KHARKOV – Life appears completely normal in the eastern city of Kharkov. Ukraine’s second-largest city, it was one of several locales where separatists began their budding civil war, taking over government buildings and seeking to gather the reins of power into their hands.
While Donetsk, some 280 km. to the south in the Donbass industrial region, suffered from running gun battles between separatist militias, allegedly backed by Russia, and the Ukrainian army, Kharkov is quiet.
Ukrainian security forces were able to quell the uprising here quickly and the city experienced little more than mob clashes before order was restored last month. The apogee of the violence came on April 28, when Gennady Kernes, the city’s Jewish mayor, was shot in a failed assassination attempt. Local Jewish leaders have gainsaid reports that the attack was anti-Semitic. Kernes is recovering in an Israeli hospital.
While downtown Kharkov is packed with shoppers, shops are open and life appears no different than anywhere else in Europe, this is not something that local Jews take for granted.
The quiet is nothing short of a miracle, local Chabad Rabbi Moshe Moskoivitz told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday during an interview in a synagogue.
“When everything started they mentioned Kharkov, Donetsk and Luhansk. Kharkov was part of the cities that people thought would be trouble,” the rabbi said.
While the community is now “far from the conflict” in many ways, he said, the continued fighting to the south has had a tangible impact on its quality of life.
There are approximately 30,000 Jews in the city and many are mulling immigration to Israel, according to Moskoivitz.
“I have all kinds of people who are thinking of going on aliya, kids, businessmen, older people,” he said. “They don’t see a future.”
People are less worried about the violence spreading than of the overall instability wrought by the months of political protests that toppled pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich in February, leading to the current armed conflict, he said.
While the rabbi is not sure that all of those looking at emigration will follow through, he said there is a definite interest in aliya and that “this is the last push for the people who were [already] thinking of going to Israel.”
For the most part, people are trying to get on with their day to day lives, but some parents have expressed worries over sending their children to school.
The rabbi does what he can to calm such fears and to keep the schools and synagogue open, he said, but finds it interesting that people look to him as if he has all the answers.
“People always think we have a plan somehow and we know what’s going on,” Moskoivitz said. “The truth is we are here with everybody together and we don’t know more than anybody else.”
However, despite all of the problems facing Ukrainian Jewry, he said, it is still safe for him to walk the streets in identifiably Jewish garb, something that cannot always been said for the cities of Western Europe.
In addition to the general instability, the conflict has weakened the national economy, hitting local Jews and communal institutions hard, the rabbi added. It’s a one-two punch, he explained.
One of the complaints of the community, he continued, was the lack of an “organized response from the [international] Jewish community.”
While the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have been funneling money into the country, there is still a lack of response from world Jewry, Moskoivitz told the Post.
“I think there is a big gap of communication,” he said.
One of those the rabbi credited with keeping the community together is Oleksandr Feldman, a Ukrainian parliamentarian and businessman who serves as the president of the local community.
Sitting with the Post in his luxuriously appointed downtown office, Feldman said he has been happy with the Ukrainian government’s response to anti-Semitism and that he is optimistic for Ukraine’s Jewish future.
“There is strong domestic anti-Semitism, [but] the government is trying to fight it,” he said.
“Thank God we did not have any anti-Jewish events in Kharkov. This is partially because I managed to place security in the institutions where Jews are present,” he added.
According to Feldman, the “Jews are very numerous on both sides of this conflict,” but the official position of the Jewish community is to remain neutral and above the fray.
However, this neutrality does not translate into passivity, he asserted.
“We have asked Israel and we said that we would be ready to be taught… how to protect ourselves, how to organize our protection,” he said, reiterating a longstanding request that Israel involve itself on some level with defending the Jews of Ukraine.