War-weary Ukrainian Jews gathered on Sunday for prayer and candle-lighting ceremonies to kick off Hannukah, the so-called Festival of Lights, vowing to overcome blackouts caused by persistent Russian bombardment.
In the capital’s iconic Independence Square, known as the Maidan, worshippers huddled together for warmth near what officials claimed was the largest Hannukah menorah — a nine-branched candelabrum — in Europe.
The annual, eight-night “Festival of Lights” commemorates the rebellion of Maccabee Jews against formidable Greek-Syrian forces beginning in 167 BC, an event that some believers say included a number of miracles pointing to divine providence.
The chief rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv, Moshe Reuven Azman, told AFP the story behind the wintertime festival held “valuable lessons” for Ukraine in its resistance to ongoing Russian attacks.
“We light one small candle, but if you light it in the darkest room a small candle will push [out] a lot of darkness,” he said.
“I say to Ukrainian people every day, we are the light and we push [out] a lot of darkness.”
Sunday’s celebrations came two days after Russia’s latest wave of attacks left multiple cities without power and forced millions to endure sub-zero temperatures without heating or running water.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Saturday that electricity had been restored to almost six million Ukrainians, but noted ongoing problems with heat and water supplies and “large-scale outages” in many regions.
Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko denounced the aerial assaults in remarks on Sunday.
“The enemy wanted to leave us two days ago without light, without water, without heating,” he said, while dismissing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Ukraine is led by fascists and Nazis.
“It’s a symbol for the Russians, because it does not make any sense for a fascist regime to put up the biggest menorah and celebrate Hannukah.”
Before Russia invaded in February, Ukraine was home to roughly 300,000 Jews, 50,000 of them in the capital, Rabbi Azman said.
To mark the beginning of Hannukah last year, Azman welcomed hundreds of worshippers into his synagogue in the city centre.
But this year, with authorities discouraging large gatherings amid the threat of missile attacks, he organised a humbler ceremony, lighting a menorah as eight men lined up behind him and joined him in prayer.
He told AFP he had spent time earlier in the day delivering food parcels and medicine, driving around the city in a van stocked with power banks and USB cables for those still without electricity.
The Russians “send us ballistic rockets, so we will send them kabbalistic rockets”, he said, in a joking reference to Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.
In Independence Square, Volodymir Pankoff, a Ukrainian Jew who turned out for the menorah-lighting ceremony, said it gave him hope for a Ukrainian victory.
“The menorah shows miracles in the past and it will show miracles in the future as well. I’m sure that it will show miracles in Ukraine,” said the 55-year-old who has volunteered to make camouflage nets for the military.
“We are volunteering, the guys are at the front, we are praying also — and we hope that the war will finish as soon as possible.”