Two Jewish communities, separated by minefields

Two Jewish communities, separated by minefields

We look at the state of Jews in Russia and Ukraine as the grim war grinds on

Ukrainians gather outside Rabbi Azman’s shul — the Brodsky Synagogue in Kyiv — as they wait for aid.
Ukrainians gather outside Rabbi Azman’s shul — the Brodsky Synagogue in Kyiv — as they wait for aid.

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, with very little change on the ground except the constantly growing number of dead combatants and civilians, the politics around it continue, our analyst, Alexander Smukler of Montclair, says.

The Moscow-born Mr. Smukler, who spent the first 30 years of his life in Russia and left with his family just months before the Soviet Union collapsed, is in close touch with friends, relatives, and news sources on both sides of the conflict, which began in February 2022 when the Russians invaded Ukraine.

The counteroffensive the Ukrainians had hoped to push through this summer so far has produced little more than stalemate; Ukraine has gotten through some of the Russians’ first line of defense but there’s much more to go, and the cost in lives has been terribly high.

Meanwhile, “political leaders are trying to find a way to stop the war, and they’re becoming involved in discussions about the postwar world,” Mr. Smukler said.

He talked about the G20 meeting in Delhi, India, last week. It was notable both because this was the first time that a representative of the African Union was there — and because for the first time the group passed a “very soft resolution” on the war. “It did not condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine,” Mr. Smukler said. Moreover, China’s president, Xi Jinping, did not show up; instead, “he gave a very warm state welcome to the president of Venezuela,” Nicolás Maduro, another strongman. “In the silent language of diplomacy, that means a lot,” Mr. Smukler said. “It was no accident that Xi Jinping invited the president of Venezuela, a pariah state. A lot of experts say that Xi is sending Biden the message that he sees him as a lame duck.”

But for now, with Rosh Hashanah coming, Mr. Smukler wants to focus not on the war but on the Jewish issues it poses on both sides of the front line.

He points to an interview in this newspaper with the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Reuven Azman. “It was a wonderful interview, and Rabbi Azman is giving a clear message to the American Jewish community and to world Jewry. He is saying that the Ukrainian Jewish community stands with the Ukrainian president, and with Ukraine, and that it actively participates in the war defending Ukraine.”

Jewish men pray on a street near the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, on September 20, 2006. (Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images)

Rabbi Azman is not the only Ukrainian Jew taking that position, Mr. Smukler continued. He listed Yaakov Dov Bleich, the Brooklyn-born Orthodox rabbi who’s led the Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv since 1989 and the vice president of the World Jewish Congress from 2009 to 2017; Josef Zisels, a longtime Jewish, Zionist, and now Ukrainian activist who was sent to labor camps as the prototypical prisoner of Zion during the Soviet era, was a founder of the Vaad of the USSR and has led a long list of other Jewish groups; Shmuel Kaminetsky, the rabbi of Dnipro who has been vocal about the ways in which Jewish and Ukrainian identities complement each other, and Boris Lozhkin, the businessman and philanthropist who is, among other things, president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, and first vice president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

Mr. Smukler lists all these visible Ukrainian Jews as representative of the strong support Ukrainian Jews feel for their country.

“As we know, many Jews are fighting in the Ukrainian army,” he said. “Many of them come from Israel; many of them were born in Ukraine, served in the IDF, and came back to fight. Some of them have sacrificed their lives in Ukraine.”

Russian Jews are completely different now, he continued. They strongly support Putin’s invasion.

That’s a break from the past. “It used to be one community,” Mr. Smukler said. “Most of the Russian Jews have ancestors who used to live in Ukraine or Poland or other parts of the Pale of Settlement. They moved to the central part of Russia after 1917, after the October Revolution. They weren’t allowed to live there until then; then, they started to move to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and to other parts of the Soviet Union.” Many Jews moved into the eastern reaches of the vast Soviet Union to escape the Nazis.

“What’s amazing to me is that both Jewish communities — the Ukrainian and the Russian — are very vibrant now.

