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Ukraine’s Jews in the Middle of War

The following is a transcript of Episode 90 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Sunday, February 27th, 2022. 

Our hearts are in the east as the old Jewish saying goes. There’s a war in Eastern Europe and it’s all that any of us can think about. I mean, imagine this, that even in this American moment, during the most profound partisan divide in America, in nearly a century, even the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice can’t compete for being the main headline in any news coverage. Over the weekend, we’ve been watching the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, a brazen and dangerous power play. And in turn Ukraine’s, and its Jewish president’s, courageous defense of its cities and its people. No surprise that it’s hard to think about anything else. 

Now, our show Identity Crisis is not a political or military analysis show. You don’t tune in here for detailed discussion of global foreign policy. And I’ve never positioned myself as someone whose amateur opinions on such subjects, was worth broadcasting. We, this show, is interested in the Jewish communal conversation, especially as it intersects the news of the day, with the goal that when we look for those angles that are intersections, we don’t just narcissistically or parochially, make big stories about us and our concerns.

In other words, what I want to ask today in this show is for us as Jewish leaders, when we see major issues like this materializing in the world, we need to ask ourselves, what is our piece of the work? For North American Jews, there are three easy points of entry into the significant story, why it matters and why it matters to us, in addition to simply being part of eroding democratic norms in the west, in which we live. 

Well first, there’s the reality that many of us come from and identify with the places we are seeing as the sites of this war on the news, whether in our distant past or our more recent past. Over Shabbat I spoke with my father about our family heritage. I’ve said on this show before that I’m unusual in that all four of my grandparents were born in America and I feel very distant from their immigrant stories. But yes, my paternal grandmother came from Lviv, sometimes in its history called Lemberg. And my paternal grandfather claimed to have come from somewhere near Chernobyl.

Many of us Ashkenazi Jews trace some of our heritage to places that now constitute parts of Ukraine. And many of us are ambivalent about that in the sense that our ancestors would certainly never have thought of themselves as Ukrainian. And then whether or not there are actually ancestors, there are also our Jewish forebears.

Rabbanit Leah Sarna, put out a call online before Shabbat that we teach of the Torah produced in Ukraine by the many learned masters from that part of the world. Meantime, there’s a significant minority in our Jewish community that sees Ukraine, not as a point of origin in their distant past, but the place from which they themselves came, part of the growing segment of our community that we sometimes referred to as Russian-speaking Jews or Jews of the former Soviet Union. For them, these news stories are of a totally different emotional valence entirely.

There’s a second story here, which is about what it means for us as Jews to watch an Imperial war of conquest materialized again in Europe, not 80 years after the end of the last one that still continues to create and transmit real and epigenetic trauma in our Jewish souls. And then the third story is that there are just a lot of Jews living in Ukraine for which Ukraine is not mythos or memory, but home. I couldn’t quite figure out the numbers of how many Jews are in what is now called Ukraine, because Jews are notoriously difficult to count, but let’s assume somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand Jews making Ukraine home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. And it’s a diverse Jewish community, a complicated Jewish community.

In my shul on Shabbat, our rabbi, Katie Greenberg mentioned that there are actually four synagogues in Ukraine that identify with the Masorti movement, the international signifier for conservative Judaism. That surprised me, Ukrainian Jews represent the denominational spectrum and they are vulnerable right now.

Many of us are watching videos and stories of Jews shutting down synagogues and running for the border. We recognize that story from our past, we mourn it in our presence. There’s a fourth other super complicated story that we’re not going to get into today about Israel, the nature of its response right now, the ways in which it is ambivalently responding to this moment because of the presence of Russian troops on its Northern border and the question of its relationship to the United States, to Russia, and to Ukraine, I think that’ll be a little bit beyond our conversation.

