Ukraine’s Jewish leaders celebrate electoral defeat of far right

Jewish leaders in Ukraine expressed satisfaction with the poor showing of ultranationalist candidates in the country’s presidential elections and the victory by oligarch Viktor Poroshenko.

Poroshenko, from Odessa, won 54.4 percent of Sunday’s vote, eliminating the need for a second round, the Ukrainian Central Elections Commission announced Tuesday after counting 94 percent of the votes cast.

“The resounding victory of Poroshenko in just about every region of Ukraine not only eliminated the need for a costly second round but also sends an important message of unity,” said Josef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organization and Communities of Ukraine.

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was second with 12.9 percent of the vote. Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish community leader and businessman, finished seventh with 2.3 percent — more than the combined number of votes cast for Oleg Tyagnybok of the ultranationalist Svoboda party and for Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector movement.

“The failure of the ultranationalists reflects a reality which we have been trying to represent all the time despite Russian propaganda’s attempt to portray Ukrainian society as intolerant,” Zissels told JTA.

Alexander Levin, president of the Jewish Community of Kiev, wrote on Facebook that Tyagnybok and Yarosh’s failure to match Rabinovich “showed that in Ukraine, there is no policy of-Semitism, period.”

Rabinovich called on Poroshenko to dissolve the parliament within 100 days and call a new parliamentary election.

Igor Schupak, a prominent figure in the Jewish community of Dniproptrovsk and director of the city’s Jewish museum, said he believed Porosheko was “certainly equipped to lead Ukraine at this critical time with his vast experience and set of skills that range from banking to foreign policy.”

The election followed the ouster in February of President Viktor Yanukovych in a revolution that began in November over his alleged corruption and perceived allegiance to Russia.

Russian-backed troops later captured the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed on March 18. Several locales in Russia are held by pro-Russian militiamen, including the eastern city of Donetsk, where some voters were prevented from reaching ballots amid fights between the separatists and government forces.

Odessa’s Jews lay low as violence engulfs their oasis of calm

Although Ukraine has been charting a bloody course toward civil war for months, Irina Zborovskaya had always felt safe in Odessa.

Living in a cosmopolitan city where hate crimes are rare and a tradition of tolerance for minorities and dissidents prevails, many Odessites were lulled into a false sense of security by the absence of violence witnessed elsewhere in their country since November, when protests began that ultimately would lead to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.

But that changed on May 2, when one of the worst bloodbaths to hit Ukraine in recent months erupted in downtown Odessa. Some 42 people died in street fights there between pro-Russian protesters and supporters of the Ukrainian government, many of them perishing after a building was set ablaze.

“Even after all that’s been happening in Ukraine, it had remained unthinkable to us that one Odessite could kill another Odessite like that,” said Zborovskaya, the director of the local office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“In Odessa, there was more calm than in other places,” she said. “But now I cannot think of a single person here who isn’t worried.”

With its bubbling night life, progressive cultural scene and garden cafe culture, Odessa had remained mostly quiet throughout the upheaval that has engulfed much of Ukraine. The city’s Jews — estimates of their population range from 30,000 to 45,000 — saw almost none of the anti-Jewish violence that accompanied the chaos in Kiev, where four serious assaults of Jews have occurred since November. In two eastern Ukrainian cities, unidentified individuals tried to torch synagogues.

But since May 2, the Jewish community of Odessa has been partially paralyzed. While the new Beit Grand Jewish community center is open for regular activities, all special events have been canceled.

The center is home to a kindergarten located about 100 yards from where hundreds of protesters stormed a police headquarters on May 4. The suspension will continue until at least May 25, when Ukraine is due to hold its first elections since the revolution.

“It’s not safe to have people gather in one place right now,” Zborovskaya said.

It appears that no Jews have died as a result of the violence in Odessa, but the eruption has led to reports that local Jewish community leaders were working on an emergency evacuation plan for the city’s Jews. Berl (Boleslav) Kapulkin, a spokesman for the Jewish community of Odessa, said the reports, which appeared last week in the Israeli media, were the result of a misunderstanding. The community has no immediate evacuation plans, Kapulkin said, but there are discussions underway about evacuating in the future if the situation escalates.

“If the conflict will grow here into a real war, we, together with all the [Jewish] community, will leave,” Kapulkin said. “But we pray that this does not happen and that God gives peace to Ukraine.”

Talk of evacuation was particularly shocking given that many see Odessa as the site of a Jewish cultural revival. Since 2010, the city has held four Limmud Jewish learning conferences with hundreds of participants. The community is also about to open its second Jewish museum; the capital Kiev has none.

“We hope this growth will continue,” Zborovskaya said, “but right now it is hard to make predictions.”

