Breakaway sect from Judaism shrinking in numbers in Ukraine

A small enclave of Karaites in Ukraine is experiencing a dwindling population and an increasing assimilation rate.

david star 88 (photo credit: )
david star 88
(photo credit: )
Residents of this small Black Sea resort town like to call their city "the Jerusalem of the Crimea." They have good reason: Evpatoria, population 120,000, is home to about 800 Karaites, members of a sect that broke off from mainstream Judaism in eighth-century Iraq. Karaites accept the Torah and celebrate most Jewish holidays, but they reject the Talmud and rabbinical Judaism, and have clashed with mainstream Jewish leaders over the centuries. "Our religion doesn't recognize the Talmud or the New Testament, nor does it consider Jesus or Mohammed to be prophets," said Viktor Tiriyaki at a recent Shabbat morning service in Evpatoria's kenasa, or Karaite synagogue, where he is the acting cantor. Estimates of the worldwide Karaite population range from 24,000 to 50,000. The largest number live in Israel, where they have a separate Beit Din, or rabbinical court, and are not allowed to marry Jews. About 2,000 live in the United States, and smaller but tightly-knit groups persist in Lithuania, Poland, Russia and the Crimea. Cultural differences among Karaites have developed over the years, most notably between those communities, such as the Israeli and American ones, that identify as Jews, and those, like the Crimean Karaites, that emphasize their Turkish ethnic roots. "We believe in Torah but our day-to-day traditions are closer to those of the Tatars, who are Muslims," said Oleg Magarshak, a community elder, as he sipped a glass of homemade wine while his wife, Irina, served a warm plum pie. That ethnicity was on display in early September in Evpatoria, where Crimean Karaites celebrated the 200th anniversary of the kenasa. Karaites arrived in the Crimea in the 13th century. They made up a noticeable part of the population through the Middle Ages, living side by side with Muslims, Christians and Krymchaks, an indigenous Jewish group that does accept rabbinical authority. In czarist Russia and later in the Soviet Union, Crimean Karaites played down their connection to Judaism, describing themselves as a Turkic people and emphasizing the customs they shared with their neighbors, the Crimean Tatars. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Crimean Karaite leadership fled to Turkey, and others left for France, Poland and elsewhere. Like the Tatars — and the Jews — the Crimean Karaites suffered discrimination under the Soviet regime and abandoned much of their ritual practice. During World War II, the Nazis generally left the Karaites alone, considering them non-Jews according to Germany's racial laws. Although some Karaites were murdered by the Nazis, often accidentally, others actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, which exacerbated their already rocky relationship with the local Jewish population. That ambivalence continues today. Anatoly Gendin, head of the Jewish community in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, said he considered the Karaites to be a Jewish group. At least, he said, he would not deny them the humanitarian aid his organization distributes among needy Jews. Other Jews in Crimea disagree, pointing to the wartime collaboration charges. Crimean Karaite culture and tradition today exhibit both Jewish and Muslim features. Vladimir Ormeli, head of the All-Ukrainian Association of Crimean Karaites, explained that centuries of living side-by-side with Tatars has led to similarities in cuisine, music and national dress. In a pinch, they even shared religious leaders. "When the Karaites didn't have a cantor, circumcision could be performed by a mullah," or Muslim religious leader, Ormeli said. The kenasa forms a long rectangle, divided into three parts like the Temple in Jerusalem, and contains a Torah scroll housed in an "aron hakodesh." On the other hand, like Muslims, Karaites take off their shoes before entering the prayer hall, and the floor is covered with Persian carpets. Karaites don't pray with tefillin, don't put mezzuzahs on their doorposts, don't celebrate the post-Temple holiday of Chanukah, and do eat meat with milk. They celebrate the major Jewish holidays, but according to their own calendar, and they give the holidays Turkish names. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Karaite leaders have tried to revive their traditions and formulate a coherent group identity. Like post-Soviet Jews, most Crimean Karaites today don't know their language, and have little background in their religion and culture. None of those interviewed for this article could speak Karaite. Those who occasionally go to the kenasa said they pray mainly in Russian. Karaite leaders here say that prospects for their communal survival is bleak. Living between two worlds — Jewish and Turkic-Tatar — may have compromised their chances. Only 15 Karaites were born in the last 15 years to Crimean Karaite families, and only one traditional marriage has taken place in Evpatoria in six years, said David El, chairman of the Religious Board of Crimean Karaites and chief Karaite religious authority in Ukraine. Sergey Sinani, chairman of Kardailor, the national and cultural Karaite society in Ukraine, said that there were 11 Karaite kenasas in Crimea at the beginning of the 20th century, but just one is open today, in Evpatoria. A second is still under renovation. The Ukrainian government has contributed $240,000 toward renovation of these synagogues. Local leaders decry the lack of Karaite schools, where the community could pass on its heritage to the next generation. Intermarriage and emigration are also significant factors in the community's decline. "My uncle is married to a Jewish woman, my wife is Armenian and my daughter-in-law is a Russian," said Ormeli. And Irina Magarshak admitted that both her daughters live in Moscow with their non-Jewish husbands. When the ban on emigration ended 15 years ago, Karaites joined Ukrainian Jews in leaving for Israel. Much of that emigration was economically motivated, but Karaism does recognize the centrality of Israel as the community's holy land. "Only a few old men here are religiously observant," said Feodor Efet, a descendent of a famous Karaite family, who doesn't go to kenasa. A recent Saturday morning service in the community's sole remaining kenasa drew just 13 elderly men.