My guests to help me unpack this, to whom I’m really grateful for the ways that they are showing up here, last minute, and with a lot of other urgent things to work on are Roman Shmulenson, who is the executive director of COGECO, the council of Jewish emigre community organizations, which is the central coordinating body of the Russian-speaking Jewish community in New York, and Nancy Kaufman, who’s the principal of a consulting firm on Jewish communal strategy, and previously served as the executive director of the JCRC in Boston, as well as National Council of Jewish women and spent many years over many trips, building a relationship between the Boston Jewish community and the Jewish community in Dnipro, what is now called Dnipro. And I’m grateful to both of you for being here. 

Roman, let me start with you. Uh, it will be helpful for me and for our listeners, to give us a state of mind of your constituents. You represent about 30 organizations in the New York area who represent Jewish communities from the former Soviet union. Some Ukrainian, some not, maybe give us a little bit of a window into what people are simply feeling right now that you see from your position of leadership. 

Roman: Yehuda, thank you so much for inviting me. Indeed these are strange and puzzling times. And uh, if I had to characterize how the community feels, the words would be at a loss. We are at a loss for words, we are at a loss for ways to explain it. We are at a loss to understand how to respond. We are at a loss to explain to our children what it means to them, mostly American Jewish children. Uh, there’s only one thing that’s very clear. Blood is being spilled, in our former Homeland, and the images are terrible. 

The phone calls to our friends and family members are absolutely heart-wrenching, there’s a sense of helplessness.There’s also a sense of frustration. Many of us left many years ago and told our families to do so as. And they chose to stay and build their lives and Jewish lives in Ukraine or in the former Soviet union. So there’s a lot of, I told you so. And why didn’t you listen to me, going on. 

At the same time, there’s, uh, frustration with Russia and Ukraine. Many of us left the country when it was still part of the former Soviet union. And we never identified, frankly, with either Russians or Ukrainians, in the former Soviet Union being Jewish was an ethnic identity. So our friends and our neighbors and our classmates were Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians, Poles, Crimean Tatars, and we were the Jews.

So we never frankly, identified with one side or another side. So, uh, you know, uh, it’s very hard to explain to our children who ask us, well, are we Russian or are we Ukrainian? Well, if my daughter asked me, you know, mama’s from Kiev, so she’s Ukrainian, but you were born in Russia. So you are Russian. So are your countries fighting? And we’re saying, you know no, we are two, we are really two Ashkenazi Jews whom whom fate threw into former Soviet union. And our families ended up there. And we had some good moments. We had some wonderful Russian and Ukrainian friends with whom we are still in touch.

And we deeply hurt for them at this time. Uh, but ultimately we are Jews who see our future and our present, you know, uh, with the American Jewish community, with the state of Israel. And, uh, it’s, you know, it’s rather hard to explain. At the same time these are places that we see on TV and on the internet, that, you know, my wife says, Hey, that’s, that’s my school on fire, you know, or things like that. 

So whether you identify or not, it’s very hard to separate yourself emotionally. And many of us don’t want to, frankly, you know, this is part of who we are, this enriches who we are, builds our identity. And, uh, it’s very scary. 

Yehuda: There was a tremendous, uh, short essay, which gets at some of what I think you’re describing by Jake Marmer, uh, on Tablet. Um, who said, uh, watched his resistance to some of his friends on social media, changing their profiles to include the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. And he says, I couldn’t do that. The Ukrainian flag as such reminds me of Ukrainian nationalism, which reminds me of why I left and why so many other Jews left.

Roman: He’s not wrong. 

Yehuda: He writes, and I’ll just finish this paragraph. He says, “the Ukrainian brand of nationalism had always come with a side dish of antisemitism. It’s not that I don’t stand with Ukraine. I do. And if not entirely with then maybe just a little diagonally. I think that’s what numerous Jewish immigrants from Ukraine all over the world are feeling right now. The bitter aftertaste of the motherland that systematically persecuted us and the deep heartbreaking concern for our numerous friends, relatives, and neighbors who stayed.” So it sounds a little bit like the way you’re describing is captured in that kind of ambivalence. 

Roman: Very much so. You will always hear some people in our community saying that the only flag you will see next on my profile picture on social media is the flag of the United States of America, because I deeply love and respect this country, and the flag of the state of Israel, because this is my spiritual and ancestral Homeland.

