Odessa’s Jews are prepared to evacuate should the violence in the western Ukrainian city get significantly worse, several community leaders told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
Odessa’s Jewish community numbers some 30,000, down from nearly 40 percent of the city’s population before the Holocaust.
Running street battles between pro-Russian and nationalist forces claimed dozens of lives in the Black Sea port this weekend, culminating in the burning of dozens of pro-Russian protesters in the city’s trade union building on Friday evening.
The Odessa bloodshed came on the same day that Kiev launched its biggest push yet to reassert its control over separatist areas in the east, hundreds of kilometers away, where armed pro-Russian rebels have proclaimed a “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
While Jewish community leaders are unanimous in asserting that the violence is unconnected to the Jewish community and that they do not feel specially targeted, they agreed that, should the situation deteriorate, it would be easy for the spillover to affect their constituents.
According to Rabbi Refael Kruskal – the head of the Tikva organization, which runs a network of orphanages and schools and provides social services to the city’s elderly – several of the wounded from Friday’s clashes were Jews, and the community is taking all necessary precautions.
“Over the weekend we closed the [Great Choral] Synagogue,” Kruskal said. “We took all the students out of the center of the city where the violence was, because we were worried it was going to spread. We sent a text message to everybody in the community on WhatsApp that they should stay at home over the weekend.”
While the synagogue, which is located close to the site of Friday’s clashes, was reopened Sunday morning, Kruskal said he planned on closing it again later in the day.
The Jewish community, he added, is hunkering down and trying to ride out the storm.
“When there is shooting in the streets, the first plan is to take [the children] out of the center of the city,” Kruskal said. “If it gets worse, then we’ll take them out of the city. We have plans to take them both out of the city and even to a different country if necessary, plans which we prefer not to talk about which we have in place.”
Fearful of further “provocations” on Friday, which marks the anniversary of Soviet Russia’s victory over Germany in the Second World War, Kruskal said that he was considering renting a holiday camp to house 600 Jews away from the fighting he expects next week.
“The next weekend is going to be very violent,” he said.
While other communal leaders are more sanguine, all have evacuation plans in place.
Communal activities are continuing normally, Kira Verkhovsky, head of the Migdal International Center of Jewish Community Programs, told the Post.
No programming has been stopped as a result of the violence, she said, stating that she intends to continue serving the more than 1,000 families affiliated with her organization.
However, “If the situation will be worse, we are planning to move,” she added.
The Chabad hassidic community also has plans for evacuation ready, local emissary Rabbi Avraham Wolf said.
While the situation has not deteriorated to the point where an evacuation is necessary, he said, “we have a number of plans.”
Chabad institutions remained open over the weekend but with extra security measures, such as armed guards.
“We are in touch with authorities and with security services, and we do a situation check every half hour,” he said.
The Jewish community, together with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has prepared a fleet of 70 buses, fueled and ready to go, “if, God forbid, we have to evacuate” the community’s children and any adults who want to leave, he said.
During Friday’s clashes, 20 buses were parked outside of Chabad’s school, but went unused.
There are a number of evacuation plans, ranging from relocating within the city to sending community members to Kishinev, two-and-a-half hours away in neighboring Moldova.
“We are doing everything to strengthen the Jewish community in its normal life. We are responsible for [the children of the community] and we will do everything not to leave and not to evacuate and give them the best life possible,” he said. “We really hope [that] it doesn’t get to that and that all will be okay.”
“Obviously, Jews in Odessa need security,” Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee in Kiev, told the Post.
Blaming Russia for the unrest, he added that violent clashes “may happen also in Kiev” come Victory Day.