Rebbetzin on the Front Lines: Kiev’s Elka Markovitch
Last month the Chabad shluchim to Kiev, Rabbi Yonasan and Elka Markovitch, had to move their daughter Malki’s wedding from Kiev to Jerusalem on a week’s notice when the Ukrainian authorities said they would be unable to provide security for such a large wedding (with over a thousand guests) in light of the recent political instability and violence. Here’s some thoughts on her life as a shaliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Kiev from Rebbetzin Elka Markovitch….
To be a shaliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is something very unique. On the one hand, you see a lot of miracles and that makes you feel a very strong connection with Hashem, as if you have some sort of “connections” above.
But in the other hand, it’s also hard…
My husband is the grandson of Rabbi Yekusiel Faivel Oistreicher z”l, who was a shochet in Unguar, Hungary during the Second World War and the Communist Era.
I am a Gurevitch, so, similar to my husband’s family, during the dark Communist decades my family physically and financially maintained the shul of Leningrad.
Before we went on shlichus 14 years ago, my husband worked for an Israeli Aeronautics company and I was a teacher. We had a quiet life with our five kids
When we were offered a shlichus posting, the first thing I thought was: “No! It’s not normal, we are 30, we have good jobs, we are parents of five children. Let’s just stay here!”
Ukraine, at that time, sounded like a lame and failed country to me. There was no way I was going to agree to put my kids at risk by going to that kind of jungle!
But when we came on a visit and I saw the important work that we could do there with the tens of thousands of Jews living in Kiev, I saw that my husband was right, and I was convinced to go.
My husband was invited to be the Shaliach and Rabbi of Kiev. What most convinced me to move to Kiev was that I believed I might be able to fulfill my dream: to open a Jewish educational institution where there would be high-level studies that would give the kids a true Jewish identity. I dreamed of establishing a school where kids would actually want to go every morning!
I am a perfectionist. But my time as a Shlicha here has forced me to work on that…
For example, I love welcoming guests for a perfect Shabbos. The problem is that this is not always possible…
I’ve learned how to host even when there are only two types of salads on the table.
I’ve learned how to smile even when a group of guests shows up after candle lighting. They are sure the Rabbi will be glad that they decided to come to join us instead of going out to the movies.
I’ve learned that I can give a nice class even though I am not as wise as Devorah the Prophetess.
When my perfectionism starts holding me back from doing my Mitzvos, I force myself to act in accordance with: “Moach shalit al halev – the brain rules the heart,” and just jump in and do the mitzvah.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that a person who thinks he doesn’t know enough to teach someone else has false modesty. If we wait to teach until we are huge experts, we might be waiting forever. There is also an old Chassidic saying:”Whoever knows Aleph has to teach someone who doesn’t. Whoever knows Alef-Beis, should teach someone who knows only Alef.”
And with these thoughts in mind, I manage three educational institutions: a Jewish Day School, a network of kindergartens, and a kindergarten with 4 classes for autistic children which we opened three years ago and is the only one of its kind in the entire former Soviet Union.
Even though the educational system in Ukraine is highly developed, the education for special children is stuck at around a 19th century level, so our innovative and cutting-edge kindergarten provides a model for special education schools throughout the FSU.
My daughter Malky, who got married last month, helps me a lot with all of our schools. She is very talented, active and creative. As a daughter of Shluchim, she’s not spoiled. Two days after her last Sheva Brachos, she showed up at school at 8 AM ready for a full workday.
As a director of three educational institutions, sometimes I come to Shabbat very tired. I just want to put on a robe, go to bed and read a book.
But that’s impossible, because every Shabbat and Shabbat table at a Chabad house is a project unto itself! It requires so much preparation!
On a material level, every Friday I am responsible that there should be a perfectly clean house, a long and well-prepared Shabbat table, and abundance of tasty and colorful food.
On an emotional level: every guest who comes to our table is needy. Some spiritually, some materially. Our job is to welcome each one of them with true joy, and supply them with whatever they need.
A few years ago, I realized that I wasn’t able to keep up with my husband’s pace. So he advised that I should take one day off a week to rest.
Since my resting day can’t be on Shabbat, my day of rest has become Tuesdays…
Boruch Hashem, we are blessed with 7 wonderful kids: Ariel (22), Malky (20), Chany (18), Rachel (16), Yechezkel (14), Dovber (12) and Mendy (9).
They understand the importance of our mission here. And they are very happy with our life here. They understand that sometimes they have to give up on things that are common for most kids, like friends with the same background, or even candies and certain kinds of food that are nonexistent in Ukraine.
But it’s true that as parents, we have faced many challenges on Shlichus.
Our children attend our schools in Kiev until the age of Bar/Bas Mitzvah and afterwards we send them to yeshivas and schools/seminaries in Israel, US and other countries. That has been very difficult.
When our kids were younger, we would have a two-week annual vacation like a “normal family.” The kids really loved that time off together. One of my kids once told me: “I want to be like a ‘normal’ kid at school, who can come sometimes without his homework…. It’s tiring to always be ‘The Rabbi’s son’, who needs to be an example for the other students.”
In our first years on Shlichus there was no kosher dairies in the Ukraine and sometimes months would go by without a “shipment” from Israel. When my daughter was 8, my mother-in-law called to say Mazal Tov. “What do you want for your birthday present?” she asked her.
- “Bobby, would you give me whatever I ask for?”
- “I will try.”
- “I want a roll with cottage cheese and a bag of chocolate milk!”
As a real Yiddishe Bobbe, it really hurt her to hear that the kids are being deprived of foods they like!
All of these things really bothered me and I began doubting whether our Shlichus was good for our kids.
So I asked Hashem for an answer. Very often I ask Hashem for a signal to direct me. I feel like one of the advantages of being on Shlichus is the immeasurable connection with Hashem that we feel.
And my answer came in a very original way.
Professor Virginia Bass arrived to teach an intensive week-long seminar in our special kindergarten. Since she doesn’t speak Russian, I served as a translator at her meetings with the kids’ parents.
The subject she spoke about was “Discipline and Delayed Gratification.” She explained the great importance of delaying gratification, and how kids who have had to wait for things they desire are the most likely to succeed in their lives.
The Professor is an expert in her area, and she isn’t Jewish. But some values are universal.
Hashem shows us the way…