Tugging at My Roots   – 7 March 2014 – Shabbat Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz – Approximately 100 years ago, in a Ukrainian Jewish shtetl named Pogrebishtshe, a pogrom brutally took the life of a 17-year-old girl.  Sexually attacked in front of her mother and younger siblings, then buried up to her neck while still alive, she was killed by Cossaks on horseback, as they threw spears at her.  Her name was Yocheved Shtupak; she was the older sister of my mother, Sonia Maximova Shtupak…..and I carry her name, Yocheved.

My grandmother and my mother and the remaining siblings soon escaped on foot, and, after a harrowing journey, eventually reunited with my maternal grandfather and uncle in Cleveland, Ohio, and made a new life in the Goldeneh Medineh.

Although there are no longer any Jews in Pogrebishtshe, (additional pogroms in 1919 and 1928, and the Nazi invasion during the Shoah saw to that), there are approximately 300,000  Jews living in the Ukraine, a significant number of whom are elderly Holocaust survivors or senior adults.  Therefore, the current state of affairs in the Ukraine is tugging at my roots…and, I suspect, are of much concern to many of us.

Allow me to share what I have learned and what I feel.

As the old joke goes, ask two Jews a question and you’ll get three opinions.  Old saw, though it may be, the response of the Ukrainian Jewish community to the collapse of the country’s government last month is extremely complicated.  I would love to speak about Ukraine as a whole, as it currently includes Crimea, but speaking in generalities is difficult and, probably, inaccurate, as the Ukraine is not monolithic, and, most certainly, for that matter, neither is the Jewish minority living in that country.

I must assume that we are all aware of the Maidan, a protest movement centered in Kiev, which broke out right after the Olympics.  The Maidan protesters appeared to us to be sincerely committed to aligning the Ukraine with the EU, in spite of the alliance Yanukovych had made with the Russians.  Well, it turns out that that was part of it, but another part of it was that there was a passionate desire simply to overthrow the corrupt government of Yanukovych.  (I suspect most of us were bowled over at the opulence of the estate he abandoned when he fled to Russia for asylum.)  The fact that they have put in place some very wealthy men may seem at odds with the stated desires, but is being rationalized with a sense of who has the wherewithal to actually get anything done, and most individuals are referring to the current appointees as an interim government.

I do not want to go into the politics, as I am surely neither an analyst nor a pundit, but I do want to share with you what is happening on the ground.  Yet, even here, I am getting information that leaves me wondering exactly what the picture is.

The Jewish Federation of Las Vegas and the JF of North America have been giving us updates on what is happening, and this morning I was on a conference call with Karen Gershon, the director of Project Kesher, an organization I’ve been with since before the fall of the Soviet Union.  (Its mission is to help transform women’s lives, restore their Jewish identity, and provide them with training in leadership and social activism from Russia to the Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and even into Israel.)  I’ve been trying to reconcile what I heard from each, what the media is telling us, and how it all balances out.

So here goes:

“In response to the situation in Ukraine, The Jewish Federations of North America has launched the Ukraine Assistance Fund to provide urgent support for Jews in Ukraine.  -Funds raised by Federations and donors will support the efforts of our partner agencies.  Although Jews in Ukraine have, for the most part, not been outright targets of violence, they are caught in the cross-fire like everyone else.

“The Ukrainian currency has been significantly devalued. As a result, local buying power has eroded and the cost of basic goods and services is growing rapidly. This has taken its toll on everyone, including working-class, and even middle-class, families. The impact on the weakest members of society, including thousands of elderly Jews surviving on already meager pensions, is devastating. As a result, the needs across the Jewish community are growing significantly.

“Through core unrestricted funds, the Federation’s partner agencies on the ground, including the Joint Distribution Committee, local Hillels, etc., are helping some of the most vulnerable across the region.

Due to the recent protests, Ukraine’s declining economy and the devaluation of its currency, needless to say, the Federation’s agencies are incurring exponential costs beyond what these funds can support.

“The situation in the region is highly unpredictable and things could change at any moment. They are in constant contact with their partners in the field and will continue to provide updates and new information as it develops.

The JDC, for example, has activated its emergency response network to ensure continued home deliveries of food, medicine, heating and cooking fuel, and sustained life-saving care at home for the elderly.   Staff including homecare workers have been instructed to exercise caution when traveling to and from clients and communal institutions, and are being provided with emergency kits including fire extinguishers, blankets and heaters that will help them deal with emergency conditions in clients’ homes or if they are stuck in transit. The cost of these supplies has significantly increased due to the currency devaluation.  Security has been heightened at Jewish communal institutions and Hesed social welfare centers, which serve thousands of elderly and children at risk.  In case of possible food shortages, JDC is stockpiling basic supplies.

“The Jewish Agency has allocated $400,000 in emergency funds to bolster security at 97 Jewish institutions, including synagogues, yeshivas and community centers, in 30 cities across Ukraine. The Jewish Agency is already distributing these grants to fund more security personnel, add security cameras and reinforce barriers. The Jewish Agency continues to get more and more requests for security assistance.

