With a population of 1.5 million people, Kharkov is the second largest city in Ukraine. The Jewish population there numbers about 40,000, the majority of whom are atheists, including many intelligentsia and also many elderly and needy people.
Jewish people in Kharkov usually respond to the gospel with a clearcut yes” or “no.” We rarely find a neutral opinion. Many people, particularly those who receive financial help from Jewish agencies, are afraid to consider Jesus because of pressure from the synagogue. Yet many Jewish people are interested in the gospel and willing to risk learning more.
We had our first Kharkov witnessing campaign in 1997 and received more than 1,500 addresses from Jewish people willing to receive our publications. One Jewish believer in Jesus, Irina Rivkina, prayed fervently for the start of a Jews for Jesus branch in Kharkov. In 1998 she became our first staff member there. Next, her sister, Yulia Sokol, joined our staff. In the summer of 1999, Irina and Yulia left Ukraine to serve in Essen, Germany, and Jewish believer Mikhail Vayshengolts came to lead the work in Kharkov. Outreach workers Elvira Meyer, Yelena Gourtovaya and Svetlana Kotlomina make up the rest of our full-time outreach team. Mikhail’s wife, Ira, and Slavik Meyta handle the financial and administrative aspects of the work.
Mikhail, Ira and Kseniya Vayshengolts
Branch leader Mikhail Vayshengolts reflects on the work in Kharkov
I was brought up in a country with few choices. All the decisions were made “unanimously” in the Soviet Union. I can’t help smiling when I recall how people went to the election in the 1970s. They unanimously voted for . . . the only candidate on the ballot! He happened to be the same person previously appointed to that position by the government. It was no surprise that he received a majority vote during the election.
Now we live in a different time. People may have various opinions about various issues—even about the issue of Jesus. Even the public agents make up their own minds. One official hinders our work, another one helps. Complete freedom.
It is perhaps because of my background that I appreciate how our God vividly reveals Himself as the God of variety, while He remains unchanged. He says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). There is no monotony in His words or His deeds. He is a God of surprises and we see this in the variety of ways in which He answers our prayers. However, as He does not change, He demands from us a sameness in the way that we receive and follow His truth.
I enjoy handing out our broadsides in the streets and asking people their opinions concerning Jesus. We in Kharkov always receive clear and categorical responses: either pro or con. If the response is pro Jesus, the person will ask how they can hear more about Him. If it is con, the person usually sounds very angry. But still, even the negative opinions can vary. If people simply repeat the arguments they have heard, they are usually not interested. But if they add to the standard arguments something unusual and personal, they indicate something from the depth of their own heart. That is when we can minister.
And so the responses we hear range from one man who says, “When a person talks to God, it’s normal; but if he thinks God answers, it’s schizophrenia,” to another who says, “At first Jesus was Jewish, but then He betrayed His religion and became an Orthodox Christian.” Another person might say more sympathetically, “He wanted to help His people; He simply failed.” Sometimes I meet Jews who believe that Jesus is God and yet, for some reason, they have no relationship with Him. We also encounter saved people, both Jews and Gentiles, who truly know and serve God. They thank us from the bottom of their hearts for proclaiming the gospel in Kharkov, and wish us success. Perhaps they feel, in their heart of hearts, that they should be doing the same.
Why do we hear such a variety of opinions about Jesus? After much repression, the gospel is being preached purposefully to the Jewish people of this land and it produces a powerful response. We speak to our people again and again about Jesus, whether on the streets, in homes, over the phone or through the media. The Holy Spirit doesn’t want us (or you, dear brothers and sisters!) to keep silent.
Opinions about Yeshua may vary now, and in fact one person may have opinions that change significantly over the course of a lifetime. However, I wait with joy for the moment when there will be unanimity concerning Jesus. This unanimity will not be the result of a decision that was made for us, as used to happen in the time of the USSR. But the moment is approaching when all of us will “look on Him, the one they have pierced,” and we will realize that He is Messiah (Zechariah 12:10). Then we will unanimously exclaim to Jesus, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39).
We will have unanimity because God Himself will pour out the spirit of grace and of supplication, so that everyone will at last understand the truth of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Until that day, we will continue to ask our people, “Who do you think Jesus is?” and pray that one by one, they will see that He is the Messiah, the Savior, and the Son of God.