Photo Credit: Asher Joseph Cherkaskyi/Facebook
“My son, my son - my firstborn, my pride, my reward, my life!” Cherkaskyi captioned this photo of him with his son David, posted on Facebook March 8.

Stroking the end of his full and flowing gray-white beard as he speaks, a kindly smile crinkling the corners of his eyes behind his rimless glasses, Asher Joseph Cherkaskyi gives off an approachable vibe familiar to Jews who’ve encountered a Lubavitcher in an unexpected place.

Yet a military fortification of sandbags and metal fencing feels like an unusual place to find even the most intrepid Jew, and this 52-year-old businessman and former local politician speaking over Zoom is not your average frum father of three in Dnipro, Ukraine. It is the second time in the past decade that Cherkaskyi has voluntarily enlisted, and the first time he is taking up arms in the streets of his own city. He is joined this time around by his son David, 20, and photos of the duo davening or posing stoically with their weapons have gone viral among both Jewish and pro-Ukraine circles.

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The latter is most significant to Cherkaskyi.

“What I’m doing right now is not only defending people physically,” he says in an interview March 7 from the headquarters of the Territorial Defense Brigade. “I also want to publicize the fact that Jewish people also fight for Ukraine and we are citizens of Ukraine with equal rights.”

For Cherkaskyi, participation in Ukraine’s national defense is about protecting his family and community; proving that Jewish citizens – and religious ones at that – are just as brave and loyal as their non-Jewish compatriots; and fighting what he perceives to be a true army of evil.

 

A One Man PR Campaign

In the frum community in America, horror stories of life in the czar’s army and attempts to evade Soviet military conscription are familiar tales from the legendarium of Eastern European Jewry.

Not only do those narratives bear a poor resemblance to reality for Cherkaskyi, but they play into the stereotype he is trying to dispel by serving in the Ukrainian military as a proud Orthodox Jew.

“All of my ancestors fought in the wars,” he says. “My grandfather, my great-grandfather. You see, this is how it is: We live among other peoples, in small numbers. When people are a minority, it’s easy to humiliate and degrade them. In order to humiliate and degrade us they used to say we are cowards and afraid to fight and that we are greedy; they created such an international image of a Jew even though we always fought.”

In fact, Jews were were not allowed to serve in the military of the Russian Empire until 1827, soon after Czar Nicholas I took power. Ignorance of this ban led to a perception among the general population that Jews were cowards or unpatriotic. The introduction of Jews into the military through punitive conscription practices was intended to reduce the Jewish population through attrition and the appeal of conversion; but allowing Jews to serve also presented an opportunity for those who wanted the chance to defend their country. Even after tens of thousands of Jewish servicemen and women received awards for their wartime service in the Red Army during World War II, anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews as fearful weaklings persisted throughout the 20th century in Soviet culture.

“Hopefully because of interviews like this, it will be better understood that Jews who live in the former Soviet Union are not cowards. We’re normal people and we are just as capable of defending our families, our countries. We’re no different from other nations. We’re capable of defending ourselves,” says Cherkaskyi.

 

The G-d of Broken Hearts

Lieutenant Asher Cherkaskyi in Dnipro, Ukraine, posted to Facebook on March 3.

Cherkaskyi was born in Theodosia, a port town in Crimea on the coast of the Black Sea. When he was a child his family temporarily relocated to Germany, where his father was posted as a Soviet intelligence officer. During Cherkaskyi’s mandatory service in the Soviet military from the age of 18 to 21, he ended up following in his father’s footsteps to a degree, working in counterintelligence in the Ukrainian city of Odesa.

Raised in a secular household, Cherkaskyi says his journey to Yiddishkeit began when his younger brother was killed at the age of 12, shortly before his bar mitzvah (Cherkaskyi did not share details of the circumstances of his death). “When a person loses someone close to him, there is an emptiness that appears, and he wants to fill that emptiness with the hope that maybe one day he will be able to meet that loved one.” His search for spiritual answers later intensified with the sudden illness and death of his father when Cherkaskyi was 29.

 

“G-d brings people to Him in different ways,” says Cherkaskyi. “Sometimes you see someone who is religious and you think ‘I also want to be like that person – he has a connection with G-d.’ And then there is a person who has nobody else to look up to and he’s being broken, and G-d puts his heart in order, taking off everything superfluous from his heart and breaking his heart a little bit. It happened to me when my father was dying.”

