Update on the Jewish Community in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine

By Rabbi James Morgan

Published March 13, 2014, issue of March 13, 2014.

At the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), we have watched the unfolding events in Ukraine and Russia with significant trepidation, concerned for our partners in Dnepropetrovsk and for the future of Ukraine itself after its remarkable shift in direction back towards democracy from tyranny. The world’s concerns are justified: Russian forces are still occupying Crimea; “tourists” from Russia are fomenting civil strife in Eastern Ukraine in hopes of provoking a violent response from Ukrainian security forces; the Russian media is relentlessly pursuing a propaganda campaign featuring purported threats to Russian speakers and Jews in Ukraine, denunciations of the “fascist coup” that brought about the downfall of the corrupt former president, and accusations of Western meddling. The Ukrainian economy is in free fall, with the devaluation of the grivna and no money to pay $1 billion in government pensions.

If, however, in the face of these challenges and in the wake of the ethnic and linguistic tensions that accompanied and followed the Maidan protests, Vladimir Putin was hoping to jumpstart a separatist movement and potential civil war that would allow him to intervene more fully in Ukraine, those hopes, at this point at least, have proven unfounded. The Ukrainian government has denounced the occupation of Crimea as a declaration of war and has mobilized its reserves, but has wisely refrained from any violence that would result in a shooting war they would inevitably lose and would only serve as a pretext for further military incursions. Despite arguments within Ukraine, among Ukrainians, about the orientation of the country towards Russia or towards Europe, there is general consensus that after more than 20 years of independence, very few people (and primarily those holding Russian passports) have any interest in becoming part of Russia. As Zelig Brez, the Chief Operating Officer of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community and, along with Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, our primary partner in Ukraine, pointed out in a conversation in early March, the Russian intervention in Crimea has only solidified Ukraine’s unity.

Zelig described the tension and fear that gripped the nation over the past few weeks, as it became clear that the former government was no longer in control — the vacuum of leadership threatened chaos and violence. The tension relaxed when Yanukovich fled and Parliament established new leaders, but rose again upon news of Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Throughout all of this, the Jewish community in Dnepropetrovsk has not felt threatened or targeted — indeed during the worst of the violence in Kiev, the local police sent an extra security detail to the Golden Rose synagogue. Indeed, as NCSJ in Washington has affirmed, Jews in Ukraine in general have not been targeted. The threats of increased anti Semitism and violence against Jews have proven to be, like the threats against Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine, a canard pushed by Russia and pro-Yanukovich voices to justify their rejection of the protest movement. Zelig affirmed this reality, citing statements from the most extreme right-wing elements of the protest movement rejecting anti-Semitism and xenophobia and praising the participation of Jews in the Maidan events, and also in the New York Times.

The Jewish community in Ukraine is further heartened by the appointment of prominent Jews, including Igor Kolomoisky, who is among the largest supporters of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community, and Vladimir Nemirovsky, who is the president of the Jewish community in nearby Krivoi Rog, to important positions in the new government. Zelig spoke proudly of Kolomoisky’s leadership in preventing a separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine in the days before Yanukovich’s flight to Russia and of his outspoken criticisms of Putin in the press.

Needless to say, the situation in Ukraine remains extremely unstable and, as always, the Jewish community must be vigilant in the face of uncertainty and efforts by some, as Zelig put it, to make people hate each other and to start violent conflict. He spoke in moving terms about Ukraine’s diverse populations uniting in the face of a common threat to their sovereignty and self-determination.

Zelig’s profound emotions about the fate of his country and his pride in his Ukrainian and Jewish identity are just examples of the powerful experiences we in the Boston Jewish community are privileged to share with our partners in Dnepropetrovsk. For more than 20 years, the Dnepropetrovsk Kehillah Project of JCRC and CJP has accompanied the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community (DJC) on its journey back from virtual non-existence. From a single, decrepit synagogue, the DJC has become, through generous local donations and the reclaiming of Jewish property appropriated by the Soviet government, a large-scale charitable organization. The number of Jews connected to the community holds steady because even as thousands emigrated to Israel and the U.S., more and more Jews are reclaiming their identity and reengaging with Jewish life. Thanks in part to the support and expertise of Jews from Boston, the DJC built strong relationships with the local authorities, especially in medicine, education and government, so Jewish life in Dnepropetrovsk is more secure than in many places in Western Europe.

And as Boston has witnessed — and participated in — the miracle of Jewish life resurgent in Dnepropetrovsk, Boston Jews have also experienced their own miracles: their connection to Judaism and the Jewish people grows as they celebrate Shabbat at Rabbi Kaminezki’s table, as they clear an ancient Jewish cemetery with their Ukrainian counterparts, as they interact with children with special needs who without Boston’s advocacy would have nowhere to go to school, and as they feel the pride and power of Jewish life for a population and in a place in which Judaism had seemed to have disappeared. Most of all, we know that we stand with our partners in their time of crisis: our recent Havayah Fellowship for Global Jewish Leaders were with their Ukrainian and Israeli partners during these historic events — as Zelig put it, “They came to one country, but left a different country.” And regardless of the changes in Ukraine, we will continue to stand with them.

Despite the crisis and uncertainty, our partners in Boston and Dnepropetrovsk continue to move ahead with their initiatives. As the economic situation makes it difficult for us to make micro-credit loans, Jewish Vocational Services is consulting with the community as they work to build a workforce development training program. Our Educational Resource Center for Special Needs Children and their Families, in partnership with Jewish Family and Children’s Services, is pursuing a partnership with a local education university to train special education teachers. The Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters program continues to grow in both numbers and inclusiveness, adding several “littles” with Down syndrome and other special needs. Our partners would reject the notion that they are heroes, but their optimism and resilience is truly inspiring, as is the joy they take in being Jewish.

In practical terms, Boston’s support takes the form not only of our ongoing collaborative programs but also, in a larger context, significant funding for the JDC and JAFI as they continue to meet the needs of elderly and impoverished Jews throughout the FSU. In this time of urgent need, Boston has joined the Jewish Federations of North America to mount a special campaign to ensure that the JDC has the resources necessary to care for the most vulnerable as food prices rise and the government is increasingly unable to pay its pension obligations.

Locally, JCRC is planning an evening of solidarity for our Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community. Tentatively slated for late April, the event will feature updates on JCRC’s, CJP’s, and JDC’s work in Ukraine, as well as a keynote address on the situation in Ukraine and the region. Along with Jewish organizations around the country and around the world, such as the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, CJP is mobilizing support and relief for Ukraine’s Jewish community along with its partner organization, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC). Funds will be distributed through the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which is coordinating national relief efforts.

Of the $100,000 CJP has committed, $23,000 will go to CJP’s sister city in Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk. In recent years, Dnepropetrovsk has experienced a resurgence of Jewish life, helped in large part by support and expertise from CJP, JCRC and the support and efforts of Boston’s Jewish community.

Please look for more information in the near future and come to learn more about how we can build on our support for the Jews of Dnepropetrovsk as we deepen our own Jewish identities.

Rabbi James Morgan is JCRC’s Director of Israel and International Partnerships. He can be reached at jmorgan@jcrcboston.org.

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