Gennady Glatsovsky, Messianic rabbi in Kharkiv: “We see the growth and development of the community. These terrible events have served us well!”

At the KEMO spring prayer retreat, we met and talked with Gennady Glatsovsky, rabbi of the Kharkiv Jewish Messianic Community, about the beginning of the war and the dangers of serving under shelling, about closed churches and remaining Jews, and also about how members of their community helped the residents of the city.

Gennady Isaakovich, let’s start with how you came to God.

I came to God in 1997, as I remember now – it was September 6th. I repented thanks to one of my Jewish friends who came to me and told me about Yeshua.

I myself am a native of Kiev, and the first church I got into was the Kiev Jewish Messianic Community. And I didn’t understand everything there — to be more precise, I didn’t understand anything at all then. But it was very interesting.

Later, in the city of Slavyansk, at the “Church of the Winners” a Jewish ministry was opened, which grew into a separate Jewish messianic community, with its own structure, and people from the community practically did not intersect with the church. In 2005, in parallel with this ministry, I began to travel to the heroic city of Donetsk, where we also started a Jewish messianic community based, paradoxically, on the basis of the Nuga Best salon. The Nugabestians positioned themselves as a “church without walls”, and this really turned out to be the case when a messianic community began from the Jewish club at the Nuga Best salon.

In Donetsk, I was the pastor of the community until 2014. Then, for obvious reasons, I had to leave Donetsk – I have a Kiev residence permit, and it was dangerous for me to continue to be there. The community by that time already numbered more than 200 people, with a large rehabilitation center, with a developed prison ministry – since in Donetsk there are about the same number of places that are not so remote as there are sanatoriums in Crimea.

– And how did you end up in Kharkov?

In general, after Donetsk, I returned to Kyiv, and Boris Saulovich asked me if I was free now, and if I could be involved somewhere in the ministry. I answered in the affirmative, and like that for the first time I went to Kharkov. By that time there was already a group of 20-25 people who gathered on Saturdays and spent Shabbat. Sisters from KEMO came there, in particular Valentina Kolomiets and Svetlana Shulik, who supported this ministry.

I began to regularly travel to Kharkov from Kiev, spend Shabbat there, and in the summer of 2015 my family and I decided to move to Kharkov, and I headed the Kharkov Jewish Messianic Community, and I am still its rabbi.

– Is this the only Messianic congregation in the city? Or are there others?

If I am not mistaken, before the war there were about five messianic communities in Kharkov.

-And now?

Now we are out of competition, because most of those congregations dispersed in all directions with the beginning of the war, and only recently the pastor of one of the congregations returned to the city and is engaged in the restoration of the ministry.

– How were things in your community before the war?

We had 100-120 members, for the holidays, as expected, three times as many gathered. With the beginning of the war, about 80% of the community left Kharkov, including all the senior ministers.

-Let’s remember that very first day of the war, February 24, 2022. On that Thursday morning, you wake up…

…Like many others, to the sound of explosions. By lunchtime, tanks began to drive along the street where I live. Combat aircraft were flying over us. And since I live on the 15th floor, you can understand that I could perfectly see and hear everything that was happening around – black smoke everywhere, fires …

What were your first thoughts that morning?

The first thought was like that of Chernyshevsky: “What to do?” I thought that even if a war would break out, I, having already had the Donetsk experience, would be ready for it. But I wasn’t ready at all.

And if at the moment when the hostilities began in Donetsk, I understood that I must leave for Kiev – there is my house, my apartment, my mother, relatives and a safer place … then I saw that Russian troops were advancing also to Kiev, and to the south of Ukraine – and therefore did not know where to run and what to do. And then it also turned out that, since my age is suitable for mobilization, I cannot go abroad. Therefore, I decided to stay in Kharkov and see how the situation develops further.

– Did people from the community call you in the morning?

Yes, they called and asked: “Pastor, what should we do?” And I had the traditional answer: “Honestly, I don’t know … It’s hard for me to advise you something.” After all, if you advise something, then you take responsibility for it. Because some called and said that they were going towards Kherson and then it turned out that Russian troops were coming from Kherson. And others went to Kyiv and saw that the Russians were advancing to Kyiv… So I limited myself to a prayer for them and simply asked to be informed of their decision.

We immediately organized a community prayer, several times a day – we, like many others, have community chat in the messenger. And at first I thought that all the prayer participants from this group were in Kharkov, and then it turned out that the vast majority of them had already left. Some didn’t even give a warning. True, a couple of sisters in the community immediately informed me that they would leave for Israel, and I said that if they had such an opportunity and they were guaranteed a safe journey, of course, let them go.

