For a Jewish community that is just beginning to find itself, the turbulent situation in Ukraine is putting the culture in jeopardy.
“There is a feeling not only of unrest, but shock,” said Roman Polonsky, director of the unit for Russian-speaking Jewry of the Jewish Agency for Israel. “When Jews become targets … it’s very dangerous and very problematic.”
Polonsky, who spent three days in Ukrainian cities Kiev, Donetsk and Odessa, spoke to Jewish leaders and employees of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, on Thursday, May 22, about how the conflict in Ukraine and recent anti-Semitic incidents have affected the Jewish community. He also briefed Jewish leaders in Chicago, Kansas City and New York City.
He was born 30 miles from Odessa and remembers a cosmopolitan town. Upon his recent trip, Polonsky said the city looked empty. A lot of people have left Odessa, many factories and institutions closed.
The Jewish community has experienced some targeted attacks including the desecration of a cemetery and a Molotov cocktail being thrown at a synagogue; and in Donetsk, a group distributed flyers asking Jews to register and pay a fee, although it didn’t happen. Polonsky said that while government groups are publicly supporting the Jewish community, the situation on the ground is different.
The situation is of particular concern to Baltimore not only because of the city’s connection to worldwide Jewry, but also because work and community building done through The Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership is jeopardized because of Ukrainian unrest.
“There’s a sense of corruption and lawlessness in Odessa,” said Susan Posner, head of allocations for programs at the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership. She said people don’t feel they can turn to the police, some are building bomb shelters, and people are policing the streets themselves.
This year, The Associated hired Marina Moldavanskaya, the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership’s first coordinator, to live in Odessa. Speaking via email in March, she said the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Community have been changing their strategies to adjust to the situation and ensure that the most elderly and vulnerable citizens receive necessary assistance.
Posner said the situation in Odessa is “very disturbing,” especially since she had been to Odessa twice, the most recent time one year ago with employees and lay leaders from The Associated. She got to see the programs at the JCC in Odessa, which she said is the city’s center of Jewish life.
“People are just learning after 21 years how to be Jewish. This is the Former Soviet Union,” she said. “They’re new Jews. They’re new young Jews. It’s very exciting. To think that could be compromised is very concerning.”
An August Odessa trip for Posner and others involved in the partnership ship has been canceled, she said.
Polonsky said he saw many differences between the Ukraine cities as well as differences between the young and the elderly, who still have vivid memories of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews.
“In Kiev, actually, I met young Jews who are proud to be part of this revolution, who actually participated in this,” Polonsky said. “Young people have their own hopes, and they want to fight this corrupted regime.”
Still, many Ukrainian Jews seem to be staying inside their homes or escaping to Israel, Polonsky said. While it’s still a low percentage of Ukrainian Jews, more than 1,000 Ukrainians have moved to Israel in the last four months, Polonsky said, and more than 200 Ukrainians had booked flights to the Jewish state for May and June, according to JAFI.
“The ability to bring Jews to Israel in a crisis like this doesn’t happen because there’s suddenly a crisis and we begin to do outreach to people,” said Arthur Sandman, executive vice president of international development for the Jewish Agency. “It begins because we’ve planted the seeds of identification with Israel in their hearts and in their minds for years and years before, so when they reach a point of crisis, they see that Israel is an option for them.”
The Jewish Agency works with one million Russian-speaking Jews in Israel, 700,000 in the U.S., 70,000 in Canada, 50,000 in Australia and 250,000 in Germany, Polonsky said. And while the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership helped set up the Jewish community’s infrastructure in Ukraine, The Associated has also raised about $100,000 in its Ukraine Assistance Fund. Polonsky underscored how important support is at this time.
“In this situation, to continue this community life and these programs is vital and very important to them,” he said. “It’s actually like trauma care for these people.”
To instill Jewish identity in younger Russian-speaking Jews, JAFI runs Sunday schools, summer camps and programs in which campers can go to Israel and become camp counselors. Three camp counselors from Odessa will be counselors at Baltimore JCC summer camps this summer, Posner said, adding that Odessa’s Moishe House residents spent time with Baltimore’s Moishe House through the partnership.
Polonsky said the summer camps are especially important as places where young Jews can celebrate Shabbat and learn Jewish history along their peers and pass it on to their families.
“This is a transformative, immersive Jewish experience,” he said. “Kids just don’t have any other opportunity to connect themselves with Jewish [peers], to Jewish identity. They don’t inherit it from their families because their families were deprived of Jewish identity for so many years.”
While the current situation may seem dire, Polonsky and others have hope for the elections and new leadership in Ukraine.
“It’ll have a new face,” Posner said. “What exactly it’ll look like is unknown.”