Jewish Journal

Reaching out to Ukrainian friends during crisis

by Jared Sichel

Posted on Mar. 5, 2014 at 11:08 am

A rally in Independence Square in Kiev on Feb. 21. Photo by Olga Yakimovich/Reuters

A rally in Independence Square in Kiev on Feb. 21. Photo by Olga Yakimovich/Reuters

Two years ago, on a visit to Kiev, following a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of spending a weekend with an amazing Jewish family in the center of what I otherwise remember as a somewhat dark, depressing city.

Although they are foreign-born, they are major supporters of Kiev’s Jewish community, regularly hosting grand Shabbat meals in their wonderful apartment, which is housed in an otherwise nondescript, Soviet-style building in the heart of the city.

In recent weeks, as Kiev went up in flames following the violent crackdown of the now-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, I often wondered how my Kiev hosts were doing. On March 3, as fears built of a Russian invasion of the country’s mainland, I connected via Skype with the father of the family at around 9:30 p.m. Kiev time.

Out of concern for his family’s safety in what he called a “volatile and unpredictable” security atmosphere, my friend asked that I not use his name.

The family’s apartment is only a few hundred meters from Independence Square, the epicenter of the protests that brought to power the current interim government, led by interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

[Related: My Russian adventure]

“It’s definitely better for Ukraine,” my friend told me. “The interim government has a good chance to be much less corrupt than his [Yanukovych’s]. There’s no question about that.”

In late November, when the protests were just beginning, with demonstrators pushing for integration with the European Union, the Jewish community conducted a massive menorah lighting on the fifth night of Chanukah at a downtown hotel, adjacent to protests.

“We had over 150 people who still came to the lighting, regardless of what was going on, to show support for freedom and light over darkness,” he said.

In recent days, he said, the situation on the streets has improved to the point where he feels comfortable going outside and sending his children to school, albeit with a beefed up security detail.

Asked whether reports of increased anti-Semitism are accurate, my host, an observant Jew, said most of the reports are “provocative propaganda,” and that he suspects that some of the handful of anti-Semitic acts have been staged to make the anti-Yanukovych protesters look dangerous.

“Do the Jews feel more unsafe than the Ukrainians? No,” he said. “Most likely, it was just people trying to make the demonstrators look bad.”

He added: “If Ukraine is provoked further, it [the Russian conflict ] will escalate and possibly spiral out of control.”

Even when I stayed with the family in 2012, they wore hats in public to cover their kippot and long coats to cover their tzitzit. At least one security guard accompanied us through the streets of Kiev to synagogue on Shabbat.

[How you can help the Jews of Ukraine
(The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles)

“It’s not advisable at the best of times to provoke anti-Semitism, and in times like this even more so,” my friend told me. 

Although he said leaving Ukraine is always in the back of his and his family’s mind, he fears that any mass Jewish exodus would leave the Jews who remain in an unsafe situation.

“People would worry a lot more, so I think it’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation,” he said. He added that the family will “continue to host people over Shabbat and continue the communal activities and classes that we have going on to try and keep as normal a life as possible.”

Although Kiev has quieted down following Yanukovych’s ouster, on March 2 tens of thousands of protesters filled Independence Square to protest Russia’s invasion of Crimea. That invasion, my host said, has refocused Ukraine’s pro-Western population on preparing for their biggest fear — a Russian invasion of the mainland.

“The focus is protecting the motherland,” he said, adding that if Russia is “bold enough to do what it’s doing in the Crimea, it’s bold enough to go into the mainland.”

He also said he hopes the West will not offer Ukraine only empty words of support.

“Stand up to Russia and show [your] teeth,” he pleaded. “Just giving empty threats that [you] will not follow [through] with is not going to help the Ukrainian people.”

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