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The Chabad Synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
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War Deals a Double Blow to Jewish Life in Ukraine and Russia

For Ukrainian and Russian Jews, the past three decades now seem like a brief flash of light between two long periods of darkness

by
Ksenia Svetlova
May 09, 2022
Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images
The Chabad Synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

This Passover, tens of thousands of Jews from Ukraine and Russia held Seders away from their homes, some in refugee camps in Poland, Moldova, or Budapest, others in Israel, where they had only just arrived as new olim, escaping the brutal war in Ukraine or the suffocating atmosphere of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Just a few months ago, few Ukrainian Jews imagined that they would be forced to run for their lives and that their hometowns would lay in ruins. In Moscow, it is now impossible to schedule a meeting with an Israeli council to get an oleh visa for the next few months, while the evacuation buses keep bringing Ukrainian Jews to the borders of Poland, Moldova, Hungary, and Slovakia.

The war in Ukraine has entered its third month. Only a few expected that Ukrainian forces could last that long. Almost no one believed that by April 2022, cities like Mariupol and Chernihiv would be reduced to rubble and remind the world of Aleppo and Homs. The war has changed both Ukraine and Russia, and the impact on Jewish communities on both sides has been colossal. Some Ukrainian Jewish communities have ceased to exist.

Despite the influx in aliyah from Russia, most Russian Jews are still in waiting mode. Many still don’t comprehend that Russia post-February 2022 is not the same country that it had been for the previous 30 years. As the ring of sanctions and political pressure at home becomes tighter, many more might leave. Some fear that the antisemitism which has always existed in Russia will become more and more visible as conditions become more dire. Others worry that their children might be drafted into the army and sent to the front, recalling the same fear of Jews living in the Russian Empire a century ago.

While there might be some temptation to compare the current exodus of Russian and Ukrainian Jews to the massive aliyah from the former USSR in the 1990s, the difference between these waves of immigration is quite significant. Those who wanted to leave the crumbling Soviet Union at any cost came to Israel immediately after the Iron Curtain fell, in a mass wave of migration eventually numbering well over a million individuals. Most Soviet emigrants knew comparatively little about Jewish history or religious practices, as access to those subjects was strictly policed by the communist state.

While Jewish life was almost nonexistent in the former USSR, Jews who chose to remain in Russia and Ukraine over the past three decades developed thriving community centers, synagogues, and systems of Jewish education. Jewish organizations have played a significant role in the post-Cold War lives of both countries. In Ukraine, where some 100,000 Jews lived prior to the recent outbreak of war, once-lively Jewish hubs like Kharkiv and Dnipro are now going through a rapid depopulation, especially in the regions most affected by the Russian invasion. Russia itself is home to nearly 200,000 Jews, some of whom are beginning to question the possibility of a long-term Jewish future for themselves and their families. One has to wonder: Will Jewish life in either country survive the war?

“This year there were only 20 Jews at the Passover Seder. I was so sad about it, as I did a lot to build the Jewish community during the last 20 years,” says Georgy (Garik) Logvinsky, an ex-member of the Ukrainian Rada, businessman, human rights activist, and member of the Jewish community in Kyiv. For the past six weeks, he has been busy organizing evacuations of Jews and non-Jews to safety and disseminating humanitarian aid. “Twenty-thousand Jews left Ukraine,” he tells me as he drives through Kyiv. “We evacuated 15,000 of them. I evacuated many members of congregations with whom I had a personal acquaintance. You could say that my colleagues and I are now ruining with our own hands the same project that we’ve built for many years. It is a great shock.”

Our conversation stops when he approaches a checkpoint. Once a constant feature of Israeli life, sirens, explosions, and checkpoints have become a disturbing new routine for residents of Kyiv. “We’ve become accustomed to this, in the way that you in Israel are used to it,” says Logvinsky after we resume the call. “But things are definitely not normal. The danger is real, even if you don’t feel it coming.”