He explored different spiritual teachings popular in the Soviet Union, but they were too foreign for him. He began reaching out to G-d in the hope he could secure his father’s recovery; his father’s eventual death did not turn him away from pursuing this spiritual connection. He went on to marry and is the proud father of three children, all of whom received or are receiving a Jewish education: in addition to David he has a daughter, 19, and another son, 9, with his now ex-wife.

“I’m trying to attract G-dly Light into this world through my actions, following the Chabad philosophy of dira b’tachtonim,” he says.

But is this compatible with his actions as a combat soldier?

“People used to ask me, ‘What would you do if you saw a Russian Jewish soldier, would you shoot him?’ Yes, I would kill him . . . According to the Talmud, what is the point of the death penalty? The soul of a person is so corrupted that it practically lost connection with G-d and the person lives completely subservient to evil. He’s capable of murdering another person. To fix his soul, we cannot – only G-d can fix it. Because of this situation, he needs to have his soul returned back to G-d, and the body has to return back to earth.”

 

Journey to the Battlefield

For years, Cherkaskyi commuted frequently between Theodosia and Dnipro as owner of an industrial equipment supply business. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, he relocated his family to Dnipro within days. (His mother, in ill health, begged him to flee with the family even though she would stay behind.)

“I simply could not accept the citizenship of the Russian Federation – a country at war with my homeland,” he told a Kyiv-based Jewish newspaper in 2014. “For me, this is treason to the motherland from an ethical and moral point of view. And I am the father of three children, what would I teach them?”

He actually attempted to immigrate with his family to Canada, but discarded that plan when things fell through with the family’s prospective sponsor. Today he isn’t sorry that getting to Canada didn’t work out. “G-d has a different plan for every person,” he says.

Cherkaskyi signed up for the Dnepr-1 volunteer battalion and saw combat as a member of the battalion’s special forces regiment. He was deployed into the thick of the fighting in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. At one point he was sent away from the front for hospitalization due to hypothermia and shell shock after a grenade exploded an arm’s length over his head, according to multiple media reports.

Upon returning to Dnipro, he ran for public office and served a term as a deputy on the city council and is currently deputy director of the mining company OOO Velta Holdinghe. Additionally, after his term as deputy ended, he returned to military service as an officer in the communications department of the headquarters of the Dnipro Territorial Defense Brigade.

Neither during his time in Donbas nor now serving in Dnipro has he experienced anti-Semitism from his fellow soldiers, he says. While he is unaware of any other observant Jews serving in the Ukrainian military, during his previous service or now, there are enough non-observant Jews in general that every day there are people he can help with wrapping tefillin, he says. It feels “wonderful” to be a Jewish soldier in a country being led by a Jewish president, but it isn’t a game changer for him. “Even if it wasn’t a Jew leading the army, I would still feel great, because I have an opportunity to defend my children.”

He declines to comment on the subject of the Azov Regiment, a right-wing milita that was absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard despite the reported neo-Nazi sympathies of its original leadership and some of its members (as well as allegations of torture and war crimes during 2014 and 2015). “If I am not familiar with a situation personally, I cannot comment,” he says. “I know that in the United States, for example, there are many neo-Nazis, but I’m not criticizing the United States as a whole because there are some neo-Nazis there.”

“It seems to me that Mashiach is about to come,” he says, waxing chassidic again, “because evil has to take material form in this world – it has to enclothe itself in the matter and material form – and I believe that today it expresses itself as Russian Federation and its ‘populace.’ When that country is deprived of its power, and the Light is brought down there as well, when people realize that all this time they lived in a state of falsehood and evil and hate – because if you look around the whole world, where there are different conflicts and where there are murders and terrorist attacks, the Russian Federation has a hand – victory over that country, when the Russian Federation is destroyed, I think it might bring us closer to the coming of Mashiach, may it happen in our times, amein.”

Looking to the future, Cherkaskyi would like to return to Theodosia to visit his mother’s grave, as he couldn’t be there for her burial when she passed away in 2015 and hasn’t been to Crimea since. He also hopes to follow his son to Israel: David plans to make aliyah and join the IDF when he completes his degree in cybersecurity. It isn’t necessarily going to be a permanent move for the elder Cherkaskyi, though – he’s just looking forward to a change of pace in a calmer corner of the world.

 

Alexander Flyax provided translation services for this story.

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Rachel Kohn is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelKTweets and see more of her work at authory.com/rachelkohn.