‘One must not mix in with evil,” a short, middle-aged Ukrainian woman tells me
as several dozen protesters behind her chant slogans against interfaith
dialogue. While others should be free to worship as they please, she says, they
must not be allowed to mix with the followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church –
the one true church, she believes.
I am in the Ukrainian capital city of
Kiev to cover a fascinating conference, the Kyiv Interfaith Forum. The forum –
comprising representatives of various strains of Christianity, Islam, Judaism
and Buddhism who hail from everywhere from Jordan to Azerbaijan – is especially
of interest to me due to its novel setting.
Kiev has a long and varied
Jewish history that abruptly came to an end during the Holocaust. However, it
was the role of the Ukrainian people in actively abetting the German genocide
that has given the city its image among world Jewry. The fact that this country,
with its history of anti-Semitism and its fervent Christian Orthodoxy, which is
not the most historically Jew-friendly of faiths, is hosting an event of this
nature is the real reason why the forum deserved coverage.
topics discussed by the participants is the role of religion in contemporary
secular democracies and the interplay between the largely secular media and, at
least in Ukraine, an increasingly religious populace. As a journalist who has
covered issues of religion extensively, for the secular and religious press in
Israel and abroad, and having spent three days in close contact with the various
participants of the forum, becoming more a participant than a reporter myself at
times, an article detailing my impressions in the first person seems more
appropriate than a mere retelling of quotes and discussions.
with local rabbinic leaders as well as lay leaders and representatives of the
local Jewish community, an image emerges of a nation that is, while still
latently somewhat anti-Semitic, largely struggling successfully to combat
religious intolerance on a leadership level.
MEMBER OF Parliament
Oleksandr Feldman, the founder of the forum, is a kippawearing Orthodox Jew.
Well-connected with the senior leadership of both his nation and the State of
Israel, Feldman has already organized one previous conference and worked
tirelessly to deepen the Ukraine’s ties with Israel.
Upon opening the
conference, Feldman notes that “respecting other people does not require that
they share a common religion.”
As someone who “picked up faith when he
was already mature,” like many who grew up under Communism, he came to believe
that “freedom depends on struggling for the rights of others.”
on a theme that will be reiterated by speaker after speaker throughout the
three-day conference, Feldman notes that every community has extremists who must
not be allowed to hijack the dialogue between groups.
As if on cue, Rabbi
David Rosen, adviser on interreligious affairs of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel,
leans over and whispers to me to check out the aforementioned group of
Much of their anger, he notes, is against the inclusion of
the Russian Orthodox Church, from which their church had split in an act of
nationalism following the end of the Warsaw Pact.
In sharing the principles of a worshipping the divine and loving one’s neighbor,
Feldman continues, all religions, no matter how radically different, must work
together to reinforce their shared values and morals in the secular societies in
which they find themselves.
Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, the director of
External Affairs and Interchurch Relations for the Orthodox Church in the United
States notes, however, that dialogue does not mean watering down the religious
doctrines of the participants; nor does it require achieving any sort of
consensus on doctrine.
The presence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,
which local Chabad rabbi Jonathan Markovitch tells The Jerusalem Post has
created significant and meaningful ties with local Jews, at least on a
leadership level, is heartening.
Ukraine, Markovitch noted wryly, has
become to young Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews what Thailand is to the country’s
secular youth: a place to go to find oneself. From organized tours of the
country’s many rabbinic graves and surviving old synagogues to the annual
pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Jews to the grave of Rabbi Nahman of
Breslov on Rosh Hashana, Ukraine has become a major Jewish vacation
DURING THE second day of the forum, which convenes in the
parliament building, Feldman’s message of support for the highest level of
dialogue with the Jews is confirmed. As we sit in a luxurious committee room,
addressed by the parliament’s Speaker, it is a pleasure to see men of so many
different faiths coming together to engage in meaningful discussions in such a
While the content is largely repetitive, with most of the speakers
touching on the same themes, a few interesting tidbits do emerge.
such point of interest is when Izzy Lemberg, the former longtime senior producer
for CNN’s Jerusalem Bureau, notes that in many cases the smartphone has replaced
God in the lives of young people.