Not all Ukrainian Jews have left. Jewish men, just like all other Ukrainian men, took up arms against the Russian invaders while sending their families away to safety in Israel, Germany, or elsewhere. Some are fighting the Russians as members of the Ukrainian armed forces, while others have joined the civil “territorial defense” or serve as volunteers. Both the heroic president of Ukraine and the country’s defense minister are Jewish.

Ukrainian Jews recall the many times their community was in danger during the last few centuries and survived nonetheless. Still, tomorrow will not look like yesterday, says Vladimir Gulko, a Jewish businessman and community member from Kyiv, who is also playing an active role in evacuation efforts. “I was sitting at the Seder, looking at our dwindling congregation and thought—what is the future for us here?” he told me. “Many people will not return. Perhaps the businessmen, people of wealth will come back. When things will become more stable, some will return to take part in reconstruction. But many people, especially the elderly, will never come back. Some of the cities where they lived were wiped out by the Russians. In many cases there is no home to come back to.”

Logvinsky laments the scattering of established Jewish communities that were pushed to the edge of the abyss. “Israel wasn’t ready to accept these communities,” he says. “Many wonderful people who played a significant role in Jewish life here are now dispersed around the globe. There is no analogy for what we built for the elderly members of our community here in Ukraine. It’s a shame that it was impossible to preserve it.”

Elizaveta Sherstyuk, director of the Hesed Chaim Charity Center, which organized the evacuation of Jewish families from Sumy in the northeast after the invasion of Russian troops, lit a torch in Israel last week during the country’s Independence Day ceremony. It was one of the ways Israel has sought to pay tribute to the Ukrainian Jews who have displayed such courage, resilience, and mutual assistance since the first days of the war.

Yet many Ukrainian Jews expect more from Israel than a ceremonial tribute. “We understand that Russia wants to pressure Israel, hence the [false] statement of the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding the use of a synagogue in Uman by the Ukrainian military,” says Logvinsky, who has been in Israel frequently and is personally acquainted with several Israeli politicians. “Perhaps it was a hint, that the tomb of Rabbi Nachman might be the next target. The Russians also hit the community buildings in Kharkiv, their rockets also landed in the Babi Yar area. We expect that the Russians will play this Jewish card in order to provoke and manipulate. We love Israel, and we are grateful for the humanitarian aid that we receive from Israel, but what we really need today is weapons. We need Israel’s support.” (The Russian government’s claim that Ukrainian nationalists have been exploiting the Uman synagogue for military purposes was strongly refuted by the head of the Rabbi Nachman International Charitable Foundation, Nathan Ben Nun, and head of the Jewish rescue organization Hatzalah Ukraine, Rabbi Hillel Cohen.)

While Gulko says that attempts to evacuate Jews from Ukraine are ongoing, there has been a certain slowdown during the past week. But as Putin intensifies the battle over Donbas, the stream of refugees might increase again. The end of the war is nowhere in sight, says Logvinsky, as he and many other Ukrainians believe that there is little ground for compromise with Russia.

You cannot stay in the gray zone anymore. They expect you to take a side, their side.

“Each year, thousands recreate the events of the Exodus and eat ‘the bread of affliction’ because collective historical memory is a necessary spiritual foundation,” said Rabbi Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, on April 15. “Without this foundation neither present nor future are possible. I wish you a happy and kosher new Passover. May we maintain the strength of the spirit despite the difficulty, remain faithful to the commandments of the Almighty, and increase good deeds in the world.”

By the beginning of Pesach, Rabbi Boroda, one of the most powerful and influential Jewish leaders in Russia, was hosting a Seder at the Jewish community center of Zhukovka. A person present at the event told me that some of the “regulars”—billionaires and society personalities—were absent this time. While many Jews around the world had wished Ukraine this Passover to be free from their present-day pharaoh, no such references were made by Boroda or his guests.