So you will not see any other flag on my profile picture. Yeah. I happen to change mine to Ukrainian flag. Uh, for very different reasons, uh, I got a little bit of a pushback from my American and Russian speaking, Ukrainian Jewish friends. And, uh, I’m happy to explain why I did that. 

Yehuda: Yeah. So Nancy, I know that when you were at JCRC and probably since then made a lot of trips to Ukraine, built relationships with those Jewish communities, I’ve seen you reflecting on social media, quite poignantly about what it means to watch this story unfold. Maybe tell us a little bit about why Ukraine and some of its Jewish communities became such an important part of your leadership and kind of what you’re reflecting on back as you’re watching this story unfold. 

Nancy: Well, thank you. Thank you, Yehuda, and nice to be with you, Roman. Uh, this is deeply personal and painful on many levels. And Roman, you’ve touched on a couple that I want to touch on as well. Um, many of us were involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. Many of us did everything we could to get Jews out.

And then lo and behold, the Soviet Union falls and collapses and Roman, like you said, many people said, okay, don’t be deceived. We should get out. And I think that’s where some of the pain comes in because some of us, and I, for one in Boston felt like, okay, there’s people trying to rebuild Jewish life and the former Soviet Union for the first time in a generation, and isn’t it our responsibility to partner and help build a vibrant community. We in Boston pick Dnipropetrovsk, now Dnipro, much easier to say. For some interesting reasons, now Dnipropetrovsk no one had ever heard of, it was a closed city before the breakup of the Soviet Union on the list of JDC communities who were getting assistance, uh, it was number 26, however, it had the fourth largest Jewish community in the former Soviet union. So there was this disconnect and those of us who are advocates felt like, whoa, we want to dive in and help.

We then meet this young, 24 year old charismatic rabbi, who had been sent to Schneerson, by the Rebbe. Why? Because the Rebbe’s father and grandfather had been the chief rabbi of Dnipro, he spent, uh, from age 7 to 22 there, his father was arrested and tortured and exiled by the Soviets to Kazakhstan where he died in 1944, while his grandfather was murdered by the Nazis.

And so when there was this opportunity, he said, okay, you know, it’s time for us now to go back and rebuild. So, that young, at that time, 24 year old rabbi, that’s Shmuel Kamenetsky, had a vision that he is going to rebuild Jewish life. And I remember in 1992 him taking me to a rundown munitions factory, in those early days it was still very Soviet, very stark, and uh, and he said, “I’m going to turn this into a beautiful synagogue.” And we all kinda rolled our eyes, and we said “Sure, sure, right.” I went to the dedication of that synagogue ten years later, when Kuchma, wearing a kippa, came to dedicate the synagogue. It was like an out of body experience. 

So, yes, um, , the land of my grandfather who was born in Kiev, I, as you said, I, I was always told he was born in Russia, but then I realized he was born in Ukraine. Um, I have to tell you that when I first went there, I felt a similar feeling to how I do when I go to Israel. You know, I love Israel. I’ve been there, you know, dozens and dozens of times, I felt like there was a karmic connection, that yes, my ancestors had been there and I saw it and I met people who had not known what Judaism was for over a generation who lived through the Stalin era, they lived through world war two. They weren’t afraid to practice their Judaism, but the kids remembered the piece of matzo that their grandmother used to take out of her drawer at a certain time of year around April and then I realized we as a Jewish community, one thing we know how to do is build community. 

That’s what we do, right. That’s what we’ve done all over the world. So slowly, slowly we watched and we partnered with the community and in Dnipropetrovsk and yes, the synagogue, a day school with 400 kids in it, at home for the elderly, a Jewish big brother big sister program.

And you go on down the list, Jewish community center, the list of the things we do as Jews to build community. And it was all rolling out and it was. You know, turning into a beautiful city. So we went from the hotel in Dnipropetrovsk which the little old lady sat in the hallway and there were no lights handing out the keys to the Hotel Ukraine on Karl Marx Boulevard.

