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Ukrainian father visits kids’ school for first time, two years into war with Russia

“I didn’t even think that I would ever see them again,” Vasyl Rybchinski told JNS about his visit to the Hebrew Language Academy.

Vasyl Rybchinski with Valerie Khaytina, Hebrew Public’s chief external officer and a Jewish native of Kyiv, Ukraine, in February 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.
Vasyl Rybchinski with Valerie Khaytina, Hebrew Public’s chief external officer and a Jewish native of Kyiv, Ukraine, in February 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.

The Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., buzzes with parents throughout the year for school events, ceremonies and showcases to draw them in.

But for one set of eighth-grade twins, their father had never seen their school in the two years since they have been attending it.

Until this month.

Vasyl Rybchinski has been fighting for Ukraine since the outbreak of Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. He is visiting his family for the first time since—and getting a look at a school that has actively recruited more than 60 Ukrainian refugee children, including his own son, Mykola, and daughter, Stefania.

Dressed in his Ukrainian army fatigues, Rybchinski, accompanied by his wife, Lesya, took a tour of the three-floor school building—meeting with teachers, administrators and counselors—as he got a feel for what life has been like for his young ones in his absence.

The charter school system launched a campaign to enroll Ukrainian refugee children fleeing the war. The publicly funded organization, which has branches in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Philadelphia, along with affiliate schools in Los Angeles; San Diego; Washington, D.C.; East Brunswick, N.J.; and Edina, Minn., teaches Modern Hebrew and Israel studies among its core curriculum.

Hebrew Public’s founding school is the Hebrew Language Academy (HLA), which enrolled more than 60 Ukrainian refugees. The Staten Island branch brought in around 70 more.

The effort was led by Valerie Khaytina, Hebrew Public’s chief external officer and a Jewish native of Kyiv. A Ukrainian-speaking counselor was brought on board to help with mental health and guidance.

“I’m very grateful for all of the humanitarian help from America, and especially from the school, which is a Hebrew charter school, and the Jewish community,” Rybchinki told JNS through a translator. “The response that I’ve observed and that I know that my family has received from the Jewish community in particular has been absolutely incredible.”

Ukraine Dad Vasyl Rybchinski
A family reunited: Vasyl Rybchinski with his wife, Lesya, and their twin eighth-graders, Mykola (left) and Stefania, at the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., in February 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.

Mykola and Stefania are preparing to graduate in just a few months. In fact, they are signed up to take HLA’s annual Capstone trip to Israel, which was delayed until summer as a result of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

There, the two will put their Hebrew knowledge to the test as they explore the country and learn about its innovative spirit.

“We haven’t seen a similar kind of support from Catholic organizations or from the Ukrainian diaspora,” said Rybchinski. “What the Jewish community has provided goes above and beyond, and the support has been ranging from financial support to psychological support to the school, of course.”

‘Today, I feel really great’

Rybchinski has been fighting for two years in a volunteer unit of Belarus natives, in some of the most hotly contested terrain in Ukraine.

“We woke up on February 24 in the morning because of the sounds,” Rybchinski said of the opening minutes of the Russian invasion. “My wife asked me what was happening, and I said that the war is starting, so we immediately decided to leave Kyiv.”

Ukraine Dad Vasyl Rybchinski
Vasyl Rybchinski (center) with staff members at the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., in February 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.

After evacuating his family, Rybchinski went on to fight in Kyiv, Mykolaiv and the Battle of Bakhmut, in some of the fiercest urban warfare on European soil since World War II.

“Today, I feel really great,” Rybchinski said, allowing himself a smile. “I feel protected in the United States. The bombs are not falling. The rockets are not falling. I’m not afraid for my life.”

And, since he’s not a Ukrainian citizen himself, he was free to leave the fighting at any time. For now, he’s happy to return to the role of father and catch up on the school visits he’s missed.

Making his way around the school, Rybchinski eventually entered his children’s classroom. Mykola and Stefania sit together at a desk near the windows. Seemingly caught between wanting to embrace their father but concerned about their eighth-grade coolness, the two slowly rose … but couldn’t help but speed up a bit as they made their way across the classroom for a family hug.

Ukraine Dad Vasyl Rybchinski
Vasyl Rybchinski with his children’s teacher, Yves Saint Fort, at the Hebrew Language Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., in February 2024. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.

Rybchinski appeared to want to engage in a conversation with the teacher, Yves Saint Fort, but his English skills limited him to a hearty handshake and a “Great job. Thank you!”

It wasn’t a typical parent-teacher conference, but nothing about the situation has been typical.

“It was an honor to be part of this family’s journey,” Daniella Steinberg, head of school at HLA, told JNS. “They continue to teach us so many lessons about strength, family and commitment.”

After exiting the classroom, a Ukrainian refugee student who has grappled with difficulties adjusting was brought down to speak with Rybchinski, who attempted to impart his wisdom. The boy made little eye contact but listened intently.

Rybchinski was in the building for all of an hour or so, but it was two years in the making and a moment he feared would never come.

“How would you say one would feel after not seeing them for two years?” he asked, unable to answer his own question. “I didn’t even think that I would ever see them again.”

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