Ukraine Jews hunkering down amid turmoil

The turmoil in Ukraine has left one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities on edge.

After an outbreak of violence in Kiev last week that left dozens of protesters and policemen dead, President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital and parliament installed an interim leader to take the still-contested reins of power.

Like their compatriots, Ukraine’s Jews are waiting to see what the future holds for their country, but with the added fear that they could become targets amid the chaos. There have been a few isolated anti-Semitic incidents over the past few months of civil strife. On Sunday night in the eastern city of Zaporizhia, a synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails, causing minor damage.

While Kiev has been relatively calm since Yanukovych fled the capital, the situation in the country’s eastern and southern regions, where he has his base of support, is more volatile. Tensions between the local governments and revolutionaries continue to rise in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has a relatively sizable Jewish community.

“It’s still a very fluid situation,” said Mark Levin, chairman of the NCSJ, an American organization that advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union. “The big concern, I think, is ensuring that there’s adequate security for Jewish institutions throughout the country, but particularly in the large cities. And I think that’s where much of the focus within the American Jewish community and Israel lies — that and making sure the flow of services continues.”

Levin also expressed concern that with elections slated for May 25, a future government could result in ultranationalists gaining power in Ukraine. Svoboda, a right-wing nationalist party, was prominent in the protest movement, and party officials have expressed virulently anti-Semitic sentiments.

Thus far, though, the conflict has not been marked  by incitement against Ukraine’s multiple national minorities, Oksana Galkevich, a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told JTA from Kharkiv on Friday.

“The overall situation in relation to the Jewish community in Ukraine is tolerant and peaceful,” said Vadim Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, in a statement issued Monday. “There have been no mass outbursts or exacerbation of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”

Rabinovich rejected as untrue foreign press reports of mass anti-Semitism in the country and called them “not conducive to a peaceful life of the Jewish community.” He vowed that the Jewish community would participate “in building a democratic state and promoting the revival and prosperity of the country.”

Estimates of the size of Ukraine’s Jewish community vary widely. Some commonly cited statistics suggest the country has only 70,000 Jews, while the European Jewish Congress and the JDC say there are as many as 400,000.

Over the past few months, many Jewish institutions have simply gone into hibernation, suspending activity during the turmoil. But others have carried on their work under heavy security.

The Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, which runs the Orach Chaim day school in Kiev and several other institutions, has been paying $1,000 a day for round-the-clock security by teams from two private firms, one of which also provides security for the Israeli embassy in Kiev. Together, staff guard nine buildings, including four school buildings, a community center, a synagogue and a religious seminary, according to Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, the confederation’s president and a Ukrainian chief rabbi.

“Nobody goes alone at night, so we have three people doing escorts from the synagogue and back,” he told JTA last week. Meanwhile, security on the “Jewish campus” — the area around Kiev’s Podol Synagogue — is maintained by a team of nine people.

The guards have chased off a few trespassers but encountered no serious threats in Kiev. But the cost — 10 times what the community used to pay for security before the violence erupted — means the community cannot afford this level of security for much longer.

The Joint Distribution Committee also has promoted security measures to protect staff and volunteers. After the firebombing of the Zaporizhia synagogue, JDC reinforced security measures for its charity organization in the city.

The JDC has been continuing to provide assistance to elderly and homebound Jews living in areas of Ukraine that have been affected by the unrest.

With Yanukovych ousted and avoiding the acting government’s warrant for his arrest for alleged murder, many hope the situation will stabilize as the country prepares for the elections. But if it doesn’t, Bleich’s community may not be able to keep its institutions running for another month.

“We already paid the bill for January, and now we have to pay the bill for February, and it’s a big one,” Bleich told JTA on Friday.

His community has launched an online campaign on religious websites in the United States aimed at collecting additional funds. The Lauder Foundation is providing payment for security in three community-run schools.

“Most communities don’t do any activity that involves congregating,” said Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. In January, his organization canceled its annual Jan. 27 Holocaust remembrance ceremony.

