For the past week, as the annual United Nations General Assembly filled New York with visiting heads of state and foreign ministers, driving or walking through large swaths of the Upper East Side has become next to impossible. However, last night, one ambassador and globe-trotting diplomat, in particular, was being honored in a private and dignified ceremony away from the frenzied activity of the chattering diplomats. Inside the majestic Central Park mansion of the Ukrainian Institute on the corner of 79th Street, several dozen Ukrainian and Jewish elites gathered to award the 4th Andrey Sheptytsky Medal. The recipient of this year’s medal was Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, honored for his “lifetime of service to the Jewish people.”
For the past five years, the prize has been awarded jointly by the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter (UJE) and the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine to an individual who has contributed to the betterment of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. The award’s namesake, Andrei Sheptytsky, was the remarkable wartime metropolitan archbishop of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church.
Sheptytsky, whom I have written about at length, was an exceptional figure: the scion of an ennobled and Polonized Ukrainian family, he was an archetype of the “larger than life character” even in his physical stature. He stood almost seven feet tall; he was erudite, wise, multilingual (he is known to have written a letter to the Jewish community of Lviv in Hebrew) and humane. During the Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine, the cleric personally hid more than one 150 Jews, including children and rabbis, in the properties and monasteries of the church. One rabbi was hidden inside the personal library of the metropolitan’s official residence. Sheptytsky is esteemed by many within the Ukrainian diaspora as a unifying figure whose historical legacy can provide a foundation for better relations and common understanding.
Unfortunately, the archbishop’s remarkable acts of bravery in the face of the Nazi occupation of Lviv remain scandalously unknown outside of Eastern Europe. In the meantime, the campaign to have Sheptytsky be recognized as a “righteous amongst the nations by Yad Vashem” has remained mostly stalled.
On hand to present Mr. Lauder the Sheptytsky medal last night were Boris Lozhkin and James Temerty, the founder of the UJE.
Lozhkin was previously the powerful head of Petro Poroshenko’s presidential administration. Ukraine has numerous Jewish officials at the highest levels of government, including Lozhkin’s successor and the current prime minister Volodymyr Groysman. Lozhkin, who was elected to his position last May, has recently emerged as the main representative of Ukrainian Jewry on the world stage.
Over the past decade, Temerty’s organization, UJE, has made tremendous contributions by routinely producing publications, exhibitions, films, to improve civilized discourse and comity in Ukrainian-Jewish relations. All the more remarkable, then, that Temerty, the Canadian philanthropist who underwrites all these good works, has maintained such a low profile.
When Mr. Temerty and I spoke about his personal contribution to dialogue after the event, I pointed out that he has, for the most part, kept himself out of the public eye. Characteristically, he requested that I speak about the contribution of his colleagues, board, and team instead.
“Indeed, I am Ukrainian,” Mr. Temerty said. “We are not vocal, we tend to be humble and modest and not blow our own horn.” He added, “I am satisfied to know, that if you do the good work, those who need to know will know about it.”
Mr. Temerty proceeded to explain the story of the organization’s founding. He first approached then sitting president Viktor Yushchenko about the project in 2007 after it had been proposed to him by his future colleagues. “So, I went to see President Yushchenko in his office, just the two of us in his office” and I read this document to him and told him that this is something that we should do and that this is something for his soul and my soul and the whole soul of the Ukrainian people … if we create this organization.”
After the proposal, he said, President Yushchenko stood up and embraced him, telling him that he would do whatever he could to help the project along. “And so I knew at that point that I had something here, and that is what happened. When he embraced me like that, I knew it would work and so I went back to Toronto and said: “gang we are doing this, we are launching this!”
For him, the legacy of the metropolitan remains the core matter:
“Sheptystky is, as you know, a holy figure, and it does not matter that Yad Vashem has not recognized him … It is the will of God and God works in mysterious ways. Could you imagine that we in the Jewish community and Ukrainian community would be as active in promoting the story of Sheptystky as we are if he had been recognized 40 years ago? So, Maybe the fact that he never received the status of the “righteous” has actually worked to help promote the cause of Jewish- Ukrainian reconciliation in the name of the Metropolitan.”