“Because the war is so brutal, I had thought that all the Jews in Ukraine would go directly to Israel, and that these would have been the last days of the Jewish community in Ukraine. Probably eventually that will happen, but not now.

“A lot of the Jews in Ukraine are elderly and they cannot relocate. Secondly, there are a lot of mixed families in Ukraine, like Zelensky’s own family — his wife is not Jewish. And thirdly, and probably most important, the Ukraine Jewish community today is much more religious than the Jewish community in Russia.”

Ukraine’s Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman looks at the devastation left by Russian bombs. (Courtesy Mitzvah for Ukraine)


“Because Ukraine has so many places that are holy to the chasidim,” Mr. Smukler said. “Uman. Berdychiv. Bratslav. Dnipro. The chasidic communities do not want to leave them.”

At the beginning of World War II, Mr. Smukler said, when the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators started to kill Jews (and yes, the history is complicated and parts of it are terrible), they went after chasidim first. They were the most visibly Jewish. Most of them were annihilated, but some survived, and it is the descendants of those survivors who have come back and established themselves in the places where their ancestors had lived.

Mr. Smukler knows this story well. His wife, Alla Straks, is the great-granddaughter of the rabbi of Gaysin, Isaac Shuv, who was the father of 13 children, with dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “Most of them died in the ghetto in the first days of the war,” Mr. Smukler said. “They were shot.

“But Rabbi Shuv was buried alive, by himself, in the center of the ghetto. They put him in the grave alive.” After they filled the grave in with dirt, they drove a tank over it.

“But today the Jewish community in Ukraine has many young generations, who were sent there as shluchim,” emissaries, and then stayed.

The chasidic Jews in Ukraine speak Yiddish to each other. The secular Jews in Ukraine traditionally spoke Russian, not Ukrainian — in that they were similar to many other Ukrainians; the language they spoke at home dependent on the part of the country they lived in — but now they’re learning Ukrainian. “Before the war, 99 percent of Jews spoke only Russian,” Mr. Smukler said. “They learned Ukrainian at school, but they didn’t have much practice with it, and they forgot it.” But that’s changing quickly.

Rabbi Azman works with a priest, a military chaplain, to distribute aid. (Courtesy Mitzvah for Ukraine)

The strength of the Ukrainian Jewish community is a surprise, Mr. Smukler said. “It is a miracle.”

Now, he said, let’s cross the front lines, at least hypothetically, and take a look at the Russian Jewish community. “That also surprised me,” Mr. Smukler said. “It’s supporting Putin, staying behind him, and accepting the Russian propaganda, which says that the main purpose of this war is the denazification of Ukraine.

“The Jewish community in Russia is vibrant and active.

“Just a few days ago, there was huge publicity about the eighth World Jewish Film Festival. There were thousands of people at the grand opening, which had a red carpet. There was a big reception, and what really shocked me is not only that so many people attended, but that there were Israeli officials there, including the ambassador from Israel.”

The film “that was the centerpiece of the festival was ‘Golda,’ with Helen Mirren,” Mr. Smukler added. It’s not at all clear how — and for that matter if — the festival was allowed to show the film, given the sanctions against Russia.

“I was shocked to see how many Jews — successful, active Jews — remain in Russia,” Mr. Smukler said. “I know that there are thousands of Jews looking for a way to escape from modern Russia. They are waiting for documents to be processed, and that procedure is so painful and so long.

“Many Russian Jews are thinking now that Israel is not welcoming Jews from Russia any more. That they’re trying to slow down Russian aliyah.

“I can’t really call it aliyah, though,” he said parenthetically. “To me, aliyah is the Zionist inside you moving you toward Israel. These Russian Jews are trying to escape from Russia. Putin’s Russia reminds me of the 1930s, when Jews tried to run away. The majority of them were pretty assimilated, but they were afraid of the Nazis.

Rabbi Azman works with Ukrainian army volunteers to deliver air conditioners to wounded soldiers. (Courtesy Mitzvah for Ukraine)

“Most of my friends in Russia are very successful — businessmen, scientists, artists, actors — and now they are turning toward Israel not because of any sentiment they have but because it’s the only way to escape from Putin’s Russia, which is rapidly moving toward Stalinism and brutal dictatorship.”

