DONETSK – Driving through the streets of separatist-controlled Donetsk, my guide points out numerous barricades, manned by rebels armed with everything from modern Kalashnikovs to old shotguns. As I snap pictures at one checkpoint, a young separatist yells at me but our car quickly speeds by and we avoid a confrontation.
I am in the heart of the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, encompassing a large swath of Ukraine’s industrial east, to report on the condition of the city’s roughly 11,000 Jews.
The Jewish community of Ukraine is understandably nervous. Since the deposition of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly asserted his right to intervene in his western neighbor’s affairs in order to protect Russian- speakers, as well as Jews and other ethnic minorities.
Many Jews are afraid of being placed into the middle of a conflict in which both sides have used accusations of anti-Semitism to discredit the other.
While Jewish leaders in Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa and Donetsk have all said the conflict on the ground is completely unconnected to the Jews, and that there has been, for the most part, no concomitant rise in anti-Semitism to match the current national divide, they said their communities are still subject to the same dangers as other Ukrainian citizens.
Some, like Yaakov Virin, a bearded hassidic man and the editor of Donetsk’s Jewish newspaper, are wary due to the fear that eventually patriotism and nationalism may turn into anti-Jewish incitement.
“It’s a tradition that the Jews are always guilty for all of our problems,” he said.
Many of Donetsk’s malls and shopping centers are closed, and despite seeing businesses open and people walking in the streets, the city is certainly nowhere near as vibrant as one would expect from such a large population center.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post at his office in the city’s synagogue, only 25 km. from the airport, where running gun battles left dozens dead on Wednesday, Israeli-born Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski said the Jewish community is still functioning, although it is facing economic hardships due to the instability.
Some 60 men come to three different prayer services every morning despite the violence, and Torah classes are still being held in the evenings.
The synagogue and the nearby Jewish community center have been getting smaller crowds at night due to issues with public transportation during those hours, but Jewish life has not stopped.
At the community center, the director of cultural programs, Olga Pypenko said hundreds of people are still coming to take part in classes and activities, and between 25 and 30 families with small children are expected to take part in a communal Shabbat this week.
“No fewer people are coming since the violence started,” she said.
The local school has been closed for the past several days but it reopened on Thursday, although only 30 out of a total of 150 pupils attended, Vishedski said.
He sent his own daughter to class but may have kept her at home if he did not want to set an example to his congregants, he added.
All of the communal institutions here are protected by guards wearing camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests. They are not armed.
Jews here, like all Ukrainians, are divided in their political leanings, but so far none have joined the separatists, locals said.
The Jewish community, leaders stressed, is completely non-political and only seeks to maintain its members’ safety and security and to provide necessary services.
“There is fear among those in the city, and the Jews are part of the [broader] community,” Vishedski said. “The Jewish community isn’t the story.”
Pypenko agreed, telling the Post she doesn’t “feel any anti-Semitism or danger to my life as a member of the [Jewish] community.”
According to the rabbi, life in Donetsk has always been idyllic and the shock of the budding civil war has turned a city that was an Eden for Jews into an anarchic nightmare.
Many in the community are in despair, he said, adding that he is praying for a miracle.
Like many other Ukrainian communal leaders, Vishedski feels like the broader Jewish community has not stepped up to the challenge of helping to maintain the young post-communist Jewish communities of his country through this dangerous time.
Citing organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews as exceptions to this complaint, he said he has not been contacted by Jewish groups looking to help, or even inquiring as to his congregants’ well-being.
There are 500 Jewish families here who receive food aid, and it is likely this number will rise as the city continues to suffer from armed conflict.
While there is no mass exodus, locals are worried about the closing of the airport and are unsure of what the future holds. Vishedski said a leaked plan for the evacuation of Ukraine Jewry to Israel, as reported in the Ukrainian and Israeli press, was harmful and caused damage to the community.
“We have to hope for all sides to show common sense,” one community member said.