-What about your family?

My wife and children were in Kyiv at that time. My son immediately said that Shabbat was held in KEMO, so he was not going to leave anywhere – especially since we have two grandmothers in Kiev: my mother and my wife’s grandmother. So my son decided that he would not go anywhere, but would remain to serve in the community in Kyiv. My wife went to Spain to my friend, pastor Igor Ratnikov. At that time, their ministry had just begun, and he said that if my wife wants to leave Ukraine, then he is ready to accept her. And the daughter went to her wife’s relatives in Germany.

I stayed at my place on the 15th floor, in the “observation post”. A little later, my friend Pavel Lesko, the pastor of the Church of the Winners, suggested that I move to a volunteer center that they organized, and it was relatively safe there, since there was a good bomb shelter. This was important, because at that time Kharkiv was heavily bombed, including from aircraft, as well as by artillery – in general, as much as they could – everyone must have seen footage of the remains of Saltovka … In general, the first month I lived in this volunteer center and spent every night in the basement, where the maximum temperature was +13 degrees.

My friend had 2 tons of food – it was a blessing for the rehab center – and he offered to drive and deliver these products to people in need. We filled the cars with our own money – some had some stash, some had church money from donations, because many churches closed or did not hold services, since there was no public transport in the city, and taxis cost crazy money; all the halls for holding services were also closed, and in general meetings were prohibited due to military operations. And we used our cars to find people in need – the disabled, pensioners, families with small children – they took these products, published information about it on social networks, so that there would be others who wanted to connect and were in need of help, because 2 tons of food for a city of two million is not so too much.

Quite quickly, people were found who offered us humanitarian assistance, seeing what a difficult situation we are in. After some time, we began not only delivering food, but also preaching the gospel.

We held our first general meeting on Pesach, in April 2022. We took the 30 members of our community that remained in the city to the feast, plus there were some new people – and I was perhaps the happiest person. I think if 3,000 people came to our regular service, I would be less happy than when I saw these thirty people gathering in the middle of the war. We saw each other for the first time since the beginning of the war, hugged and cried. They handed out various goodies to everyone, then they took everyone home.

Indeed, for our community it was a real exodus. After that, we began to hold a general service once every two weeks, which later transformed into regular meetings.

Over time, we moved to a small hall, which was located nearby, and we saw that new people began to come to us. At the beginning of last summer, we launched the Way Up Faith School, and from that time to today, we have already held three tvilas, and 35 people have been baptized in water.

-Praise God! During the war…

– Yes, and we didn’t have such a result before the war, taking into account the fact that the community has changed a lot since then. There are people who have not accepted tvila yet, but continue to come to our meetings.

Our Shabbat continues. At this time, we are holding two meetings on Saturday, since the hall is small, and the total number of attending Shabbat is about 200 people.

– Was there a case when you realized that you were on the verge of death, and the Lord saved you at the last moment?

There were constant threats to life, especially when we were delivering food – and especially if it concerned the Saltovka area. We simply could not ignore this area, because there were a lot of signals and calls for help from there.

The fact is that in Kharkov, from the first day of the war, all elevators in multi-storey buildings were turned off. And many people, especially those of retirement age, simply turned out to be hostages of the situation: people lived on the eighth, ninth, tenth floor and could not go down. Relatives all left, neighbors left – a person, in fact, is doomed to starvation. He slowly eats all the food he has and is left with absolutely nothing. And a person is more than 80 years old, and he understands that even if he goes down from his floor, he will definitely not get back up again – he simply does not have enough strength for this … I’m not talking about the need to go to the store – and then there were terrible queues in the stores, and at first you had to stand in line to get into the store, not even knowing what was sold in the store – after all, there was a period when there was practically no bread.

And so, under constant shelling, we traveled through these areas. A man from Saltovka calls and says: “Guys, I’m just dying of hunger. I am 83 years old…”. And here we come, and: boom, boom, boom, boom – and it feels like the next shelling will definitely hit you … but, thank God, that’s how God kept us.

I was especially moved by the situations with people who left their elderly parents and said: “Mom, you are 80 years old, you have lived your life but we still want to live. Don’t be offended by us, someone will help you…” And so, they packed their things and went abroad. And the parents remained on the upper floors of the houses.

And I’m not talking about the fact that we, of course, are strong guys – every time we had to go up to the 7th, 10th, 12th floors with full packages of products – run back and forth. In general, like this…

– A little earlier you mentioned other churches, some of which have been closed since the beginning of the war. After all, you had and still have relationships with other pastors, tell us a little more about how our brothers and sisters acted at that time.

