KIJIV, Ukraine — It was a striking image: a bearded rabbi with an anti-jacket over his tallit, hitting the ground for cover as shells rumbled around him.
Video film from the moment Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman came under fire while on a humanitarian mission to flooded southern Ukraine on June 8, it was seen more than 1.5 million times on Twitter. It put fresh attention on the chief rabbi of Ukraine, whose reputation dates back to that moment and his humanitarian efforts after the full-scale invasion of Russia.
“People recognize me,” the rabbi said, eyes sparkling, from his office in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on a recent afternoon.
Rabbi Azman, 57, sprang into action when Russia invaded in February 2022, working to help evacuate Jewish Ukrainians and recording appeals for aid and stop the war The bed, which is still set up in his office at Kiev’s Brodsky Synagogue, is a testament to the intensity of those early days, he said. The rabbi initially worked even through Shabbat, the traditional day of rest, and began filming video messages that went far and wide.
His role as chief rabbi has particular resonance in a war that President Vladimir V. Putin has falsely claimed is about the “denazification” of Ukraine, a country whose current president is Jewish and whose Jewish community has historically suffered persecution.
Born in Leningrad, the rabbi emigrated to Israel in the 1980s to escape the former Soviet Union. After marrying a Ukrainian woman, he came to Ukraine in the early 1990s to help children affected by the Chernobyl disaster and later led the rehabilitation of Kiev’s main synagogue.
When Russian-backed fighters launched a war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Rabbi Azman helped evacuate civilians from the fighting. He later set up a village on the outskirts of Kyiv that he called Anatevka – like the fictional shtetl in the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – for displaced Jewish families.
The rabbi’s work earned him national honors. Photos of him shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Great Britain and other famous people cover a wall in his office.
But some of his prominent connections sometimes cast a shadow over his work.
He has been a vocal supporter of Donald J. Trump and has a longstanding relationship with Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose attempts to persuade the government of Ukraine to launch investigations he believed would benefit Mr. Trump were key to the impeachment inquiry against the former president. Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman – associates of Mr Giuliani who were convicted of campaign finance violations – were at one point board members for the rabbi’s US-based Friends of Anatevka charity.
When asked about the saga, Rabbi Azman becomes animated, insisting that he has no interest in politics.
“I don’t vote in America,” he said, adding: “I work for Ukraine.”
The rabbi emphasized that he is simply a “quiet guy” trying to reach a wide audience to support his humanitarian efforts, which he says have cost millions. He considers his work less a calling than an “obligation,” one that led him to Kherson to help with the flood response and to draw attention to the devastation.
Although he no longer works on Shabbat, the rabbi maintains a packed schedule and posts frequent social media updates about his relief efforts and Russian atrocities. On a recent afternoon, he greeted an evacuee brought by ambulance to Anatevka.
Many people ask why he stays in Ukraine despite the dangers, he said.
“I thank God that he put me in the right time and the right place, that I can save people, help people, 24/7,” he said.