Ukrainian Jews adjusting to life in uncertain times

Interim leader promises to protect Jews; communities avoid congregating, hire expensive security.

Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Dov Bleich speaks with interim President Oleksander Turchinov on Tuesday. (photo credit: CONFERENCE OF EUROPEAN RABBIS)
Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Dov Bleich speaks with interim President Oleksander Turchinov on Tuesday.
The turmoil in Ukraine has left one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities on edge.
President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted over the weekend, following months of mass protests in the capital Kiev that left dozens dead, including at least one Jew, at the hands of the police.
While the protesters seemed less concerned with the Jewish community than with their own political, economic and social causes, several anti-Semitic incidents have rattled the community.
A firebomb was hurled into a Chabad-run community center and synagogue in the southeastern town of Zaporozhye on Monday, causing minor damage. Scattered Swastikas have been sighted spray-painted on walls in Kiev. In January, Dov Ber Glickman, a yeshiva student, was stabbed in Kiev, a week after Hillel Wertheimer, an Israeli-born Hebrew teacher, was beaten on his way home from synagogue.
On Tuesday, Parliamentary Speaker and interim President Oleksander Turchinov told Rabbi Dov Bleich, a Ukrainian chief rabbi and president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, that the government would “make every effort to guard the Jewish community.”
Estimates of the size of this community vary widely.
Some commonly cited statistics suggest the country has only 70,000 Jews, while the European Jewish Congress and the Joint Distribution Community says there are as many as 400,000.
Jewish religious officials have expressed concern that law enforcement’s preoccupation with the political turmoil and rioting would leave Jewish institutions exposed to violent forms of anti-Semitism.
“Our synagogue is surrounded by a barrier, the doors are all automatic, and we have round-the-clock security staff,” Chabad’s Rabbi Nachum Ehrentrau said. “In these uncertain times, we are, of course, even more cautious, doing all we can to ensure the safety of the community center and its visitors.”
Prior to the bombing, Bleich told The Jerusalem Post that “there is obviously a tremendous fear, and security has been tightened and strengthened at all Jewish buildings in Kiev.
“I may mention that the cost of the security is tremendous,” he said. “Our community in Podol neighborhood of Kiev, 1.5 to 2 km. from the Maidan [site of the main protest camp] has been paying $1,000 per day for security firms protecting the synagogue complex and the school buildings. I know that the Chabad community is paying similar amounts. The Chabad synagogue is closer to the Maidan. The worsening situation is affecting all of Ukraine, and quite obviously the Jews as well.”
Bleich said last week that his confederation, which runs the Orach Chaim day school in Kiev and several other institutions, had hired two private firms for security, one of which also protects the Israeli embassy in Kiev.
“Nobody goes alone at night,” he said, “so we have three people doing escorts from the synagogue and back” in addition to the nine-man team protecting the synagogue complex.
The guards have chased off a few trespassers but encountered no serious threats in Kiev. But the cost – 10 times what the community used to pay for security before the violence erupted — means the community cannot afford this level of security for much longer.
“We already paid the bill for January, and now we have to pay the bill for February, and it’s a big one,” Bleich said on Friday.
His community has launched an online campaign on religious websites in the United States aimed at collecting additional funds. The Lauder Foundation is providing payment for security in three community-run schools.
Many Jewish institutions have simply gone into hibernation, suspending activity during the turmoil.
“Most communities don’t do any activity that involves congregating,” said Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. In January, his organization canceled its annual January 27 Holocaust remembrance ceremony.
“For a few weeks it’s still OK,” he said, “but if this continues, then it will start to undo the fabric of the community and we will see damage to Jewish life, which has really progressed in this country.”
Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev, who is another claimant to the title of chief rabbi of Ukraine, advised Jews in media interviews to keep a low profile until the situation calms down.
Hillel Cohen, who is responsible for the Hatzolah Jewish first aid service in Kiev, did not heed Azman’s advice.
On Friday, he and other volunteers were driving in the Hatzolah ambulance in an attempt to help Jews in need of medical attention.
But he conceded that driving last week amid the burning barricades of Kiev was at times a blood-chilling experience.
“Things began getting really uneasy when the rioters started setting up spontaneous roadblocks to keep police and army troops from reaching the action zone,” he said. “It was very uneasy, being pulled over in a car full of Orthodox Jews by club-wielding Cossacks.”
Some locals indicated that they felt threatened not so much because they were Jewish as because they were living through an uncertain period in Ukrainian history.
“The overall situation in relation to the Jewish community in Ukraine is tolerant and peaceful,” said Vadim Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, in a statement issued Monday. “There have been no mass outbursts or exacerbation of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”
Rabinovich vowed that the Jewish community would participate “in building a democratic state and promoting the revival and prosperity of the country.”
Mark Levin, chairman of the NCSJ, an American organization that advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union, expressed concern that with elections slated for May 25, a future government could result in ultranationalists gaining power in Ukraine. Svoboda, a rightwing nationalist party, was prominent in the protest movement, and party officials have expressed virulently anti-Semitic sentiments.
While the prominence of ultranationalists within the opposition protests has caused concern, Jews also have been active participants in rallies held in Maidan. Tablet Magazine spoke to a source who noted that a rabbi offered a prayer for peace at the demonstration and that a klezmer band performed Yiddish songs in the square.
Bleich, who is visiting the United States, was asked in a radio interview on Sunday night about concerns over anti-Semitism within the ranks of the protesters.
“The majority of the protesters are grassroots, regular, everyday old people from Ukraine that were fed up with living in a corrupt society, and they came out to protest against it and to try and make change, and they were successful in making change,” he said. “There’s no question about that. That’s the majority. They’re not anti-Semites, they’re not right-wing, nationalist, neo-fascists or Nazis, the way the Russians have been trying to paint them.”
But Bleich cautioned that there is a minority element within the opposition that is anti-Semitic, citing Svoboda.
“The Jewish community has to stay vigilant and see what’s going to be,” he said. “What’s going to happen with this new government?” Levin echoed his assessment. “It’s still a very fluid situation,” he said. “The big concern, I think, is ensuring that there’s adequate security for Jewish institutions throughout the country, but particularly in the large cities. And I think that’s where much of the focus within the American Jewish community and Israel lies – that and making sure the flow of services continues.”
The American Joint Distribution Committee, which runs charities serving the poor and elderly among Ukraine’s Jews, stated that it had tightened security at its facilities in response to the bombing.
A spokesman for the Joint stated that his organization “provides life-saving assistance to tens of thousands of needy Jewish elderly and children in Kiev and other cities and towns throughout the country” and is continuing its work despite the current crisis.
The Jewish Agency for Israel has also promised to provide emergency aid “to ensure the safety and security of the community.”
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews announced on Wednesday that it would be sending one million dollars in emergency funds “for security and humanitarian assistance to the needy” in the Jewish community.
IFCJ head Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein said that the “situation on the ground is critical. Tens of thousands need aid for food, heating, pharmaceuticals and medical treatments.”