Six members of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) led by its president, Larry Lerner of Warren, said the once-dictatorial and anti-Semitic Ukraine is well on its way to being a democratic nation free of prejudice against its Jews, who number 350,000 among its nine million citizens.
A week after returning from his group’s fourth visit there, Lerner told NJ Jewish News, “The Ukrainians have to figure out how to work out what is best for them while they still worry about famine and clean water and how the hell they are going to survive economically. They are a Third World country, and they have to live with that.”
Lerner described his group’s mission to Ukraine from May 11 to 23 as “an amazing trip.” It was the second time he and his entourage have visited Ukraine since September 2014, when some 82 people were killed and 1,100 injured in demonstrations against the country’s pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, and the suspension of its parliament.
Two years later Yanukovych is out of power and Ukrainians are taking baby steps toward democracy. Lerner said he discovered that relations between Ukraine and the Russian Republic are less contentious than on previous trips.
“The chance of Russia invading them now is a lot less,” he said. “The Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government are not as worried about that as they had been in the past,” he said.
As far as the country’s Jews are concerned, they “love the way Ukraine is now,” said Lerner. “Anti-Semitic acts are very infrequent. In the last three years, there have only been 24 acts of anti-Semitism, and of those 24, only three or four of them have been actual physical attacks.” The others were attacks on property or vandalism, such as swastika graffiti. These statistics, he said, “indicate that anti-Semitism is at a very low point.”
Lerner believes that the haredim and hasidim in Ukraine “feel very comfortable in Dnipro” (the city formerly known as Dnipropetrovsk), the country’s fourth-largest city. “I’ve never seen a city which was so involved with its Orthodox community.”
The centerpiece of that community is the 538,000-square-foot Chabad Menorah Center, which opened in 2012 and is said to be the largest Jewish community center in the world. On a Saturday morning, Lerner joined some 200 men in a Shabbat service at its synagogue. Some 40 women were there also, behind a mehitza.
In Odessa, a Chabad house joins the Tikva Children’s Home (a partner of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ) in providing Jewish education and religious services to some of the 35,000 Jews in a city with a population of one million. A progressive synagogue is about to open there as well, he said.
In Kiev there are two Orthodox synagogues and two “very thriving” progressive synagogues — one of them the equivalent of an American Reform congregation, the other the equivalent of a Conservative house of worship. On one Friday night, Lerner attended services at both places and was struck by “the large numbers of young people participating.”
He said their prime focus is on life in their own world, not in Jewish communities abroad. “You can see the people there are not thinking about ‘When can I leave for Israel?’ They are interested in staying in Ukraine and making it their home.”
Lerner noted there is at least one major problem that Ukrainian Jews and non-Jews share. “One third of the people of Ukraine are on pensions, and their fixed-income status poses the same problems other retirees face, such as having to make the difficult choice between buying food and paying for utilities.
“They are in deep trouble because of the Ukrainian inflation rate. Russia controls the Ukraine’s oil supplies, so the fuel needed for heating homes and driving cars has become increasingly expensive. If you are at the bottom end of the totem pole it is very tough.” Lerner said part of his group’s mission was “to discover just how stable the Jewish community and the democratic community are. We wanted to examine the state of human rights and anti-Semitism as well as the state of religious rights.”
What they found was “the religious movements are doing fine. Things are also stable from a democratic point of view. Non-religious Jews are still working to rid the community of a toxic attitude that remained from the days of Soviet domination,” he said. But they need help from outside.
“The Ukrainian Jews are doing well because they survive on the charitable contributions made by Jews around the world,” he noted.
There is also a national movement to atone for Ukraine’s collaboration with the Nazi Holocaust. Part of it is embodied in a new monument erected at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev where tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered.
The Ukrainian government has admitted its participation in the Holocaust, Lerner said, and it has set up a Bureau of National Memory to teach the Ukrainians about their shameful past.
Lerner is already planning his next excursion, this one to the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova. “They are both still under totalitarian government and have shown signs of loosening up, and some of our people in the UCSJ want to see what is going on there,” he said.