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Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich

A year has passed since Russia annexed Crimea, but Vladimir Putin is not done thumbing his nose at the West. Despite sanctions and condemnation from the EU and the U.S., Putin continues to arm pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and some analysts believe he may even bring nuclear weapons into Crimea in the near future.

When Ukraine will settle down – and what its borders will look like when it does – no one knows. In the meantime, Ukraine’s population and its 300,000 Jews are trying to weather the storm as best as possible.

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For an insider’s view of the turmoil, The Jewish Press spoke with Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Rav Yaakov Dov Bleich. A Karlin-Stolin chassid, Rav Bleich lives in Kiev together with his wife and eight children.

The Jewish Press: What is daily life like for Jews in Ukraine today? Do they feel secure? Do they feel nervous?

Rabbi Bleich: Jews don’t feel any more nervous than others. The situation today is that in eastern Ukraine you have Russian terrorists and Russian-backed terrorists fighting and killing indiscriminately. They’re trying to pretend they’re a separatist movement but they’re being armed to the teeth by the Russians.

Now, where do we Jews stand in all this? The Jews are only part of this fight insofar as they are citizens of Ukraine. In the beginning the Russians were trying very hard to make this a Jewish thing. They said, “We’re coming to Ukraine because we have to help the Jews who are in danger from Ukrainian fascists.” But we were able to stop the propaganda machine, and that was very important – that Jews not be schlepped in and made to blame for this war.

How many Jews live in eastern Ukraine where the fighting is now concentrated?

We estimate approximately 20,000 Jews lived there before the Russians attacked a year ago. Now there are probably between 6,000-10,000. Many of them are elderly, many are infirm, and some are young people who don’t want to start their lives again.

Of those who left, something like 2,000 Jews made aliyah, and the rest can be anywhere in Ukraine or Russia. We call them IDPs – “internally displaced persons.”

In an interview last year you said that there’s a greater sense of security among Jews in Ukraine than in France. Is that really true?

One thousand percent. Jews are not afraid to walk around as Jews in Ukraine. We walk the streets with yarmulkes and are not attacked. There are no Islamic fundamentalists here, thank God.

A cease-fire agreement was signed in Minsk, Belarus last month among Ukraine, Russia, and the pro-Russian separatists. Do you think it will hold?

It’s a hard question to answer because it isn’t even really holding now. The terrorists are still shooting, and we know there’s a lot of regrouping going on. NATO has said they’ve seen a lot of weaponry still being transferred from Russia to the terrorists. In the Ukrainian press, if a day goes by that no one is killed, it’s very big news.

[You can argue that] the cease-fire is nominally holding, but the question is, will it hold enough to go to the second stage, which is legal elections and some sort of deal under which [areas coveted by pro-Russian separatists] will have some sort of autonomy but still be part of Ukraine. At this point we don’t think that’s going to happen. At this point it looks like the Russians may be trying to create what we call a “frozen conflict” like they did Moldova and Georgia.

What’s Putin’s endgame?

You know, in Yiddish, there’s a saying, “Tracht nisht vas die ferd tracht veil die ferd tracht nicht – Don’t try to try to figure out what the horse is thinking because the horse is not thinking….”

But I think Putin’s endgame is to keep Ukraine destabilized enough so that the people of Russia never want to do what the Ukrainians did – which is sign an association agreement with Europe – because that would destroy his dictatorship in Russia. Putin is afraid that if Ukrainians’ standard of living goes up because they’re part of Europe, it will cause him trouble. He’s afraid of an uprising.

It’s interesting that for Jews in Ukraine, Putin is the enemy while many Jews in Russia regard him as a great friend.

Let me tell you something: This is not a Jewish fight. The Jews have no side here. The Jews in Ukraine are siding with Ukraine, and the Jews in Russia are siding with Russia. It’s very important to understand that.

The Jews in Russia have their president who for whatever reason does whatever he does for them. There’s a court Jew, there’s a government rabbi – it’s a different type of society, and if it works for them, fine. But in Ukraine the Jews want democracy. We believe a democratic society is the best for Judaism to thrive.

What is Judaism like in Ukraine? How many communities are there? How many rabbis?

There are approximately 40 rabbis serving the 300,000-350,000 Jews of Ukraine. The biggest community is in Kiev, where there are three big shuls and another five smaller shuls where Jews daven. There are also five day schools. There’s an ivrit b’ivrit school where kids learn in Hebrew, a school for religious kids, and kiruv day schools for kids who are not religious.

There’s a lot of kosher food available throughout Ukraine. There are shechitahs, there’s kosher milk, kosher milk products, etc. It’s a really great community with many successful rabbis. In Dnepropetrovsk, there’s Rabbi Kamentzky, who is a very famous Chabad rabbi. In Odessa, there’s Rabbi Bakst, who has Tikva schools and orphanages for kids. In Kharkov, there’s Rabbi Moscowitz, who’s a very successful Lubavitch rabbi. In Lvov, there’s Rabbi Bald, who’s a Stoliner with a beautiful community. In Zhitomir, Rabbi Wilhelm has a very successful community.

So we’re not just talking about elderly Jews who are survivors of soviet communism.

No, not at all. There’s a lot of young Jews.

You have to understand that Ukraine was really a very, very Jewish place for many years. It’s true that there was a lot of fighting between Ukrainians and Jews throughout the generations, but usually the way it went is like this: Let’s take, for example, the pogroms that took place from 1648-54 during Chmielnicki’s times. There were six years of pogroms, but after that the Jews lived very well with their Ukrainian neighbors.

If you ever read Shalom Aleichem, you’ll see a true portrait of what Jewish life looked like in Ukraine. There was a love-hate relationship. They would be very friendly and tight, and then suddenly there would be anti-Semitism. Right after World War I, for example, there were many pogroms in Ukraine, and during World War II many Ukrainian nationalists sided with the Nazis. But if you look at 400 years of history in Ukraine, the overwhelming majority of the time Jews lived well with the Ukrainians.

The reason I’m telling you this is because I hear all the time, “Oh, the Ukrainians are anti-Semites.” It’s true there was a lot of anti-Semitism, but if you consider what the Jews went through in Russia – which was 400 years of non-stop anti-Semitism – it’s not a comparison.

I’m not justifying any anti-Semitism. All I’m saying is that Jews and Ukrainians lived well together most of the time, and today what we’re trying to do is build a new pluralistic democratic society where everyone feels comfortable. That’s what the Jews of Ukraine want.

You mentioned many Lubavitch and Stoliner rabbis serving the Jews of Ukraine. Are there any non-chassidic rabbis in Ukraine? If not, is that because Jews in Ukraine respond better to the chassidic temperament?

The only non-chassidic rabbi is Rabbi Bakst in Odessa.

Historically, Ukraine was the bedrock of chassidus. Chassidus started in Ukraine. Over the years I’ve been asked to compare Judaism in Russia and Ukraine and I find it goes along those historical roots. Most Jews in Russia are there because they left the shtetl searching for integration into society. The Jews in Ukraine, by contrast, grew up more in a shtetl – more with the chassidic warmth and environment of chassidus.

So I find that when you speak to Jews in Ukraine, they’re more willing to accept warmth and the basis of Judaism in that way than Jews in Russia. In Russia the Jews question, they study, they want to understand. It’s a different approach to Judaism.

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Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff writer and editor, a doctoral candidate at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies, and the author, most recently, of “Movers & Shakers, Vol. 2.”

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