Having a device that always connects
its owner to people all over the world is almost religious in nature, he quips.
Walking into an Apple store, Lemberg notes, “feels like entering a temple of
The media and technology compete with religion, he asserts,
stating that it is hard for religion to compete with the culture of consumer
Journalists, being largely secular, Lemberg believes, are
not fully equipped to understand the role that religion plays in the lives of
people and how it affects their decisions. Lemberg cites the Arab Spring as an
example of how the media have underestimated the power of religion to shape
The most powerful experiences of the conference,
however, are not the sessions or the speeches, but rather the opportunity to
speak with leaders of faiths with whom one would normally not have any
Chatting between speakers with Theophilos III, I learn that the
Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem is engaged in interfaith efforts in
Israel, although he neglects to name any particulars. However, I am made
slightly uncomfortable by his defense of the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, who
recently made statements regarding the killing of Jews. The mufti, Theophilos
III says, certainly did not mean what he said in an inflammatory manner. As a
Jew, I must say, this is a little hard to believe.
THE REAL impact of the
conference comes after the official conference ends and I am able to explore on
After the program, I, together with Izzy Lemberg and the city’s
aforementioned unofficial Chabad Lubavitch “chief rabbi,” Rabbi Markovitch, go
for a guided tour of the city. Following lunch in the rabbi’s apartment,
however, the pleasant experiences end, as the rabbi has arranged for a driver to
take Lemberg and me on what could only be called a tour of death.
first stop is an old, overgrown and largely abandoned cemetery, in whose Jewish
section Lemberg’s grandfather is buried. As Lemberg, our guide, Vlad, and I walk
down paths between overgrown and untended foliage and neglected, decaying
tombstones, I reflect on the difference between the cemetery in upstate New York
where my own father is buried and the decrepit ruin in which I now find
In New York, mown grass and well-tended paths, pruned trees and
maintained monuments prevail. However, in Kiev – a city whose Jews were
murdered, whose survivors were brutalized under communism and whose remnants
largely fled to Israel following the fall of the communist regime – there is no
one to maintain the graves of our people.
What resources there are go
toward reclaiming Jewish sites (of which there are a great many in terrible
condition) and educating and supporting a population in dire need of a renewed
Jewish identity. Nothing is left to spend on the deceased.
As I stumble
across the bumpy and overgrown path between two graves, I notice that some of
the graves looked as though they have been deliberately desecrated.
and again Lemberg wipes grime off faded tombstones, only to realize that he will
not find his grandfather’s resting place in the time we have left.
hurry back to the car and Vlad drives us to Babi Yar, the site of the worst
wartime massacre of Jews outside the death camps.
Gypsies and others were killed at this site in 1941, the primary victims were
Jewish. However, the official monument, despite Yiddish carvings, makes
no explicit reference to my people.
I am told that it had, at one point,
been rebuilt so as not to feature statues that appeared too Jewish.
of Babi Yar has been developed and next to a smaller monument in the shape of a
menorah, children can be seen riding bikes and playing soccer. This scene is
only yards away from a ravine in which thousands upon thousands of Jews were
After reciting kaddish quietly, I leave, thinking
how ironic it is that of all places to be assigned to cover an inter-religious
dialogue about tolerance and mutual respect, it should be in this blood-soaked
land whose crimes are permanently engraved in the collective memory of all
The next day I return to the memorial site for a visit with Shyne,
a Belz Hassid and rap star who spent 10 years in an American prison following a
shooting incident in a New York nightclub.
Shyne, striding through a busy
park on the way to Babi Yar, is a strange sight. A bearded African-American in
hassidic garb would draw attention even in Jerusalem. However, no one even so
much as glances in our direction. We feel no hostility and that, in this land,
shows how much progress can be made when we work together to make sure that we
do not repeat the mistakes of the past.