According to the Jewish Agency, 762 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel in the first quarter of 2014 — an increase of 52 percent over the average of 500 people who immigrated in the corresponding periods of 2009 to 2013. In that period, Israel saw the arrival of 1,900 immigrants on average per year from Ukraine, according to Israel’s absorption ministry.

But many Ukrainian Jews have decided to stay despite the hardships and insecurity, said Tzvi Arieli, a former Israeli soldier who lives in Kiev and recently set up a small Jewish self-defense unit there.

“Those who wanted to come, came,” Arieli said in reference to the mass immigration to Israel in the 1990s of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews and their family members. “Those who stay, they want to stay.”

One who has resolved to stay is Pavel Kozlenko, the 43-year-old head of the Odessa Holocaust Museum and future director of the city’s second Jewish museum. Kozlenko said local Jews are bound to their city by their rich history. Before the Holocaust, there were 200,000 Jews in Odessa, constituting a third of its population, according to Yad Vashem.

Kozlenko said he wouldn’t leave Odessa, even though he was shocked by the recent violence.

“I can’t reconcile what I saw with my belief in this city of tolerance, which is home to more than a hundred nationalities, which produced such outstanding personalities of science, culture and art,” he said. “I thought such events could not happen here.”

Leaders of Odessa’s Jewish community deny evacuation plans

Leaders of the Jewish community of Odessa, Ukraine, denied reports about the existence of evacuation plans for the city’s Jews.

“In connection with reports on the planned evacuation of the Jewish community of Odessa: No such plans exist,” Berl Kapulkin, a spokesperson for the local Chabad community, said in a statement published Tuesday on the website

Titled “rebuttal,” the statement concerned a  report published Sunday in an Israeli daily newspaper saying that several community leaders told a reporter that “Odessa’s Jews are prepared to evacuate should the violence” in the Ukrainian city get significantly worse.

The reports followed skirmishes last week between pro-Russian protesters and Ukrainian nationalists that resulted in  multiple casualties. The clashes were part of a larger mobilization by pro-Russian protesters and militias that last month began staging acts of disobedience, sometimes with secessionist sentiments, throughout cities in eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians live.

Tania Vorobyov, a spokesperson for Beit Grand, Odessa’s largest Jewish community center and a major partner of the local office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, told JTA Wednesday that “the reports about evacuation are baseless rumors. Jews in Odessa are worried about the violence like all other Odessans but have no special plans to leave as a community.”

In February, a revolution that had been simmering since winter ended with the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych. The revolution began with protests over Ukraine’s refusal to further ties with the European Union, which critics perceived as proof of Yanukovych’s pro-Russian stance. Russian-backed troops took over the Crimean Peninsula in March. Russia has since annexed the area, which used to be part of Ukraine.

The Jerusalem Post on Sunday quoted Refael Kruskal, head of Tikva, a small Jewish charity group from Odessa, as saying that evacuation plans are underway. The paper also reported that over the weekend 20 buses had been parked outside the city’s Chabad center.

But Kapulkin, the center’s spokesperson, denied this assertion.

“Odessa’s citizens (including Jews) were shocked by the tragedy” of the weekend clashes, Kapulkin wrote, “but we do not see any immediate danger to the Jewish community. So no buses with open doors, no running motors ready to go.”

Odessa, home to some 40,000 Jews, has a multitude of Jewish organizations whose relations are often strained by competition and personal rivalry.

Jewish cultural center dedicated in Odessa

A new Jewish cultural center was dedicated in Odessa.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Odessa Jewish community on Monday formally dedicated the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center.

The center was renovated and expanded with funds from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and philanthropists Nancy and Stephen Grand.

Beit Grand is home to the city’s Hesed Shaarey Tzion Welfare organization and its Jewish Family Services program, as well as Hillel and the Odessa Regional Association of Ghetto and Concentration Camp Survivors.

The JCC also includes an extensive library and community gym, as well as an arts studio, a Jewish writers club and a course for Jewish Odessa tour guides. The campus
also includes a new Montessori-style Anavim Jewish kindergarten. It is also home to Jewish renewal programs and a youth club.

In addition to local Jewish community leaders, government representatives from Ukraine and Israel, a delegation from JDC’s board of directors joined JDC staff, a Claims Conference delegation and other international guests for the dedication.

“The dedication of Beit Grand is a remarkable moment in the great history of Jewish life in Odessa and speaks volumes about the role JDC has played in the miraculous renewal of Jewish life in this city and across the former Soviet Union,” said JDC CEO Steven Schwager.

Cafe Hillel marks new tactic to reach out to young people — in Odessa

Ambling down one of the many picturesque side streets of crumbling copper and golden-colored slate that lend the old quarter of Odessa an aura of decaying grandeur, Kiril Alexandrovich was reminded of a famous Russian adage.