“For a few weeks it’s still OK,” he said, “but if this continues, then it will start to undo the fabric of the community and we will see damage to Jewish life, which has really progressed in this country.”

Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev, who is another claimant to the title of chief rabbi of Ukraine and heads Chabad’s activities in the country, advised Jews in media interviews to keep a low profile until the situation calms down.

Hillel Cohen, who is responsible for the Hatzolah Jewish first aid service in Kiev, did not heed Azman’s advice. On Friday, he and other volunteers were driving in the Hatzolah ambulance in an attempt to help Jews in need of medical attention.

But he conceded that driving last week amid the burning barricades of Kiev was at times a blood-chilling experience.

“Things began getting really uneasy when the rioters started setting up spontaneous roadblocks to keep police and army troops from reaching the action zone,” he told JTA. “It was very uneasy, being pulled over in a car full of Orthodox Jews by club-wielding Cossacks.”

While the prominence of ultranationalists within the opposition protests has caused concern, Jews also have been active participants in rallies held in Ukraine’s Independence Square, or Maidan. Tablet Magazine spoke to a source who noted that a rabbi offered a prayer for peace at the demonstration and that a klezmer band performed Yiddish songs in the square.

Bleich, who is visiting the United States, was asked in a radio interview on Sunday night, following Yanukovych’s ouster, about concerns over anti-Semitism within the ranks of the protesters.

“The majority of the protesters are grassroots, regular, everyday old people from Ukraine that were fed up with living in a corrupt society, and they came out to protest against it and to try and make change, and they were successful in making change,” he said. “There’s no question about that. That’s the majority. They’re not anti-Semites, they’re not right-wing, nationalist, neo-fascists or Nazis, the way the Russians have been trying to paint them.”

But Bleich cautioned that there is a minority element within the opposition that is anti-Semitic, citing Svoboda.

“The Jewish community has to stay vigil and see what’s going to be,” he said. “What’s going to happen with this new government? Are they going to be a part of the government?”

Bleich said he has received assurances from opposition leaders that they will not tolerate anti-Semitism.

Cruisin’, shmoozin, doin’

Jewish Women International feted their favorite females of 2007 at the annual Women to Watch gala in Washington D.C. on Dec. 3. This year’s formidable femmes included: Jamie McCourt, president of the Los Angeles Dodgers and consequently the highest ranking female executive in the sports arena; Miri Ben-Ari, the Israeli-born, Grammy-winning “hip-hop violinist”; and Monica Levinson, Hollywood producer of “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” “Zoolander” and “Dodgeball.”Cruisin’

Sinai Temple’s ATID swept 60 people out to sea on Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas for a “Chanukah Cruise” Dec. 7-10. En route to Baja, the group celebrated both Chanukah and Shabbat (with fresh challah and hot latkes), uttered countless references to “The Love Boat” and “Titanic” and endured the undulating waves that brought new meaning to the Amidah (standing prayer).Stephen S. Wise Temple’s “W Group” for young professionals took over Guy’s in West Hollywood for their fourth annual Chanukah Party and Fundraiser on Dec. 13. Coveted auction items helped inspire the 500-person crowd to raise $10,000 to benefit Jewish World Watch’s “Backpack Project.”

Remembering Soviet Jewry Campaign

Movers and shakers from Israel and Los Angeles attended a special reception sponsored by the National Council on Soviet Jewry (NCSJ), which commemorated the struggle to free Soviet Jews from oppression, at a private home on Dec. 11. NCSJ advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.Yuli Edelstein, deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset and former refusenik; with NCSJ President Ed Robin, right; Robin’s wife, Peggy; and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles). Photo by Ron Sachs

Soviet Jewry movement marks two milestones

Chanukah celebrates the triumph of our forefathers who sought religious freedom. To commemorate the holiday, President Bush hosted Jews from around the world who had

experienced religious persecution, including several former refuseniks, to celebrate religious freedom. The following evening, in the U.S. Capitol, senators and representatives commemorated the struggle of Soviet Jews and the activism of the world Jewish community on their behalf.

