Ukrainian army appoints Chief Rabbi to assist Jewish-faith troops, boost morale

Rabbi Hillel Cohen, Ukrainian army's newly appointed Chief Rabbi, putting on a tallit (prayer shawl) in preparation for prayer. Photo: Chareidi Information Center Twitter account

For months, Rabbi Hillel Cohen has delivered spiritual assistance to Jews (as well as gentiles) serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Rav Cohen has so far done it on a volunteer basis but in recognition of his work, the Ukrainian military has designated them their Chief Rabbi.

When he recently returned from the front, Rabbi Cohen was told he was officially appointed as the Chief Rabbi of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

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Since the start of the war, Rav Cohen has been performing brit milah (circumcision) ceremonies for soldiers of Jewish background who wanted to reconnect with the faith of their ancestors and providing tefillin (small black leather boxes containing scrolls with verses from the Torah and tied to the forehead with straps during prayers) he brought from Israel to the frontlines.

In his spare time, he sewed yarmulkes with the inscription “Jews protect Ukraine”. These have proven popular among the troops. And not only Jews but gentiles as well. “Even non-Jewish Ukrainian soldiers ask me for yarmulkes so they won't be accused of Nazism like the Russian propaganda tries,” Cohen said, referring to the “de-Nazification of Ukraine” narrative the Kremlin is trying to peddle.

News of Rabbi Cohen's volunteer work was spread by word of mouth. He attracted the attention of the army commanders when he contacted them on behalf of people whose army applications have been rejected and who asked for his intervention.

“The duty of a military rabbi is to raise morale and to help the troops through the difficult situations,” said Cohen. “In the Ukrainian army, there are approximately 1,000 Jews, which is a significant minority among the 800,000 soldiers who serve.” In his capacity as a military rabbi, Rav Cohen has provided spiritual teachings and support to the troops. “War is no time for deep Jewish literature, but a time to cite prayers that can lift the spirit of the troops.”

But apart from spiritual matters, Rabbi Cohen continues to provide material assistance to the military, and just in the form of prayer shawls and yarmulkes. During his work as a volunteer early into the Russian invasion, Rabbi Cohen also helped provide equipment to the troops.

“While I was helping rescue Jewish refugees in Ukraine, I began to receive requests from Israelis and Ukrainians regarding military aid,” said Cohen.“There was an Israeli whose brother was drafted into the army, and I helped him obtain a helmet and a vest from Israel. I also purchased 20 helmets and 20 bulletproof vests from a friend in the country and gave them to a group of Jewish soldiers who trained in Kyiv.”

But such a donation, as needed and welcome as it is, is still just a drop in the ocean.

“I just got back from the front. It's hard out there. The front spans hundreds of miles, and sometimes soldiers lack necessities. As one of the commanders told me, sometimes a shovel can save lives. A party was under Russian artillery attack, and those who had a shovel dug a ditch and were saved, while soldiers who did not have one were exposed to artillery and died,” Cohen said.

Rabbi Cohen says that he receives no financial support from anyone. His wife and nine children left Ukraine for Israel two days before Russia invaded the country. He goes to Israel once a month to spend a week with his family, then returns to Ukraine for the remaining three weeks. Upon his last visit to Israel, Rabbi Cohen purchased special cases for the tefillin that are designed to survive under combat and adverse weather conditions.