“World ORT has increased security at four of its schools. In such a volatile environment, all of the country’s schools are concerned with ensuring the safety of their students. Many students must travel to class through now-dangerous areas and increased security, through additional guards and security systems on school grounds, is paramount.

The day that the Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovych was overthrown, Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, Chabad’s Chief Rabbi in Kiev, told his congregants to leave the city because of “constant warnings concerning intentions to attach Jewish institutions.”  And, indeed there have been some incidents…graffiti sprayed on the Reform synagogue in the Crimean city of Simferopol and another attack on a shul in the southeastern city of Zaprizhiya.

But whether these were Ukrainian inspired or actually employed by the Kremlin itself is not really known.   In fact, Putin has said that he worries about the fate of the Jews “and other minority nationalities” in Ukraine.  (Of course, this seems entirely ironic and somewhat suspect, knowing the record of Jew-baiting, Jew-hating, and pogroms instigated by the Russians over the centuries.)

Purim celebrations have been canceled on campuses and a sense of hunkering down seems to be portrayed to us through the media.

And the Russian media is using propaganda equating the Ukrainian protestors as neo-Nazis; needless to say, that portrayal, while not provable, evokes fears of those whose families still remember the brutality of the Nazi era.

But some of this doesn’t jibe with the report that Project Kesher and others, on the ground, are getting out.  According to Kesher, the average family seems to have enough to eat, is going to work, going about its life, and, since the major overthrow in Kiev, the protests going on throughout the rest of the Ukraine seem to be peaceful.  In fact, Karen Gershon reports, the Ukrainian military has been standing with the people.  There seems to be great reticence to use force.  While it is true that many young men are being called up to the armed services, and people working for foreign-based companies are being notified that arrangement are being made to secure passports for them, should things turn, according to the Project Kesher people, there is a sense of wait-and-see this through.

Women were active in the Maidan protest, as were people in all economic brackets.  And, according to one woman, “As far as I can judge, from my friends and acquaintances, we are all simply exhausted…but now we have a new willingness to live.  I don’t want to sound overly passionate,” she continues, “but we’re ready and willing to see this [corrupt government totally] moved out.”

Women have organized peace marches and there seems to be a universal desire for a peaceful solution.  I say universal, but that, too, may not be completely true.  Some say that if the economy in Russia worsens, Putin may feel he has nothing to lose, and he might, indeed, invade all of the Ukraine.

As for the Crimea, many on the ground feel that since more than 60% of the Crimea is Russian speaking, it is not a stretch for them to opt to secede back to the Russian empire.

But back to the Jewish communities in the Ukraine.  Despite what the Chabad rabbi in Kiev said, it seems that many communities are not only preparing for Purim, but writing highly political Purimspiels, eager to relieve the tension with humor.

And, looking towards the future, women on the ground are launching tolerance initiatives to work against the diviseness that may be happening due to Russian propaganda and the threat of Russia’s overtaking Crimea and possibly looking to overtake the rest of the Ukraine.

Something else is happening on the ground.  In spite of the Jews still being referred to as a “nationality” by the Russians, several highly influential Jews have risen within the ranks of the protestors:  Alexander Roitburd, one of the country’s most famous artists has said that the country’s future dependsvery  much on bringing the rule of law to Ukraine and gravitating towards what he sees as Western values.  Arseniy Finberg, a 31-year-old director of a tourist company and father of two said:  “I know hundreds of Jews who stood at Maidan.”  He intimated that the handful of attacks on Jews were less anti-Semitic than they were the work of those looking to discredit the Maidan movement.  There were Ukrainian born Israel soldiers there, a klezmer band, and demonstrators in tzitzit and kippot.  And, strangely enough, the success of the Maidan has caused many to stop referring to themselves as simply Jews living in the Ukraine, but proudly as Ukrainian Jews.  Whether this sense of nationalistic pride is healthy or misplaced will surely be worked out by history.  Both Roitburd and Finberg are in favor of the decision to appoint oligarchs as temporary governors, saying “these people are very influential.  Those people can make order in their regions.”  This too, will either be proven or disproven by history.

The bottom line is that none of us really know what is accurate, so arguing is futile.  The reality is that the Ukraine is not monolithic, Crimea is more and more pro-Russian, as is eastern Ukraine, and, how this will unfold is yet to happen.

What can we do?  We can be proud of our Federation and its allied institutions in the contested area, and send in funds for the Ukrainian emergency; we can be proud of the work on the ground being done by the Kesher Project and others.  We know that Israel is ready to absorb people should that become necessary, and we also know, that it is our responsibility to keep abreast of what is happening, try to parse out what is true, what is rumor, what is opinion, what is allegation, and what is propaganda.

May we have learned from history; may history not repeat itself; may calm heads provide reasonable solutions; and may there be peace.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

7 March 2014/6 Adar Bet 5774


Shabbat Inspiration by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah – the only Reconstructionist/Renewal synagogue serving the Las Vegas Valley.