During the second week of the war, when Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Chernihiv were attacked by the Russian army and many Ukrainians were killed—including Jews—Boroda expressed bewilderment at what he called the neo-Nazism clearly active in the country. “It is hardly comprehensible that in Ukraine, with its fairly large and mostly thriving Jewish community, there are parallel efforts at glorifying criminals responsible for the deaths of ancestors of those same Jews,” Boroda told the Russian news agency Interfax.

“There is not one unified position among the Jews in Russian on the war in Ukraine,” wrote Yuri Kanner, the head of the Russian Jewish Congress. “Some leaders openly say that it is a fratricidal war, and that it should be stopped.” Rabbi Berel Lazar, the head of Chabad in Russia and often referred to as the country’s chief rabbi, has offered to mediate and called for an end to the war. Mikhail Fridman, the oligarch under Western sanctions, condemned the war, while the businessman German Zaharyaev supports the Russian government. Jewish writers and journalists in Russia like Viktor Shenderovich and Marat Gelman have been labeled as “foreign agents” by the Putin regime, while Vladimir Soloviev—one of the country’s leading TV personalities—is a Kremlin propagandist. “When his villa at Lake Como was confiscated, he lamented that it was antisemitism,” says Michail Gurevich, a journalist and a member of the public council of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Gurevich and his family have recently made aliyah, along with an estimated 13,000 other Russian Jews. He says that while many other Jews are still considering leaving Russia, the current aliyah cannot be compared yet with the great waves in the 1990s. “I know that some people are in waiting mode. Some prefer to leave during the summer, others wait for their kids to finish their studies. More people are leaving now than in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, but for now, the vast majority choose to remain,” he says.

A friend who made aliyah from Russia a few years ago now fears for the fate of her relatives in Moscow. She explained that unlike in the early ’90s, many Jews in Russia today have visited Israel before, and they know that life there is quite expensive—and far from easy. “The atmosphere is very tense,” she says. “Russian Jews discuss leaving. Many think that while there is no immediate threat to them they still have time to think it over.” My interlocutor confirmed that Jewish organizations in Russia are under pressure to support the regime. “You cannot stay in the gray zone anymore. You can’t even keep silent as they [the authorities] expect you to take a side, their side,” she adds. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that Hitler “had Jewish blood” and that “for some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the biggest antisemites were Jewish,” only Berel Lazar publicly condemned the statements and suggested that “it would be nice if he apologized.” Other major Jewish organizations kept silent.

Ninety-year-old Alla Gerber, president of the Russian Holocaust Center, explains that the pressure is often subtle—for now. “We, as a Holocaust center, condemned this war,” she told me. “We know what is Nazism and genocide, and we are not afraid to speak against this war that must be stopped at once. Some other Jewish organization also protested, while others supported. It’s not that you are being pressured physically—but every organization and every leader feels this discomfort and this pressure.”

Gerber recently arrived in Israel, but she hasn’t yet made a decision about her future. “It is a very difficult decision. I’ve been a human rights activist for so long, how can I leave my organization?” she asks. “Although I must tell you that it feels a little strange now to focus solely on the Holocaust when Ukrainians are being slaughtered.”

The last time I’d spoken to Gerber had been a few months ago, just before the war, after Memorial—the veteran Russian human rights organization—was outlawed by the government and then dissolved. Gerber had said that the Jews in Russia were lucky that President Putin was not an antisemite. She still holds this view today, but with new reservations. “Putin is definitely not an antisemite, but we do hear some murmurs that come from the ground—recently the head of the Communist Party in one of the Moscow satellite towns said that the war in Ukraine is the doing of the Jews and the USA, that they wanted to sow hatred between the two nations,” she says. “What will happen if some TV anchor catches this tune? Things here can get out of control.”

According to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, Putin apologized to him on behalf of Lavrov during their phone conversation on May 5. The Kremlin’s own official statement, however, included no mention of it.

Ksenia Svetlova is the director of the program on Israel-Middle East relations at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policy and a former member of the Knesset.

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