It was so rewarding to see the leaders of our great nation joining together to recognize the struggle for religious identity against overwhelming odds, as exemplified by Chanukah and the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

This year marks two significant milestones for the Soviet Jewry movement:

  • The birth of the mass movement for Jewish identity and emigration from the U.S.S.R. ignited 40 years ago with the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War.
  • The 20th anniversary of Freedom Sunday, when 250,000 Americans marched on Washington to “Let my people go!” The Soviet Jewry movement was proof positive that a group of determined people has the power to force a compelling moral issue front and center on the agendas of the United States and the entire world.

Freedom Sunday in many ways marked the culmination of the most successful mass advocacy effort ever undertaken by American Jews. That success enabled the emigration of more than 1 million of our brethren, which has, in turn, transformed Israeli society.

Significant, although less visible, is the vitality of Jewish life for the more than 1 million Jews in the former Soviet Union today. This unanticipated rebirth has been enabled by our strong and successful relationships, and its sustainability requires our continued attention and support.

For me personally, this year has brought both memories of the past struggle and increased understanding, involvement and amazement at what we and our Jewish brethren are currently accomplishing.

In October, I led a National Council of Soviet Jewry (NCSJ) mission of 13 to Ukraine and Russia, including eight of us from Los Angeles. One afternoon included a tour of important sites of the refusenik movement.

On that day, we were accompanied by former prisoner of Zion Yosef Begun, one of my heroes, who was exiled and imprisoned for teaching Hebrew and for his desire to emigrate to Israel, which was refused for 17 years.

Begun now lives in Israel but returns periodically to Russia to pursue his commitment to Jewish education. This time, he was attending, as did our group, a Limmud educational conference, where 700 young Jewish adults joined together for an exciting weekend of study and Jewish immersion.

One of our mission participants, Steve Greenberg, while chairman of United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership in 1984, wore a bracelet bearing Begun’s name. Greenberg presented this bracelet to President Ronald Reagan at a Young Leadership conference.

Reagan placed the bracelet on his wrist and proudly raised his arm before 2,000 young American Jews. Reagan subsequently mentioned the bracelet to Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and ultimately returned it to Begun, when they met following his release years later.

This exemplifies the ongoing commitment of the United States to our efforts to permit Jewish life to flourish. Last month in Rostov, Russian officials jailed 15 American and other Western yeshiva students for minor visa violations.

Alerted by NCSJ, U.S. Embassy officials immediately flew from Moscow to Rostov and within 24 hours, obtained the students’ release and safe passage.

Many former Soviet Union nations are supportive of efforts to ensure the benefits of an open society for their Jewish communities. Our mission visited Kiev immediately following parliamentary elections in Ukraine, where there have been a number of recent anti-Semitic incidents. Immediately after our visit, President Viktor Yushchenko publicly instructed law enforcement authorities to investigate these incidents, to prosecute where appropriate, to engage in preventive measures in the future and to create a hate crimes unit in the Ukrainian security services.

We visited synagogues, community centers, schools and organizations, some of which receive support from world Jewry, but many of which are supported by indigenous leadership. While Jews and Jewish life are succeeding, there is concern for the future.

This history is a powerful reminder that “all Jews are responsible for one another.” Begun told us enthusiastically that he was able to endure refusal, prison and exile because he knew that he “was never alone.”

We will continue to ensure that the 1.5 million Jews in the former Soviet Union are not alone, that they will be able to develop their Jewish lives productively, in a safe environment. Even as we celebrate the history and the success of a historic movement, we remain mindful of our continuing role. The opportunity is a privilege, and we are honored by our responsibility.

Ed Robin was elected Chairman of NCSJ at the December 2006 NCSJ Board of Governors meeting. He is a long-time supporter of and activist in the Soviet Jewry movement. He has served as Vice-Chair of the United Jewish Fund and is active in many other local and national organizations. Mr. Robin is also a founder of the North American Jewish Forum.