I mean, it was just magnificent, uh, what had happened there and, and it, and I was proud to be part of it. So I sit now and I watch what’s happening and I’m, first of all, as everyone in total shock that Putin could be allowed. And I have some political things to say about why the world has not done more sooner.

Uh, and I’d say that in a non-partisan way and I’ll, you know, I’ll just be as critical as Obama not responding to Crimea as I will of Trump calling him an evil genius. You know, I, I am really sick. I think the good news that I feel now is that what he has managed to do. It’s not only you unite Ukraine unbelievably so. 

Create a Zelinsky as an amazing leader. And, unite NATO in the European community, but it is painful because there were many people early on in this effort, donors in Boston, you know, we would take trips, we would take missions. We would take small groups amd large groups to visit.

And, and by the way, people rolled up their sleeves. You know, the people who worked on disabilities in Boston, worked on a program for disabled kids in Ukraine. People worked on microenterprise in Boston, worked on microenterprise for women in Ukraine. I mean, you go down the list of all the organizations, but there were those who said what you just said, Roman, which is they should get out.

They’ll never, never be totally welcome in that part of the world. They should get out. And we said, no. If people want to choose to stay and live and build their life, we should support them. And so fast forward Dnipropetrovsk now has one of the largest complexes, community centers, hotel, kosher, uh, Holocaust museum of anywhere in Europe.

I mean, it’s, it’s remarkable and people don’t know what.

Yehuda: So let’s unpack that a little bit because I it’s interesting that a project like COGECO, which is about community mobilizing in New York and a project, like what you described, Nancy, for the Jewish community in Dnipro are actually in some ways opposite. We can cultivate both the validity, legitimacy, flourishing of Jewish communities that choose to stay wherever they choose to stay.

And then the other is, “How do I rebuild or constitute Jewish community for those who have left?” But it’s hard to escape, and kind of, both of you alluded to this, kind of, I told you so thing, it’s hard to escape that, and it’s true by the way, both by American Jews who believe, you know, through American exceptionalism of the superiority of the American Jewish project, by everyone else.

And it’s true for Zionists. This is a really hard project for the state of Israel. You remember a few years ago when after the Charlie Hebdo shooting when Netanyahu effectively said that to Parisian Jews, “I told you so,” right. So there’s this weird thing that I think that, it’s worth naming, because I think it’s part of the psychology of continued Jewish life, of how we watch stories like this unfold and whether our first instinct and response is, “How do I help support those who are there?” vs. “How do I facilitate the exit for those who I thought should have been leaving before?”

 Nancy, how do you see that? How do you feel when you watch the news?

Nancy: Uh, very conflicted, very, very, very conflicted. Uh, if you had asked me that question a year ago, two years ago, five years ago, I would have said Jews have a right to live anywhere. Isn’t that what we always say, Jews have a right to live anywhere. We should be able to live in peace with security and democracy anywhere. 

Jews have been thriving and living in Ukraine for the past 30 years. no one anticipated. And again, this isn’t about the Jews, cause obviously it’s all of Ukraine, so I don’t want to make it about the Jews, but you know, we are a sub-section, and we could look at the macro and we could look at the micro, um, you know, Shmuel Kamenetsky, is, uh, has Israeli passport, and American, and he considered himself to be Ukrainian.

He said, I will be the last Jew to leave here. Um, he plans to support his community. To see a synagogue packed to the gills on Shabbat with, with people coming, going to walk with the rabbi through the marketplace, in Dnipropetrovsk on a, on Shabbat and see kids from his Jewish day school, you know, buying things and just saying Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom, you know, welcoming supporting, and to see the way, quite frankly, from a community relations point of view, that that particular rabbi who obviously I know the best, interacted and became engaged in local politics with local religious leaders, with other people in the community did not separate themselves in the community like the old days of Eastern Europe. So, eh, there is good reason to understand why they felt comfortable, and had developed a thriving community.

