Zelensky Meets With, Thanks Moshe Margaretten of Tzedek for Humanitarian Work

By Reuvain Borchardt

Rabbi Moshe Margaretten with the mezuzah he was to give Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as a gift.

Rabbi Moshe Margaretten of Tzedek Association met Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, where Zelensky thanked him for Tzedek’s humanitarian efforts in providing ambulances that have helped hundreds of people flee the war-torn country.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, many Jewish individuals and organizations from around the world mobilized to assist the Jewish community there — both those wishing to flee and those who chose to remain. Tzedek, an organization that the New York-based Margaretten founded for the purpose of prison advocacy but which has since branched out into other areas, initially funded food and buses for those fleeing the country.

“But I found out there were many organizations paying or food and buses, so I decided to look for something that others were not doing,” Margaretten said Thursday, in an interview with Hamodia, interrupted a number of times by bad cellphone service, as he was in the midst of a long journey back home from a country that currently has no direct flights to the U.S.

Margaretten soon learned that there was a desperate need for ambulances to transport those wishing to flee but who were too ill to travel by bus, and who required the accompaniment of medical devices and personnel. 

Margaretten’s network of donors generously provided funding for the project — the Skverer community, which originated in Ukraine, itself gave $1 million — but the real problem was acquiring the actual ambulances.

“With a war going on, the military has taken the ambulances; they are very scarce now,” says Margaretten. “There is an American named Kuty Glancz who is now living in Ukraine; he was working for us pro bono, searching around Europe for used ambulances for sale. Whenever he found one, in places like the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, he called me, I wired the money, and he grabbed it.”

Some ambulances were not in the best condition and needed repairs—from transmissions to braking systems. Each ambulance cost around $40,000, and Margaretten was able to secure 33 of the vehicles.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP, File)

The rescue trips are costly as well, and Tzedek has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund them, in addition to purchasing the ambulances. One patient who fled the country in a Tzedek ambulance required an accompanying pulmonologist, a respiratory therapist and machinery. Another ambulance packed in 11 pediatric cancer patients. Round-trips between cities in Ukraine and the border take up to 12 hours, much of it on poorly paved roads, so repairs are often required afterwards.  

Margaretten views himself—and Tzedek, the organization he founded four years ago—as dedicated to prison reform. He was one of the major activists responsible for the First Step Act, which passed Congress in 2018 with large bipartisan majorities and was signed into law by President Donald Trump. 

But as various other communal and humanitarian needs have arisen, he has often been asked to use his political connections and network of activists for those causes as well.

He initially tried to resist and keep his focus on prison reform. But that didn’t work.

“I like to tell people, ‘I stay in my lane,’ but people put pressure, and when someone really needs you, it’s hard to say no.”

Eleven of the ambulances were sent to the city of Kriyvi Rih, to be used under the auspices of that town’s chief Rabbi, Chabad shaliach Rabbi Liron Adry. The city, 260 miles from Kyiv, has the distinction of being Zelensky’s hometown, and Rabbi Adry is close with the family of Zelensky, who is Jewish.

Several weeks ago, the president was made aware of this fleet of ambulances saving the lives of sick and elderly residents of the city he grew up in, and he resolved to meet with and thank the American Rabbi who had donated the vehicles.

Activist Hillel Cohen with the Tzedek ambulances in Ukraine.

“Rabbi Adry called a week ago and asked, ‘President Zelensky wants to meet with you. Can you be in Kyiv on December 14 at 4:30 p.m.?’” Margaretten recalls. “I said, ‘If the president calls me, I’ll have to do it.”

