By Dovid Margolin – Chabad.org
In the week since the collapse of President Viktor Yanukovych‘s pro-Russian government in Ukraine and the incursion of Russian troops in Crimea, Jewish community leaders throughout the vast country describe an air of increasingly worried uncertainty about the possibility of war. While some fear resurgent anti-Semitism, all are subject to the financial crisis taking place throughout the nation.
“Last week people were worried because of the uncertainty of what each day might bring,” says Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky, a California native who with his wife, Rochie, has directed Chabad-Lubavitch of Sumy, near the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine, since 2004. “Now people are worried that there might be a full-fledged war here. We don’t know what will happen next.”
As the situation deteriorates, Jewish leaders there say the main difficulty they face is the economic crisis that has come as a result.
“Our community and Jewish communities around Ukraine are struggling financially,” says Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz, chief rabbi and Chabad representative in the eastern city of Kharkov, which in recent days has become the scene of intense street clashes between pro-Russian activists and pro-Western Ukrainians.
“At this point, the economic situation is what we’re most worried about. Banks are only giving hryvna, and only certain amounts. Many donors are worried now, and therefore have stopped their regular donations. Our financial position is grave.”
More than 170 Chabad-Lubavitch emissary couples serve the Ukrainian Jewish population of about 250,000 in 35 cities around the embattled nation. To help respond to the dire financial difficulties that Chabad centers throughout Ukraine are facing, an emergency fund has been created under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the FSU and Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch to help pay for additional security, as well as keep regular activities going.
“On Shabbos, the shul was packed,” adds Moskowitz, who moved with his wife, Miriam, to Kharkov in 1990. “They want to know what’s happening, the latest news, to talk to each other— but most important, they want to feel a part of the community.”
With the formerly unthinkable specter of war hanging over Ukraine, Moskowitz notes that the support and services the Jewish community supplies in each city remain vital.
“Some people are on one side, others are on another, and they all come to us to talk it over,” he says. “It’s a tense time in our community, and all we can do is try to direct people’s emotions towards doing something good.”
More Security Necessary
Under the circumstances, Levitansky’s Jewish Center in Sumy has added more security, as have Jewish establishments throughout the country.
That need was intensified on Feb. 24, when Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Chabad synagogue and community center in Zaporozhye, in southeastern Ukraine, jangling nerves, but injuring no one.
Rabbi Moti Levenharts has served as director of the Simcha School-Chabad in Kiev since moving there from Israel with his wife, Devorah Leah, in 1998. Along with the school, Levenharts also leads one of Kiev’s Chabad synagogues.
“I live very close to the Maidan,” explains Levenharts, “and [last] Thursday was the most frightening day of all. People began to stock up on all sorts of canned goods,” he adds. “Now things are calmer, and people are going to work and to stores, but there is still a sense of lawlessness.”
Levenharts says when foreign businessmen began to flee, they urged him to leave as well.
“I told them that we cannot go, we are here as shluchim [emissaries], and we must remain here together with the community, giving chizuk [strength] and helping people any way we can,” he says.
He adds that although no one knows what direction the conflict will take, it has remained free of established anti-Semitism, noting that a number of obviously Jewish acquaintances have walked through Maidan Square without drawing negative attention.
Farther west, in Zhitomer, Esther Wilhelm describes the situation as relatively calm.
“Generally, people are going about their routine, but there is an undercurrent of tension,” says Wilhelm, whose husband, Rabbi Sholom Wilhelm, has served as Zhitomer’s chief rabbi and Chabad emissary since the end of 1995.
“During the worst of the violence in Kiev, the stores were emptying out of products with long shelf lives: grains, kasha, barley, sugar, flour. Flour was disappearing from shelves. ATMS are also empty, and the hryvna has been falling fast.”
Over the weekend, clashes eastern Ukraine between supporters of the new government—many of whom came from western Ukraine to bolster the new government’s control over eastern Ukraine—and pro-Russia activists have brought violence to Kharkov, Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk.
“The main government buildings here were controlled for a week by Ukrainians from the west, and on Shabbos, they were dragged out of the buildings and a Russian flag was raised over the building,” explains Miriam Moskowitz. “Later in the afternoon, Kharkov’s mayor had them raise the Ukrainian flag over the building again.”
Although implicitly felt in the pro-Russia areas of eastern Ukraine, Russian might has now been exerted in Crimea, where armed Russian soldiers bearing no insignias took control of the autonomous republic’s parliament and two airports, raising Russian flags over them.
While violence remained at bay, Jewish community members in both Sevastopol and Simferopol described the situation as “tense” and “frightening.”
Leah Lipszyc—who with her husband, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir, directs Chabad of Simferopol—was initially unable to leave the peninsula prior to Shabbat because Russian troops had closed the roads to mainland Ukraine. She was eventually able to make it out by train.
“No one ever thought we could have such worries in 2014,” says Rabbi Sholom Gopin, a Chabad emissary in the far-eastern city of Lugansk. “People are worried and scared because there is a feeling that whichever side you’re on, someone will blame the Jews. That’s what people are afraid of, although so far we haven’t seen any of that.”
In assessing the situation, Gopin notes that more people have come to synagogue since the upheaval began. He echoes Moskowitz’s warning of the financial impact the instability is having on the Jewish community. “There are many donors in Kiev and other big cities who have cut off their support at this time. It is very difficult for us to continue. The question that remains is: What will be tomorrow?”
Video: In the Beginning – The Genesis of Our Shlichus
Rabbi Benzion Butman, Phnom Pehn, Cambodia;
Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky, Dnepropretrovsk, Ukraine;
Rabbi Shmuel Lew, London, England;
Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Every Shlichus presents its own unique challenges and comes along with its own set of situations. This panel follows 4 Shluchim in remote locations, including Rabbi Kaminetzky from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, discuss what it was like to move on Shlichus to their area in the particular time they moved, and what are some challenges they face now.