So I can’t say that we were wrong. I don’t think we were wrong. I think Putin’s wrong. Um, I think that people have a right to live where they want to live, including Jews, and they were having quite a wonderful life. And, and by the way many of his grandchildren were born in Crown Heights, from Brooklyn, some in Israel, uh there’s you know, you go back and forth, there’s a lot of Israelis in Dnipropetrovsk, or have been, I know the Israelis have called back a lot of people. JDC is there, the Jewish agency’s there. Um, you know, they’ve done everything that they’ve done and other diaspora communities in the world. So this is hard. This is really hard.

Yehuda: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting, uh, as a very much a tangent, my family and I were traveling last week and we, we went to Italy. Uh, it was, it was great. And, and I, when we spent Shabbat in Rome, in the synagogue and in one of the kosher restaurants that you can prepay, I think my kids, there’s something about not America and not Israel that you can understand Jewish peoplehood in a totally different way.

There’s something about it. So at the risk of instrumentalizing these communities, there, this is, we don’t really get diaspora in America. We don’t really get that sense of Jewish peoplehood, of building something that is of a complicated Jewish identity and complicated places. And you’re watching these communities struggle right now and flee.There’s an unbelievable loss to our understanding of what we really mean when we talk about global Jewry. 

Roman, I’d love for you to come in on this also, because I’m sure this is for you, and also for many of the network communities that you’re working with, such a complicated question. 

Roman: You know, for many years I thought I was wrong. You know, when we said there is no future for these people as Jews in that part of the world, if they choose to stay and be lost to the Jewish people, fine, that’s their choice. We are going to the United States and to Israel and we will rebuild and reconnect with our Jewish heritage.

When people started coming later from the former Soviet Union, the ones who experienced, uh, strong and vibrant Jewish communities and Jewish learning and Jewish summer camps, they came to the United States. We said, my god, Yeah, well, they know more, they are better connected. They understand more. My wife comes from a traditional Jewish home where her father was a Refusenik and studied Hebrew in secret, you know?

And, uh, in the early nineties, they were part of Kiev Jewish community. She spoke fluent Hebrew. She read, she knew things that I had no idea about. And here I was the wise one, you know, who came to the United States and did so to reconnect with the Jewish community. I was nowhere on the same level in terms of Jewish knowledge, in terms of Jewish connection, in terms of Jewish community life.

So for many years, I thought, you know, I really was wrong. Maybe I even wish that I stayed for five, seven more years and experienced that revival of Jewish life that I frankly missed. I almost felt jealous. At the same time when I spoke to one of the, uh, donors, who was very supportive of a revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet union.

And we, uh, the question was asked in a group setting. Oh, why are you investing in that community if there’s no future? And he said, “We are investing in people. Wherever Jews are, this is where we are investing, where they choose to live or where they will end up living is a whole different story. You know, things go bad. They can go to Israel, they can go to the United States, but they will have something that you can not take away from them. And that’s a sense of Jewish pride, a sense of Jewish community.” 

And I think the Jews who will leave. Uh, some of the Ukrainian cities today are leaving as part of the community, they will have a much easier time connecting to the new Jewish communities that they might have to build from scratch or at least connecting with the existing Jewish communities. But I am ready to admit that I was wrong and you know, all that investment was absolutely worth it. And, uh, you know, they are part of the global Jewish community. 

Yehuda: Of course. And I have to ask, I mean, one of the things that really think that the organized Jewish community has struggled with for 30 years, Nancy, you were an exemplar on this of like, what does it look like to actually be part of truly absorbing, the number of immigrants that came from the former Soviet union, the early nineties, but widely speaking, the Jewish community really failed, if I can say so. 

And the reason for the need for the organizations, the prompt, the creation of a network organization like COGECO was because of Jews who basically felt underserved by many of the communal infrastructure that couldn’t fully embrace them for who they were. 