“He who doesn’t take risks,” the 22-year-old Jewish entrepreneur said with a sly smile, “will never drink champagne.”

In Alexandrovich’s case, his first restaurant isn’t a risk simply for him, and he won’t be the only one waiting eagerly to hear the pop of a champagne bottle in the Ukrainian city.

His Cafe Hillel, which was expected to open last week, is the first effort in Odessa at co-branding undertaken by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The partnership aims to transform Jewish youth organizing in the former Soviet Union, leaving behind the club model and heading out into the cities, where young Jews work and play.

Aaron Goldberg, Hillel associate vice president, said the organization is constantly searching for ways to improve Jewish life and reach more students beyond just a physical presence.

Goldberg said that if Hillel wants to continue to expand the number of young people it is working with, “then we have to find the places or create the spaces in which they are interested in spending time.”

With a prime location in the university district of seaside Odessa, once a hub of Jewish culture, Cafe Hillel is at the center of what Hillel’s Moscow director, Dimitry Maryasis, calls the “new Hillel ideology” — an attempt to reverse and rebrand its fortunes in the former Soviet Union.

Having struggled publicly over the last decade here, where the lack of Western-style college campuses have precluded its traditional modes of operation, Hillel is counting on branding partnerships and quasi-commercial ventures like Cafe Hillel to form the backbone of its reinvigorated brand.

For Alexandrovich, who dreamed of opening his own restaurant while toiling behind the scenes in innumerable commercial kitchens, the co-branding plan is the perfect opportunity to accomplish both his goals: running an affordable cafe for students and giving back to his community.

When he decided last spring to move back from Beersheba, Israel, where he moved when he was 9, Alexandrovich already knew he would be opening a cafe and that he wanted its identity rooted in Israel. He was educated there and fought as a paratrooper.

He chose Ukraine not out of any strong desire to return to his native land but to take advantage of a business environment not much different than that of Russia in the early 1990s: lower prices and a lack of savvy competition.

Originally set to open under the name Nisha, Hebrew for “niche,” the cafe was planned as a meeting place for students. Feeling lonely in a city where he knew no one but his longtime girlfriend and aching for contact with fellow Jews, Alexandrovich ended up at a birthday party for Hillel, where regional director Iosif Akselrud broached the idea of a partnership.

Alexandrovich was all ears.

“It is my pleasure to be the first Cafe Hillel in the U.S.S.R.,” he said.

Housed in a newly renovated space flooded with sunlight through its floor-to-ceiling windows, the cafe has a capacity to hold nearly 150 people.

In the coming months it will move gradually from serving the low-cost lunch specials found throughout the region to more traditional Israeli food.

Cafe Hillel will provide 10 percent discount cards to Hillel members and host Jewish-themed cultural and educational events. It will cater to students during the busy school days, while leaving available the evenings for programming that attracts visiting Jewish delegations and local community workers.

“I want a lot of Jews that are in Hillel, in the Joint [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee], in all of these groups,” he said. “They work in the morning and during the day, and in the evening, I want them to come to my place. It’s not my place; it’s their place.”

Although the cafe will not be kosher, due to prohibitive costs and Alexandrovich’s desire to be more welcoming of non-Jews, he plans to install a kosher-capable section in his kitchen that will be helpful for visiting delegations. And lest his customers forget where his restaurant lands in the Hillel constellation, a compass will adorn the ceiling with points delineating the cities that host a branch of the campus group.

In a region that still harbors a great deal of popular anti-Semitism and with a string of anti-Semitic attacks having hit Ukraine in the past few weeks, some are wondering whether the time is right for Jewish groups to be venturing beyond the anonymous and often secure walls of their offices.

The security situation weighs heavily on Alexandrovich’s mind — and with good reason. Last month, an unknown vandal smashed the glass on the building’s front door in an incident that Alexandrovich implied may have been motivated by anti-Semitism.

Motivated partly by this suspicion, Alexandrovich was adamant that the cafe not be advertised as Jewish. He will provide heightened security for his customers.

“Cafe Hillel is a student lounge, not a Jewish lounge cafe,” he said. “Because, you understand, not a lot of people love me and you in the world, and I see these things.”

If anti-Semitism is a concern for Alexandrovich, it certainly doesn’t seem to be one among the Hillel students in whose name the cafe is being launched.

One Hillel member described a great deal of excitement and growing sense of anticipation among young Jews in Odessa.

“We are very excited about the cafe,” said Sasha Zlobina, 21, a Hillel member.

“We expect that it will be like a second home for us. Our first home is the office, and our second home will be Cafe Hillel.”