Non-Jew in Ukraine 'addicted' to Jewish life

"The history of Jews in Odessa is our past, present and future," says 26-year-old Vladimir Chaplin.

non jew 88 (photo credit: )
non jew 88
(photo credit: )
Vladimir Chaplin's enthusiasm is contagious as he leads a visitor through the Museum of Jewish History in this southern Ukrainian port city. "The history of Jews in Odessa is our past, present and future, and our museum is proof of that," says the 26-year-old Chaplin, the museum's full-time researcher and guide. Founded four years ago with funding from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the museum displays artifacts from Odessa's 200-year-old Jewish history, from 18th-century gravestones to contemporary anti-Semitic leaflets. Pausing before a display of 19th-century Odessan Jewish life, Chaplin says, "Did you know that in 1820, Odessan Jews founded the first institution of higher education in the Russian Empire, where Jewish students could learn secular subjects such as European languages, accounting and economics?" Chaplin has studied the topic long enough to regale visitors with every facet of the city's colorful Jewish history. Which might not be surprising, except that Chaplin is not Jewish. His mother is Ukrainian and his father is Russian, and he can't explain what drew him to Jewish life and history more than 10 years ago. "It was interesting because it was something new, it was different from the family I grew up in," he muses of his attraction to things Jewish. "A stranger among my own people, and a friend among strangers - that's me." Chaplin's story illustrates the fascination many non-Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have for Judaism and Jewish history and culture, a fascination that has spawned everything from klezmer fests in Poland to non-Jews filling Jewish studies classes in Kiev and Potsdam. But his story also tests the limits of Jewish openness to non-Jews who want to join the community. In high school, Chaplin trained as a guide to Jewish Odessa. A history major in college, he wrote his thesis on early Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, an Odessa native. In 1997, Chaplin was one of the founding members of Hillel in Odessa. His friends say he quickly became one of the most popular youth movement leaders in the former Soviet Union, and took part in regional and national training seminars. "Every community has its stars, and in the community of Hillel in the former Soviet Union, Chaplin was definitely a star," says Kiev Hillel member Arseniy Finberg, who used to be active in Odessa's Hillel. "Everybody knew him." He wasn't the only non-Jew in Hillel, not by a long shot. Hillel around the world maintains an open-door policy toward any young person interested in its activities, and the former Soviet Union's high intermarriage rate dictates an even more relaxed approach, Hillel staff says. And in the absence of other comparable youth groups in the former Soviet Union today, Hillel is, members say, an attractive social option for young people with even the barest connection to the Jewish community. "The level of flexibility in the former Soviet Union is greater than it might be in Israel, or South America," says Jay Rubin, executive vice president of Hillel's International Division. Referring to Jewish law, he says, "We define 'Jewish' in the broadest possible strokes. We don't take a halachic approach." But Chaplin was the spiritual leader of his Hillel, leading weekly prayer services. And Hillel's openness to non-Jews has its limits - it is, after all, an organization whose primary purpose is to serve Jewish youth. Four years ago, Rabbi Yossie Goldman, founder and former director of Hillel activities in the former Soviet Union, met with Chaplin. Goldman, who is today director of Hillel's Israel activities, describes Chaplin as "affable and highly intelligent," but says Chaplin "considers himself a Christian" and was not interested in converting. As a result, Goldman recalls that he told Chaplin he was welcome at Hillel activities, but should not assume a leadership position, and the two men parted friends. But scandal erupted. On the eve of the 2001 Hillel Student Congress in Moscow, an editorial in the Jewish newspaper in Kishinev, Moldova, criticized the presence of non-Jews in Hillel. The article mentioned Chaplin by name, saying he was "taking the place of a Jewish boy or girl." By the time the Moscow conference took place, the Chaplin affair was well known, and Goldman felt he had to address it publicly. At a Shabbat speech before more than 300 Hillel students and staff, Goldman outlined Hillel's position on non-Jewish participation: Hillel is open to everyone, but it is a Jewish organization for Jewish students, and while non-Jews are welcome as "honored guests," only persons "with Jewish roots" should hold leadership positions or take part in leadership training seminars. The "V.C. case," as Goldman describes it in his unpublished memoirs, "is really not unique to the former Soviet Union, although it is perhaps more pronounced there because people are seeking spiritual connections and social opportunities," he says. "They are attracted to Hillel for various reasons, mostly social. It's a comfortable, safe place, and the programs are interesting." Finberg and other members of Odessa Hillel say virtually all the students at the Moscow Congress signed a petition calling for Chaplin's reinstatement. Goldman does not remember such a petition. "I can understand" Hillel's decision, admits Finberg today, saying American Jewish donors might not want their money to support non-Jews in Hillel. For Chaplin, the experience was a hard lesson, although he bears no grudge. "Now I know that non-Jews are welcome in a Jewish organization, and they will always be treated nicely as guests," he says. "But they will always remain guests, and that's something I should have known earlier. I never pretended to be Jewish, but as I was getting more and more involved with Jewish life in Odessa, nobody ever warned me I should watch my step, that there were limits." Other members of Odessa Hillel speak out more strongly. "I think to raise the question of non-Jewish participation in Hillel is inappropriate and tactless," says Anya Perchatkina, chair of Odessa Hillel. She says there are three current Hillel members with no Jewish connection, and these people are sometimes more active than the Jews. One is Olena Salagor, a regular at Hillel's weekly English club and founder of the group's poetry club. "I have not found a youth organization in Odessa similar to Hillel," says Salagor, 19. "I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Jews are so closely knit, because they endured such difficult times together." Salagor says she "agrees" that Hillel's primary purpose is to provide a service for young Jews. "But if a person comes in and says, 'I want to hang out with you, and I am ready to help you,' they should hold onto that person as hard as they can," she opines. Chaplin is still very involved in Jewish activities. He likes working at the Jewish museum, he says, because it's a place "where I can be more than a guest." The museum's director, Mikhail Rashkovetsky, says Chaplin is the only one of the museum's three employees who is not Jewish. "I just wish he published his work more," Rashkovetsky says. "He has great scientific potential." For his part, Chaplin is tired of looking for answers to his identity. Although most of his friends are Jewish, and all the girls he's dated are Jewish, he says that listening to Jews discuss their problems has strengthened his own identity as a Ukrainian. "Don't ask me why I do not research Ukrainian topics, or why I am interested in the Holocaust or in Odessa Jews, because I don't know," he says. "Even if I leave my work at the museum, I will still be concerned about the Jewish people. Everything that concerns them will touch me. I can't get away from it."