So I’m just curious, like, I was very taken Roman by your line, maybe staying five to seven years would have been, I would have liked to have seen that happen. I can imagine that a Jewishness that flourishes in a place where people are born, where you’re not learning a new language, where you can actually produce a Judaism that is Russian speaking in Russian contexts, uh, there’s something there that forcing a vision of like, of a Jewishness to re-emerge in far away places is just too much to ask. I mean, there’s something it’s not just tragic to see the demise of these Jewish communities. It’s also. Um, there’s also just something so, uh, embarrassing about needing to imagine that they’re going to have to start their Jewishness somewhere else, if that makes sense. Roman?

Roman: I don’t know if we should be embarrassed. I mean, uh, people who are attacking those cities should be embarrassed and, uh, you know, uh, the Jewish community and the global Jewish community has done a tremendous job. And, uh, the reason COGECO was created, I think, is because in American Jewish community was operating in frankly, a resettlement mode. Right. We give you a freedom. We give you a job. We give you English as a second language course, nobody goes hungry. Everybody has an apartment. Uh, whereas the such things as Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish community, were not completely ignored, but we’re approached in a very different way.

It was a bit, I would say, paternalistic, you know, “Here we have an organized Jewish community, come and join. We got you out, come and join. That we have everything set up.” Right. And, uh, maybe it would have been better if it was on a more partner level. We are, Russian Jews have as much to offer to the organized Jewish community as to learn, right.

There are unique experiences among this community that no one else has. Unique talents, unique, creative people, you know, unique creative minds that only now slowly, even considering being part of the Jewish community and say, “Hey, I have something to offer.” Not just to, you know, here’s an English as a second language course and the food package.

Right. So, but it always takes two to tango. So I’m always very careful not to point fingers and not to put blame on anyone why this didn’t work as well as it could have.

Roman: Russian Jews, or a tough community, Russian speaking Jews, you know, we gotta be careful with the terms these days eh?

So Russian-speaking Jews are a tough community to work with. Uh, we like to be, as we say, “sredi svoikh,” uh, right, amongst your own. Right? So there’s this warm, fuzzy feeling of being with people that are just like you, and it’s not that we don’t like somebody and it’s not that we don’t want to be part of a larger Jewish community, but there is something that we want to preserve and you know, when you are in your parents’ home in a sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and you can put your feet up on the couch. 

Yeah, there’s this warm, fuzzy feeling that you can’t replace. If I come to your home, of course I’ll, or you come to my home, of course I’ll be polite and courteous and well-behaved, it just not the same. 

Yehuda: It’s not the same. 

Roman: So, so, uh, you know, but I wouldn’t pass blame or feel embarrassed for any of it.

Nancy: I want to, can I add to that, too? I just want to remind ourselves on this one. Cause it’s so easy to think of the Jewish piece of this is somehow unique. So this isn’t about antisemitism. I mean, it could be, and it could have been, but it isn’t right. This is about Ukraine and about Russia. And I, I say it because, um, you know, we’re, we’re a subset now.

And I think the Jews of Ukraine feel very much part of Ukraine and part of the Jewish diaspora. Again, going back to this book by Larry Tye, he said, talking about Dnipropetrovsk that it stirs the same mixed emotions and Jews who have lived there all their lives to some it’s tortured history is all the reason they need to escape others often in the same household, say that after all they’ve endured, it would be sad to abandon their birth place just as they taste their first freedom, whether they see it as limiting or liberating, all agree that for them, history has been a defining experience. 

Roman: Nancy, I agree with you. It’s uh, you know, it’s almost ironic how both sides use Nazi imagery and a you know anti-Semitism to blame the other side, it’s almost a competition, you know, who is less antisemitic and to portray the other side as Nazis. Right? So uh, for us to hear a battle for Kiev or Kiev is being bombed, just, you know, just the language, you know. 

Yehuda: Right. Well, that’s, I mean, that’s one of the most complicated pieces of this. Yes. There are ways in which talking about Jews and Jewishness are a parochial version of what is a global conflict between two countries. On the other hand, Putin himself describes this invasion as the deNazification of Ukraine.