The process necessary to be able to leave Russia is painfully, even terrifyingly slow, however. “I don’t know why the government of Israel and the bureaucracy are moving so slowly,” he said, acknowledging that there’s a lot going on in Israel right now to distract officials’ attention, and that a huge influx of Russian Jews would change the political situation yet again. But whatever the reason, “immigration from the diaspora is not the priority that it was in my time,” he said.

He’s also disturbed at the number of lawyers and fixers who take huge amounts of money to find documentation. “The prices are ridiculous,” he said. “It can take between $2,000 and $25,000 to create a file that will satisfy the Israeli consulate,” although the Law of Return says that an applicant need show proof of just one Jewish grandparent to be eligible for citizenship.

He has a friend, a Jewish woman he’s known for 40 years, a famous theater director whose name is not Yelena Weinstein but he will pretend that it is for this discussion. She is Jewish on all sides, from all the way back, he said. But it’s not easy to prove it. In his time, the word “Jewish” appeared on Jews’ passports; it was a manifestation of antisemitism, but it was useful for Jews trying to get to Israel. “That word Jew was enough to prove that you were Jewish,” he said. Now the Ministry of Immigration and Tourism — not the Ministry of Absorption, because the current government did away with it — needs a great deal of proof.

“Yelena has no document saying that she’s Jewish,” Mr. Smukler said. “To prove that she’s Jewish and get permission to make aliyah, she has to find proof that her parents and her grandparents were Jewish, and that she’s their direct descendant. She has to find her mother’s and grandmother’s birth certificates, and she has to do the same for her father’s side.” That’s a very hard job. Records are not digitized, and they’re not necessarily lodged safely and retrievably in some well-maintained archive. They might have been destroyed in any number of ways, some on purpose, others not.

Mr. Smukler switches to another story, his wife’s cousin, another descendant of the rabbi of Gaysin but only a quarter Jewish. According to the Law of Return, he should be allowed to go to Israel. “But to prove that he is the grandson of his grandfather, he has to provide all the documents proving that his grandfather was Jewish, so that means that he has to collect all the documents from his great-grandfather. And all these documents have to be notarized.

Mr. Smukler’s wife’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Shuv, was buried alive by the Nazis’ Ukrainian collaborators during World War II.

“His parents divorced when he was young, and he lived with his Russian mother. His father died years ago.” So finding all these documents is a monumental undertaking. So far, he’s paid $20,000, and he’s not there yet.

“Why is nobody helping them?” Mr. Smukler asked. “Everyone remembers the airlift of Ethiopian Jews. Why not help the Russian Jews who don’t want to fight in the Russian army for no reason? Nobody is helping them today. Nobody.”

The United States also has drastically cut access to immigration, Mr. Smukler said; although the Lautenberg Amendment, enacted in 1990 and most recently extended in January 2023, allows Russian Jews — and members of other persecuted religious minorities — who have close relatives in the United States to settle here. (Frank Lautenberg, who was Jewish and came from Paterson and continued to live in northern New Jersey, was the state’s Democratic senator for decades, until he died in 2013.)

Mr. Smukler mentioned Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, who has said that if the United States would admit the qualified asylum applicants who want to come here, the brain drain Putin already is facing would be exacerbated.

But the problem with the Lautenberg Amendment is that there is no way to apply for it. “That means that people who by law have the right to apply for it are not able to do so,” Mr. Smukler said.

He used the example of his distant relative, a 70-year-old Jewish professor of physics — “he teaches at the Moscow Institute of Technology and he’s pretty well known,” Mr. Smukler said. He’s the only Jew in his family, though; his non-Jewish wife is a professor of chemistry, and their similarly accomplished children, who aren’t Jewish, are married to non-Jews. He has a brother who’s prospering in West Orange. So they’re not trying to go to Israel, but to seek refuge in the United States. “The family is well established,” Mr. Smukler said. “They don’t need money or sponsorships. They have bank accounts in the United States with substantial savings.” But there is no way for him to apply to come here.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” Mr. Smukler said.

