HASSIDIC SOLDIER Asher Joseph Cherkassky stands near a tank in eastern Ukraine..
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Aside from his long gray beard, the soldier pictured in front of a tank, holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle and wearing heavy camouflage body armor appears indistinguishable from any of his compatriots.
This soldier, however, is unlike any other currently serving in the Ukrainian military.
Many such photos of Asher Joseph Cherkassky are circulating among Ukrainians on social media, who are surprised to see a hassidic Jew taking part in combat operations in their country’s rebel-held industrial east.
Cherkassky has made a series of appearances with Boris Filatov, the deputy regional governor of Dnepropetrovsk – a key region in the fight against Moscow-backed rebels in the nearby Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Photographed repeatedly with the politician, the infantryman has become something of a minor celebrity; he has been nicknamed a “Ukrainian Fidel Castro” due to his looks.
In a post on Facebook last month, Filitov called the Dnepropetrovsk native a “hero and a symbol of the resistance.”
A member of the Dnirpro battalion – which is funded by Dnepropetrovsk’s Jewish regional governor, billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky – Cherkassky isn’t the only Jew to serve in his country’s armed forces. However, to the best of his knowledge, he is the only Orthodox one.
Another Jewish soldier from the battalion was killed earlier this year, Kolomoisky told The Wall Street Journal in June.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by phone from Ukraine on Wednesday, Cherkassky said he had served in the Soviet army during the late 1990s and that when war had broken out, he had volunteered to serve out of a feeling that it was his “civic obligation.”
“I felt obligated to serve in the army to defend the country and the citizens of Ukraine,” he explained. “If you live in this country, you must serve this country.”
“Everybody has a lot of respect for him,” said Cherkassky’s friend Itzik, who translated for him. “The non-Jews also respect him. They admire the fact that a Jew [contributes] like the rest of the people.”
The Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk, in which Kolomoisky is a central figure, has been vocal in its support of the war effort, collecting donations for wounded soldiers in its schools and taking a nationalist public line.
The image of an Orthodox Jewish volunteer is striking given that many Jews still recall the massive efforts the community made to avoid military service during the Czarist period, when small children were impressed into service and shorn of their religious identities.
Cherkassky said he did not feel any anti-Semitism in the army, stating that the Russians were more anti-Semitic than Ukrainians.
While Ukrainian Jews have generally played down anti-Semitism in their country, there have been reports that members of the Ukrainian Azov volunteer battalion and several rebel militias have deep ties to neo-Nazi groups.
Ukrainian Jews such as Luhansk Rabbi Shalom Gopin, however, believe that anti-Semitism has declined as people on both sides struggle to survive.
Since the Jewish community constitutes only a small fraction of Ukraine’s population and skews toward the elderly, not many Jews have served in the war, according to Cyril Danilchenko of the Vaad of Ukraine, who himself served in the army’s draft office during the war.
Cherkassky was wounded in the fierce fighting around the Donetsk airport, the only part of the city still in government hands, when a shell exploded above him and damaged his hearing. He subsequently took part in the retreat from Ilovaisk.
He observes Judaism as best he can at the front, he said, but ended up fighting on Rosh Hashana and on many Shabbats.
“It’s impossible to explain to the enemy that I cannot fight on Shabbat,” he said.