For New York’s Ukrainian Jews, a time of waiting and worry

While Ukrainian Jews in NY worry about their relatives in Ukraine, fears are also on the rise for the Jewish community in Ukraine with Russia's potential impending invasion into Ukrainian territory.

 SHIMINOV’S BROTHER Oleksey Yisroel Poterlevych in Ukraine with one of the country’s chief rabbis,Moshe Reuven Azman.  (photo credit: AVITAL SHIMINOV)
SHIMINOV’S BROTHER Oleksey Yisroel Poterlevych in Ukraine with one of the country’s chief rabbis,Moshe Reuven Azman.
(photo credit: AVITAL SHIMINOV)

NEW YORK – Out of an estimated 400,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the New York Metro area, 36% hail from Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe after Russia.

While the world is on edge over a potentially impending invasion into Ukrainian territory by Russia, there is special cause for concern for many Jews who have families in Russian-annexed Crimea, most notably those living in the Donbas region who could be caught in a crossfire if war breaks out.

Avital Shiminov was born and raised in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where she attended a Jewish school. She came to New York at age 17, when she was selected by her rabbi to study at a prestigious seminary. Shiminov, 29, met her husband, also Ukrainian, while in the US, and the couple, who now have a six-year-old son and six-month-old daughter, decided to remain in New York, where Shiminov is employed by the city as an industrial psychologist.

Her entire extended family still resides in Ukraine. “The situation with Russia is obviously a concern,” said Shiminov. “I would like to bring my mom here, but America’s embassy is closed because of what’s going on and she can’t get a visa. I keep thinking what will they do if Russia does attack.”

However, she noted that those thoughts are purely hypothetical, at least for now. “Nothing has impacted them directly, yet,” Shiminov said. “I speak to them daily and they don’t feel too afraid. They don’t really think Russia will invade. They think it’s more of a political game between the US and Russia, not even Ukraine. Plus, if there is an invasion, it’s not like they’re going to invade Kyiv, the capital, right away. Maybe people living on the border are more concerned, but at the same time, they are making plans of what they will do. They’re making a Plan B.”

VITAL SHIMINOV with her husband and son in New York. (credit: AVITAL SHIMINOV)VITAL SHIMINOV with her husband and son in New York. (credit: AVITAL SHIMINOV)

Shiminov said her family’s Plan B could involve fleeing to Israel. “But they are also aware that, worst case, the airports could shut down. I think then they’d pack up a car and just drive, maybe to Poland, then a flight to Israel. They’re thinking of all the different escape routes, just in case, especially since my brothers have little kids. It’s good to plan ahead.”

Jewish organizations estimate that 75,000 Ukrainians residing in the eastern part of the country, many of them elderly, are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which allows immigration to those who have one Jewish grandparent.

Shiminov, who has relatives that were murdered in Babi Yar, said her years spent in Ukraine’s Jewish community felt relatively free and safe.

“I got a Jewish education,” she said. “I was never beaten up or anything like that. But growing up, my brothers didn’t openly wear a kippah – it could get you in trouble, not so much with law enforcement just with other people. But even though we didn’t really openly display being Jewish, everyone knew where the Jews lived, it was a huge apartment complex.”

She recalled the culture shock when arriving in New York of seeing so many Jews openly displaying their religion. “It was so exciting to see stores with only kosher food – I got to America and gained 10 pounds,” Shiminov said with a laugh.

She said that while she loves Ukraine, “my husband and I never speak about returning. It’s never out of the question, but I think in terms of Jewish life, yeshivas for our kids, there’s just more here.”

Alona Chovnyk, 29, a former classmate of Shiminov’s in New York who was also raised in Kyiv, echoed the belief that while the situation does not feel urgent, there is a concern. The conflict feels personal for Chovnyk’s family, as her husband was born in Moscow.

“As a Ukrainian living in New York, it doesn’t affect me at the moment,” said Chovnyk. “But I still have family in Ukraine, and it makes me a little worried about how things will turn out in the future.”

Closer to the site of conflict, Shmuel Kaminetsky, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis, said that he is not expecting an imminent invasion, but anxiety in the Jewish community he leads in the Dnipro region is growing.

“We can relax, at least for the next month or two,” said Kaminetsky, who helped the Dnipro community – 100 miles from the war zone with Russia – build the largest Jewish community center in Europe. “But I can tell you that psychologists here are in high demand right now. With soldiers by the border, fears are on the rise, especially among our elderly citizens who remember World War II and the communist regime. They are very scared, but we’re calming them down. The community is taking care of each other.”

Kaminetsky, who has advised Ukraine’s Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky (according to Kaminetsky, while the latter is not observant, he is a proud Jew), said his message to fellow Jews in Israel and the Diaspora is “Come and visit Ukraine, it’s a very interesting country, especially in such times. Don’t be afraid. Millions of Jews around the world have roots in Ukraine. Thank you to the Jewish community for supporting Ukraine at this time.”

Shiminov said “this is Jewish history repeating itself. The majority of people there are talking about what-if plans. We’re always ready to pick up and go because we don’t want to end up on that last wagon.”