As Russian missiles fell on Kyiv on February 25, Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny made an emotional appeal from the shelter of a 5-story building’s basement. “It’s a difficult time. It’s very emotional, but I know that you’re with us and we know that always, good is overtaking evil and this is what will happen,” Dukhovny said in a speech that would soon spread internationally over social media. Dukhovny broadcast religious sermons to his congregation for the entire time he was in basement. He also sang and read songs and poetry from Ukraine with those who were sheltering there.
The 71-year-old progressive rabbi is still leading services this Passover, the holiday that started on April 15 and ends April 23, which commemorates the ancient Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But now he’s doing so from outside his native country. In normal circumstances Dukhovny would celebrate with the congregation in Kyiv. This year, he’s in Israel, where he arrived in early March.
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Dukhovny is from a large family of rabbis. His surname means, he says. Spiritual), and was raised by a Holocaust survivor—his mother was taken in by a Ukrainian family during World War II. According to him, five of his relatives were killed in Babi Yar. His family’s past experiences with war meant that he grew up with an understanding of what it means to survive through a crisis. “War gives us a good lesson: how we need to cherish every hour, every minute, every day of our life, because we don’t know what will happen in a second,” he says. “But we never need to lose hope.”
TIME interviewed Dukhovny to discuss the difficult 10 days spent in Kyiv basement. Also, how Ukrainians within his community approach Passover. And how he keeps hopeful during wartime.
The basement of your building was under attack by airstrikes and you delivered an emotional speech. You were unsure of what you thought when you gave that speech. What message was your goal to communicate to others?
It was a message that we don’t want to be slaves. For us, this Passover isn’t just an exodus from slavery to freedom. We know the new pharaoh is trying to make us slaves and that we want to be free. This is why the conflict in Ukraine. For those who are struggling to make it through difficult times, the Jewish story is an excellent example of how to persevere and not give up hope. Although it was February’s end, spring was just four days away. And spring for Jewish people is always the season of hope, because that’s when we have the festival of freedom. As I think back to those 10 days spent in the basement I am reminded of how I lead services there for my congregation. It is this role that a Rabbi is supposed to fulfill: A Rabbi is a leader, role model and psychologist.
Your speech was about spring’s meaning. Your congregation, what is the hope you have at this time?
At Passover Seder [the ritual Passover meal]We have a cup to hold Elijah’s head, as a sign that goodness will triumph over evil. There is always hope. This was and is my message back then.
Your video message made it clear that you were asking for donations. Where has the money been spent?
The World Union for Progressive Judaism says they have raised around $2 million since the Russian invasion in February, part of which has gone toward helping refugees and bringing Seder to people’s homes. We always question how Seder is different than other nights. We told all of our congregations to include beetroot on their Passover plate because the most famous Ukrainian food is borscht—a red beetroot soup. The food was distributed through shops in Ukraine. This Passover is about heroism—of those who are still in Ukraine and those who have left.
How has the war affected how Ukrainians approach the holiday this year—both practically and on a spiritual level?
People have fled their villages and Ukraine in large numbers because synagogues are not allowed to be used within the war zone. However, synagogues remain active in more secure areas of Ukraine. I’m focusing on education, and many people still have a stable internet connection to access my lectures.
In many ways, the Passover story is about finding a way through a period of darkness. Is it given a new meaning? How has your connection to this story changed in the past year?
Yes. It’s really changed because Ukraine is in a war. It’s easy to see the support for Ukraine. Instead of reading the 10 Plagues this year, I proposed that we put 10 drops of wine on our plate—but each drop symbolizes something we want for us and Ukraine.
This interview has been edited to be more concise.
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