Well, our brothers and sisters acted like this: before the war, 16 churches gathered in our DC, and only one remained. Many churches simply self-liquidated – people left, abandoned everything … Maybe it’s a little incorrect to talk about this, but some still said around the February 20th: “Don’t worry, if a war starts, we have a vision! We will all be here, we are all together, we know how to counteract this, how to fight, what to do… ”And then the person calls to these people on February 26, but it turns out that the entire leadership team is already abroad.

As far as I know, only now some kind of a pastoral fellowship in the city is being restored, after a break of a year and a half.

– And what about the people from your community who left Ukraine? Maybe someone has already returned?

So far, we can assume that only one sister has returned from Israel – she came, looked at how things were going and again left for Israel to process some documents, but by the end of May she is going to return to Kharkov.

The rest are still abroad: someone went to church, if there were messianic communities there, then to these communities. A few people in Cologne, in the community of Rabbi Rodion Samoylovich, a couple more in Switzerland, in Bern there is also a messianic ministry. In the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, in Poland, in Germany – who ended up where, let’s say so.

– But do people have the intention to return? Or not really?

To be honest, it is not yet clear. We do not ask such questions, so as not to embarrass people and not drive them into complex emotional experiences, so that they do not start to think that they are traitors … because we understand that everyone perceives these events differently. Someone has already adapted – we, for example, no longer respond to air raid alerts: notifications come to the phone, sirens howl, and even shops in Kharkov do not close. That is, we do not pay attention to it.

But there are other people – my friend’s daughter came from Germany, and she really gets scared and worried when the siren howls – and we still hear it 10-12 times a day, because the border with Russia is only 27 kilometers away.

– Was there any support after the start of the war from our circle of messianic communities?

“Our brothers and sisters constantly called me, asking how things were going. Boris Saulovich, Valentina Kolomiets, Tanya Chernyakova. They called, offered humanitarian aid – and at that time only evacuation trains went to Kharkov, they were completely packed, and it was not clear to me how something could be conveyed by this train.

Shepherds of other messianic communities also called: Aleksey Bomko from Chernivts, Ruslan Romanyuk from Vinnitsa and other rabbis. And they not only called, but even sent money. If it was not possible to help with food, financial assistance was offered.

– What is the situation with the Jewish population of Kharkov? How many Jews left the city?

You know, a huge number of elderly Jews did not leave anywhere. They stayed and we work with them. Accordingly, they have relatives who also remained in Kharkov. It is clear that some part of the Jews left, but, in principle, there is a lot of work. As in the old joke: when the last Jew of Berdichev was leaving, 600 Jews came to see him off. We have perspective.

There are Jews who themselves do not know that they are Jews, and then they begin to come and confess.

– Do Jewish organizations – synagogues, Sokhnut, Hesed – work?

Sokhnut, as far as I know, closed from the first day. I know for sure that the synagogue was working, but I heard that a year ago – last spring – there was a moment when all the rabbis left Kharkov. None stayed. There were people who left, mostly from the locals, who were engaged in the distribution of humanitarian aid, well, and the export of those who wished to Israel, according to the lists.

– Since Kharkov is a predominantly Russian-speaking city, surely there were people in your community who, one might say, were waiting for the “liberators”?

It is clear that all this time Kharkov was on the border with Russia, and family ties played a certain role. Kharkiv residents traveled to Russia, and many Russians constantly came to Kharkov, to the famous wholesale market of Barabashovo – unfortunately, only a third of it remained, the rest burned down and was destroyed. In general, someone was certainly pro-Russian – but it seems to me that the most pro-Russian comrades have now become the most ardent Ukrainian nationalists – after they saw Kharkov literally wiped off the face of the earth.

The oldest center of Kharkov, old houses that even the Germans did not touch, these guys began to simply destroy. Therefore, I have not heard a single hint to a pro-Russian worldview lately. It just takes a crazy person to treat these people well after all that has happened and support some of their views.

– How do you see the further life and ministry of your community in Kharkov?

Development and salvation of the Jews. We teach people, we conduct the messianic school “The Way Up” – we guide people to move up in this life, yes. We save them, load them and move on. We see growth and multiplication. We see that, however paradoxical it may sound, these terrible events served, at least for our church, as if for the good. Because the growth of the community has come, for which we have been praying for a very long time, but we never could have thought that it could come through such circumstances.

Interviewer — Alex Fishman


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