Traveling from New York to Kyiv during a war is not easy:  It meant that on Sunday afternoon, Moshe and another Tzedek official, Shimen Leibowitz, flew to Munich, followed by a flight to Krakow, then a three-hour drive to the Ukrainian border—which the driver refused to cross because he himself is Ukrainian and had fled to avoid the military draft. Margaretten and Leibowitz walked across the border with their luggage in a driving snowstorm, where they hired another driver. A five-hour drive ensued to Premishlan (Peremyshlyany), followed by a four-hour drive to Mezhibuzh (Medzhybizh), 90 minutes in heavy snow to Berditchev (Berdychiv), and another two-and-a-half hours to Kyiv, where they finally lay down and slept in a bed, in the shul’s hotel, for the first time since they left New York.

As they traveled, they saw the varying effects that the Russian invasion and bombardment have had on Ukraine. In the Lviv region, “You wouldn’t know that there was any war going on at all,” says Margaretten. They did not visit areas that have been decimated by war, but on the way to Kyiv, they saw burned-out tanks and military trucks on the side of the road; in the city itself they saw barricades to prevent Russian tanks from rolling through, some streets and buildings perfectly intact while others had been bombed. The electricity was working on and off due to Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power grid. Margaretten estimates that the capital has 30% the population it had during his prewar visits. 

Margaretten and Leibowitz met with Rabbi Adry and other activists in Kyiv on Wednesday afternoon. Then Margaretten and Rabbi Adry, the only two who would be meeting with the president, went for their rendezvous with the man just crowned Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

After passing through multiple checkpoints and hallways, darkened due to security concerns rather than electrical blackouts, they reached a final security check, which Margaretten — who has visited the White House, Capitol Hill and other halls of government in America and around the world — says is the tightest he has ever seen. They had to hand over their phones (which meant no photos with the president) and all other metal with them — including the mezuzah that Margaretten, and the menorah that Rabbi Adry were bringing as gifts for Zelensky. Security personnel said they would give the gifts to the president later.

The mezuzah given to Zelensky.

Then they reached another room, which, Margaretten says, “I recognized immediately from news footage – the room with red carpet and the steps. But what you don’t see on all the video clips is there are sandbags throughout the room piled three or four feet high, and by the windows.”

After some more walking through darkened hallways, they reached a final waiting room, where it suddenly struck Margaretten that “everyone in the building, besides two female secretaries, was wearing military clothing and guns. You realize, you are in a beautiful presidential office, but we’re in middle of a war.”

Finally, they were called into Zelensky’s office.

The president was wearing his trademark olive-green t-shirt. He spoke in English with Margaretten and in Ukrainian with Rabbi Adry. 

Margaretten said he could not disclose most details of most of the 40-minute meeting, but described a bit of the conversation.

“Rabbi Adry introduced me to the president. I told him it is an honor for me to be here, that I appreciate he’s fighting for freedom, and not only for Ukraine — if he wins it will a send a message to aggressors and potential aggressors around the world, and make them think twice about attacking innocent countries.

“Zelensky said, ‘Rabbi I want to thank you for all the great work you have done in the medical field.’”

Tzedek’s Margaretten (R) and Leibowitz look at a bombed-out building in Kyiv.

Margaretten relayed regards from a Democratic U.S. senator he had spoken with the previous day, who had said that he is working on a bill to provide further funding for Ukraine. 

“Zelensky said he is very appreciative of the help the U.S. is giving,” Margaretten relates. “He said Republicans and Democrats have both been helpful toward the Ukrainians,” specifically mentioning President Joe Biden, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Margaretten says the president he met was very different from the one he imagined.

“I had an image of Zelensky as a strong, tough guy running a big war,” Moshe recalls. “I thought he would be all stressed, and would not have patience or be in the mood to listen to us. But he was very soft and calm, friendly, smiling all the time, extremely nice.”

Before they left with security, the two Rabbis told Zelensky of the gifts they had brought for him.  

Rabbi Adry noted that the menorah is lit in celebration of the Maccabees’ victory over the powerful Syrian-Greek army, and blessed Zelensky that Ukraine, too, be victorious in its war with a much larger foe.


Margaretten with a member of the Ukrainian military who guided them during their visit to Kyiv.

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