Right. For all sorts of complicated reasons that have to do with right-wing nationalism as being a fuel of Ukrainianism. Right. And the land claims involved and trying to position himself as anti-imperialist even in the playing out of an Imperial thing. But there it is, again, right, there it is in the background, the language of Nazi and, it’s almost impossible in a kind of yin yang sense to hear Nazi and not hear Jew. So it’s kind of inevitable that we, as a Jewish community, I’m not just thinking about this because we’re Jews and therefore we talk about Jews, but because it kind of plays a role in this story in ways that I think are bigger than us. 

Nancy: Right. And it’s pretty ironic when, uh, a Jew is called a Nazi. I mean, that, that is, um, like bizarre.

Yehuda: Great. So let’s take a little bit of a different tactic here, because both of you work also in places, in Jewish leadership with agency, with the real ability to do things. And , I will say I’ve been encouraged by what has seemed to me, a kind of wall to wall in the Jewish community mobilizing effort. There are obviously going to be different political opinions about certain aspects of this, but it’s been pretty wall-to-wall in terms of opposing the Russian invasion and feeling a sense of responsibility to at least help support Ukrainian Jews, if not more.

So what would you like that agenda to continue to look like? What are the more important pieces of what you think the Jewish community should be doing right now to respond to a crisis like this, besides this, which is talking about it, I’ll start with you Nancy, and then I’ll go to you, Roman, what do you, what do you want us to do?

Nancy: Well, I think what’s been interesting about this is the numbers of people I’m hearing from who knew I’ve been involved over the years and Ukraine who never paid any attention. Right. And never paid any attention to the fact that, you know, hundreds of thousands, not only still live there.

Oh, really? Jews still live there? Also, I would say, Roman, locally, haven’t paid a lot of attention to the wonderful people in our own myths who came from there and you know, have just given back to this country in huge ways. So I’d say wake up, there’s a wake up call here, that’s really important.

About how, how we do live in a bubble. Uh, we worry about Israel a lot. We talk about Israel lot. When there’s a crisis in a diaspora community in Argentina and Paris or wherever is any antisemitic event, then we come alive. But you know, what has been going on in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union with the Jewish community, you know, no matter what, the final chapter is on this and whether this now drives people out, these 30 years should be seen as quite a miracle of the rebuilding of Jewish life.

It is, uh, to me, I have never felt my Judaism more deeply, not even when I go to Israel, than I did in Ukraine when I saw older men with gold teeth, with their medals, singing in a chorus at the synagogue, or a woman singing about yiddishe mama or speaking and hugging, it’s a joy of living a Jewish life and they have been joyful, right.

People who came back into Judaism after an entire generation of not having it. And it’s that joyfulness that was really contagious. We brought young adults there. We brought high school kids there. We brought, you know, all kinds of people who felt like, oh my God, I need to appreciate what I have in America as a Jew.

I need to appreciate it. I need to celebrate it. It’s a special thing. And look at what they’re doing over there.

Yehuda: Great, so the wake up call is a big part of it. Let’s learn about these Jewish communities. Let’s take pride in it. Roman, what would you push for right now? What do you want to see the Jewish community doing in response to this crisis? 

Roman: Well now in the middle of the crisis, obviously we have to help, uh, Jewish communities there. There’s no question about it. But several years before, I think I voiced this frustration a little bit in my response to a previous question. We have a Russian speaking Jewish community right here in the United States.

And very often we are invisible. People don’t know about us. People don’t see us. We are about 20 to 25% of the Jewish community of New York City. Okay. People don’t realize it every fourth or fifth, Jew in the city of New York lives in a Russian speaking Jewish household, you know, where are these people?

Where are they in our institutions? Are they at our leadership table? Are they in our educational settings? Very little of that is happening. Again, you know, Uh, not to put blame on anybody. Uh, this community is very reluctant to come out and be part of the larger community as well. So I do think it’s important to notice Russian speaking Jews, you know, at our JCCs, in our day schools, right. And to find the language, to engage them in a much more meaningful dialogue. 

