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Will a Jewish Resurgence in Ukraine Be Threatened by a Russian Invasion?

The Israeli flag flew proudly over the front door of a Jewish day school, while at another school students gathered outside before entering on the first day of classes to sing “Hatikvah.”

However, these schools weren’t in Brooklyn, Teaneck or Edison, but rather in the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Kyiv.

These were among the lasting memories from a mission to Ukraine and adjoining Moldova sponsored by World ORT that I and three other Jewish journalists were taken on to showcase the organization’s work in helping their Jewish communities that had suffered under communism and a long history of antisemitism reconnect to Judaism and their community.

We not only visited day schools, but also a JCC, met with university and business leaders, had dinner with the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, and while in Moldova had tea with its president at the presidential palace as well as lunch with the German ambassador to Ukraine and her husband—who although not Jewish was reporting on the former Soviet Union for German-Jewish media. All officials professed a desire to be welcoming to the Jewish community and for stronger ties with the United States and Israel.

Everywhere we went there was new construction of modern buildings in between the old Soviet-era cookie-cutter gray buildings. Looking out from my hotel in Kyiv, I saw that the skyline was dotted by more construction cranes than I had ever seen before. There were Western stores everywhere, and as we drove in our minivan, despite the Cyrillic lettering, I instantly recognized the red and white signage of a TGI Fridays.

In Odessa, while eating dinner outside by the Black Sea we could hear American rock music in the distance.

It was obvious Ukraine was anxious to move past the influence of the former Soviet Union, but it was the resurgence of Jewish life that seemed most impressive.

As is traditional in Ukraine, students dressed in uniforms arrived for the first day of school at ORT Technology Lyceum holding bouquets of flowers for their teachers and administrators. They were greeted by leaders of the Jewish community and the mayor of Kyiv, recited poems in Hebrew and Ukrainian and sang and danced to familiar Jewish tunes before singing the Ukrainian national anthem and “Hatikva.”

Teenage sisters Elena and Viktoria told me that when they were born their parents tried to hide their Jewish identity to shield them from antisemitism. After several years of attending the school, they told me, “We are now proud to be Jewish.”

Many acknowledged that antisemitism “is part of the tradition of Ukraine,” but we accompanied a group of students, including several kippot-wearing boys, from the Odessa school out its front door—where the Israeli and Ukrainian flags hung side-by-side—several blocks without attracting any attention from passers-by on the crowded street. The school didn’t require head coverings for boys, but some chose to do so as a display of their newly strengthened Jewish identity.

As we strolled I asked one yarmulke-wearing teenager if he experienced antisemitism out on the streets while wearing his head covering. He shrugged and said “some people smile” when they saw him pass, a nod to Odessa’s historic past as a center for Jewish culture.

One of the hallmarks of the ORT-run day schools we visited was the inclusion of parents, who had little previous exposure to Judaism due to past persecution and communism, in holiday celebrations and activities. Parents and students we met told me they were now lighting Shabbat candles and incorporating other Jewish practices into their lives at the insistence of their children.

We were also told that the Orthodox community and Chabad also ran Jewish schools in the country.

One of the most touching moments was meeting a Jewish family in Odessa whose two sons attend the school. The grandfather insisted on showing me a prescription card from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a partner agency of the Jewish Federations of North America. Through a translator he asked me to thank the American Jewish community for helping him.

A particular highlight of the trip was visiting the town of Uman. As it was just before Rosh Hashanah, about 25,000 followers of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, most of them Chasidim from Israel, had arrived to pray at his grave, turning a small town into a modern-day shtetel.

Before the Holocaust. Uman was home to 17,000 Jews and a large Jewish cemetery. Rebbe Nachman, who requested he be buried there, spent the last five months of his life in Uman. His grave is preserved inside a synagogue on the site of the destroyed cemetery. Workers that day were busy sprucing up the synagogue while we chatted with its rabbi, a native of Baltimore.

Outside, men dressed in black and sporting peyot filled the streets, which were lined with makeshift shops selling religious trinkets and kosher food. There was a large mikvah and the immense Sha’arei Zion Hotel to house visitors. Traditional tunes and Yiddish music wafted through the air. I was told the Israeli visitors were welcomed by authorities.

In the synagogue’s kitchen women were hard at work baking thousands of mini-challahs for distribution on Rosh Hashanah morning.

However, despite all the positives I witnessed, I also saw firsthand the ominous presence of Russia when our minivan was stopped by Russian troops around the border between Moldova and Ukraine in what was disputed territory. I asked our guide, Israeli-born guide David, if we were in danger. He assured me we weren’t; these flare-ups occasionally happened. He got out to tell them we were American journalists, although truthfully I was a little excited at being placed in a bit of danger. After walking around outside for about 10 minutes while the soldiers looked with disinterest at our passports, we were let through.

Throughout the trip we met Jewish business leaders who were self-made millionaires in the new capitalism, and saw functioning synagogues and a seeming rebirth of Jewish life and culture that had seemed all but snuffed out in the Holocaust.

As I think back, I am saddened that all the progress may be erased, as it looks more and more likely Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine.

By Debra Rubin

 

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