See below for update, including news about increased concern for safety of Jews
Jewish aid organizations are sending emergency help to Jews in Ukraine as political unrest continues, highlighted by violence in the streets of Kiev, the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych and the firebombing of a synagogue in the eastern part of the country.
Ukrainian Jews are hunkering down. Like their compatriots, they are waiting to see what the future holds for their country, but with the added fear that they could become targets amid the chaos.
Firebombs hit the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev, on Feb. 23, according to a report the following day on a local news website.
A spokesperson said no one was hurt in the attack and that police were searching for suspects. The synagogue sustained minor damage. (Video footage of the attack can be viewed at www.tinyurl.com/ukraine-firebomb.)
Several Jewish communities in Kiev have beefed up their security arrangements during the unrest. Other communities put their activities on hold for safety concerns.
The country’s acting government has issued a warrant for Yanukovych’s arrest, accusing him of the murder of about 100 protesters who died in street clashes last week.
The unrest began in November over his refusal to sign a deal that would have tightened Ukraine’s ties with the European Union — a move many saw as jeopardizing the country’s complicated relationship with Russia.
Ukraine has a Jewish population of 360,000 to 400,000 people, with about a quarter of the country’s Jews living in Kiev, according to the European Jewish Congress. The Jewish Agency put the figure at 200,000.
Just hours after Yanukovych fled Kiev on Feb. 22, the Jewish Agency announced it would offer immediate emergency assistance to Ukraine’s Jewish community and help secure its institutions.
Money will come from the agency’s Emergency Assistance Fund for Jewish Communities, which enables Jewish communities at risk to strengthen security measures. The fund was established in the wake of the March 2012 terror attack in Toulouse, France, in which a Jewish teacher and three Jewish schoolchildren were murdered.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement that Ukraine is “one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, with dozens of active Jewish organizations and institutions. Recent events have shown that we must strengthen these institutions’ security measures. We have a moral responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s Jews.”
He told Jewish Agency leaders that the organization is in “constant contact” with the Jewish leadership in Ukraine and is following events there closely.
Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, a Chabad rabbi in Ukraine, told Maariv that he advised his congregation to leave Kiev and the country, if possible. Azman closed the Jewish community’s schools in the capital due to the violence, the Israeli daily reported.
Azman also told the newspaper that the Israeli Embassy advised members of the Jewish community to remain in their homes.
The crisis that has plagued Ukraine over the past month has affected the most vulnerable of Ukraine’s Jews. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has responded by activating its emergency network and providing services and supplies to elderly Jews and single-parent families in their homes. Home care workers have spent nights with the most frail seniors, and mobile units have been responding to urgent needs.
In the Ukrainian capital, the JDC delivered food and other urgent necessities to Jews downtown where protesters clashed with security forces in recent weeks.
JDC worker Alena Druzhynina braved the fracas in Independence Square, the heart of deadly protests, to bring a package of food last weekend to Mihail Solomonovich, an 82-year-old pensioner who has been homebound since the worst of the violence began.
“When Mihail received the food package provided by Kiev Hesed, he said it was one of the most long-awaited and bright visits he ever had,” Druzhynina wrote from Kiev. “[Solomonovich] lives alone in a one-room apartment and barely moves around, but his eyes were full with pride and gratitude,” she added.
While Kiev has been relatively calm since Yanukovych fled the capital, the situation in the country’s eastern and southern regions, where he has his base of support, is more volatile. Tensions between the local governments and revolutionaries continue to rise in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has a relatively sizable Jewish community.
“It’s still a very fluid situation,” said Mark Levin, chairman of the NCSJ, an American organization that advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union. “The big concern, I think, is ensuring that there’s adequate security for Jewish institutions throughout the country, but particularly in the large cities. And I think that’s where much of the focus within the American Jewish community and Israel lies—that and making sure the flow of services continues.”
Levin also expressed concern that with elections slated for May 25, a future government could result in ultranationalists gaining power in Ukraine. Svoboda, a right-wing nationalist party, was prominent in the protest movement, and party officials have expressed virulently anti-Semitic sentiments.
UPDATE: Russian troops apparently moved into Crimea early on Feb. 28, deploying at airports and a Coast Guard base, prompting Ukraine to accuse Russia of a “military invasion and occupation.”
Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as president after Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev last weekend, urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop “provocations” in Crimea and pull back military forces from the peninsula, according to the Associated Press. Western powers are pressuring Moscow to exercise restraint.
Meanwhile, Jews arriving at the Reform synagogue in Simferapol Friday morning found anti-Semitic slogans reading “Death to the Jews” painted on the doors, while other parts of the building were vandalized.
The World Union for Progressive Judaism sent out a notice expressing “concern for the safety and well-being of our communities in Ukraine, especially in the rural areas and Crimea.”
Rabbi Michael Kapustin of Simferapol told the WUPJ that Shabbat services have been canceled for security reasons. Simferapol Jewish Community chairperson Anatoly Gendin said that pensions haven’t been paid since the Ukrainian crisis began, and “as usual, Jews are blamed… I am afraid to think how this will progress.”
Community leaders have instructed local Jews to stay inside and stock up on food and supplies.