time. [Not] America, [not] Europe. I spoke with the generals, with the military here, and they said, we need to build a country that looks like Israel, because they’ve survived while surrounded by enemies. Here, with a strong enemy across the border, it’s the same thing.”
One of Azman’s most surprising statements comes in answer to one of my first questions: How is he doing? “I say thank you to God, for giving me the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time,” he replies. “It is a big privilege, I think, to be possible to help people, day and night — so many opportunities to help people. I have received a big, big present from God.” As Ukraine has received in him.
Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent, where he writes the daily “Morning Jolt” newsletter, among other writing duties. He’s the author of the novel “The Weed Agency” (a Washington Post bestseller), the nonfiction “Heavy Lifting” with Cam Edwards and “Voting to Kill,” and the Dangerous Clique series of thriller novels. Twitter