And now, finally, we come to the most explosive part of the story.

Last week, in a televised interview, Putin talked about Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jewish lawyer, comedian, and entrepreneur who was elected president of Ukraine and has led the country throughout the war.

Rabbi Azman and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky are in Jerusalem in January 2020. (Courtesy Mitzvah for Ukraine)

Putin said that Western powers “have put a person at the head of modern Ukraine — an ethnic Jew, with Jewish roots, with Jewish origins. So in my opinion, they seem to be covering up an anti-human essence that is the foundation… of the modern Ukrainian state.

“This makes the whole situation extremely disgusting, that an ethnic Jew is covering up the glorification of Nazism and covering up those who led the Holocaust in Ukraine at one time — and this is the extermination of 1.5 million people.”

This statement is of course an incendiary lie. Many Jewish organizations have circulated strong condemnations of it.

“Putin is saying that the president of Ukraine, an ethnic Jew, is an outsider,” Mr. Smukler said. “He is not a real Ukrainian. He is a puppet, imported by the world Jewish conspiracy. How could he possibly understand real Ukrainians and their needs?

“Putin cannot imagine that Ukrainians would elect a president who is an ‘ethnic Jew,’” he continued. “In his KGB mind” — Putin came to the presidency as an agent of the Russian secret police agency that was called the KGB during the Soviet era, and is the FSB today — “the Zionist conspiracy is responsible for using Zelensky to attack Russia. He believes that there is no chance that the Ukrainians would elect an ‘ethnic Jew’ to be president. That would never happen in a Christian county, a Russian Orthodox country like Ukraine.

“That shows me the huge difference between Ukrainian society and Russian society.”

Mr. Smukler has a great deal of faith in the Ukrainians, and while anecdote is not data, he has a good story to prove it.

“I have a housekeeper, Natasha, who lives in Fair Lawn, and comes to help us three or four days a week,” he said. “She comes from a western Ukrainian city called Uzhgorod; she was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she does not speak a word of Russian, and she received her visa to the United States in 2014, after the Russians took Crimea.

“She is a Ukrainian nationalist, and she is a symbol of the modern Ukraine.”

This picture of Pushkina Street in Uman, Ukraine, was taken on September 8, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

A slight detour for some history — Zelensky was elected in 2019. He survived a first-round election that featured 39 candidates, and as one of the two highest vote-getters made it to the runoff. His opponent was the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko; Zelensky, who had never held elective office and came to his new job straight from starring in a television show, won with 73 percent of the vote. The election was said to be both free and fair.

“Days before the presidential election, she told my wife that she wanted to take the day off to go to the city. A bunch of women had rented a bus so they could go in and stay overnight to be near the Ukrainian consulate, so they could vote first thing in the morning.” (Ukrainian nationals were able to vote in their consulates.)

“I said, ‘Natasha, you’re going to vote for Poroshenko?’ And she said, ‘No way! I will vote for Zelensky.

“I said, ‘What?!? He’s a Zhid.’” A Jew. “I said, ‘You are from western Ukraine. No one there will vote for the Zhid.’ And she said, ‘Alex, he is our major hope. We will all vote for him.’”

They did. He won.

“And Natasha is my proof against Putin.

“Now there’s a big debate about the next election,” Mr. Smukler continued. “There’s supposed to be an election next year, and the question is whether it will be postponed because of the war.

“I asked Natasha who she’d vote for if the election takes place, and she said, ‘Of course I will vote for Zelensky. He is our national hero.’

“This one story means everything. Against all that Russian propaganda, Zelensky was elected by the Ukrainians in a free election. He is a democratically elected president. That’s why he’s supported by the Ukrainian Jewish community, and by Ukrainians in general.”

The idea of a Jew as a Ukrainian national hero is novel, it is logical, and it is a source of great hope, both within the community and around the Jewish world.

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