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Ukrainian refugee family celebrates Passover in Colorado

Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein, his wife, and nine of their children fled Chernigov, Ukraine after the Russian invasion. They will celebrate this Passover in Colorado.

LONE TREE, Colo. — This weekend, Jewish families are gathering to celebrate Passover, a holiday to remember when Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt.

One Rabbi and his family are also celebrating their own escape this year, after fleeing bombings and war in Ukraine.

“The community here stood behind us and prayed for us on our journey out,” said Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein, from Chabad Jewish Center of South Metro Denver. “And we felt it was really appropriate to celebrate the holiday of freedom here together with the community.”

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Silberstein, his wife and their children eventually came to Denver where they have extended family. But their story begins in Ukraine, more than a decade ago.

“Twelve years ago my wife, myself and - at the time two of our children - moved to Chernigov, Ukraine,” he said. “We built a great Jewish community. A preschool, a Hebrew school, programming for young and old, an active synagogue… it was beautiful.”

But like so many others in Ukraine, the Russian invasion changed everything for this family.

“February 24th we woke up, with the phone ringing giving us the news Ukraine had been invaded. Where we live has been bombed,” he said. “We moved down into our basement, our makeshift bomb shelter, with our family, nine children. And another family, so 16 all together in this crowded space.”

Credit: Jewish Community of Chernigov
Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein and his family took shelter in the basement of their home in Ukraine.

Silberstein said they tried to keep everyone’s spirits high, singing and laughing, while the sound of explosions continued outside. Eventually, they had to make the difficult decision to leave.

Credit: Jewish Community of Chernigov
Rabbi Yisroel Silberstein and his family, along with another family, took shelter in the basement of their home in Ukraine.

Silberstein said they traveled from their city, Chernigov (also known as Chernihiv), to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. He said they continued to the border of Moldova, and eventually to Romania. Once in Romania, he said they set up a refugee shelter to help others fleeing the war.

“With our team back in Ukraine, we’ve gotten to safety more than 1,500 people from the community out of Chernigov, which was under siege for 21 days. Some went to western Ukraine, some to Europe, Israel, all over,” he said. “It’s difficult, but every time another member of community makes it out – it’s another ‘brick’ burden off our heart.”

Even from Colorado, they continue working to coordinate evacuations, food and medical supplies, and help resettle refugees. They are also fundraising to support those efforts.

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Silberstein planned to share his family’s story, and a Seder meal, with other families gathered to celebrate Passover at the Chabad Jewish Center of South Metro Denver. Along with the history and many traditions of Passover, this year the holiday also held a new meaning for his family.

“As we celebrate the miracle of exodus from Egypt, we're celebrating our personal miracle of escape from Ukraine,” he said. “If you weren’t planning to make a Seder, celebrate for those who can’t make a Seder back in Ukraine. Or invite someone to your Seder, share some matzah, share some wine. And to the greater community, I just want to invite them to do a good act, a kindness. Together the power of positive and good will overcome evil.”

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