At the same time, you know, now in a time of crisis, I say, you know, who are we to complain? You know, we are in the United States, we are safe. Uh, Jewish community institutions are welcoming us with open arms, maybe on their own terms and maybe not in such a sensitive way, but you know, stop kvetching and, uh, and do something for people who are really sitting in the subway at night. I’m not sure. Yeah. So things like that.

Yehuda: Let me push through a little bit, Roman, which is my instinct right now as a, just as a Jew, as a is. Okay. Where can I put my dollars. And so I’ll find the support organizations like the JDC, or I dunno, ORT, or there’s hatzalah in Ukraine, here’s a bunch, a bunch of Jewish organizations, uh, through the Federation systems, et cetera, that are basically doing humanitarian aid to help the Jewish communities either survive right now or, or escape.

What would be something that could connect the dots between direct support for Jews in the middle of crisis right now, and what you’re talking about, which is privileging, the voices of Jews who are formerly from Ukraine? How might your Jewish communities right now, and your organizations serve as a useful bridge for the rest of us, either to understand what’s taking place or to actually be helpful in getting involved.

Roman: I would say, you know, just getting our voices heard, just the fact that you’re inviting me today. I mean, it took a crisis in the Ukraine, right? Uh, you know, most people don’t know who we are, what we do. There’s a wide rich Jewish art and culture and literature and things like that.

It doesn’t always have to be, I mean, now it is, but in, hopefully soon in peaceful times, cultural, educational, social programs, where people get to learn about this community, about its contribution to world Jewish culture. People don’t realize, but Odesa is the birthplace of Hasidism, you know, Odesa is a home of Hayin Nahman Bialik, and Jabotinsky, and Rachel, the poetess, and all of these things were born in Ukraine.

The people don’t even realize, and um, there was something in the air. There was something there that gave birth to all these wonderful movements, right? Some in response to tragedies, obviously like Bohdan Khmelnytsky, right? But others in response to earning of Jewish people to have their Homeland and the, you know, there is something there that should not be ignored and it can enrich the entire Jewish community. 

Yehuda: So, let me ask you one last question to both of you, uh, which is, you know, it takes moments like this to create a sense of peoplehood. And I feel very sad about that. I feel like my life’s work has been to try to help the Jewish community believe in some notion of Jewish peoplehood that doesn’t have to get created by crisis and antisemitism, that those things are shortcuts, but that we should believe in this because it actually creates a framework for us to see our mutual flourishing together, but this is going to fall apart fast. Not only because, it’s a crisis and therefore a crisis by definition, short-lived. But because we’re watching already that this is becoming a partisan political story in America, and that there are a lot of people who are going to start pretty soon recognizing that if they want to stay pro-Trump in America, they’re going to have to change their narrative a little bit on Ukraine. And then what does that do to their sense of solidarity? So I guess I want to push a little bit for each of you to respond to, what do we need to do to hold on to something that we might learn about Jewish peoplehood in a moment like this?

How do we preserve some sense of collective responsibility that enables us to push against the forces that will inevitably try to push us apart from this? Nancy, I’ll start with you. 

Nancy: I would say one word: democracy. Democratic institutions, supporting democracy, Jews have thrived only where they’ve been able and free to thrive, right. Where there’s been democratic, some better than others, you know, maybe in Poland right now, we have some issues, but to see, Hungary even, condemning Russia.

I mean, this, it’s so interesting, but I think that we need to be able to stand up and say that someone like a Putin, someone like a Hitler, someone who just has no moral compass, is simply not good for the Jews. Not good for anyone, but certainly not good for the Jews.

And I don’t care, you know, again, where your political things are is that we’ve got to be willing to stand up. I heard Mitt Romney on one of the programs earlier today and, you know, I worked with him closely at Massachusetts and boy, he really went after some of his colleagues on the Republican side in a way I had, you know, he’s always been critical, but it was quite, quite vociferous. And I think we need to hear more of that.

Yehuda: Mhm. Roman.  

Roman: Uh, not to sound naive, but I think something really good will come out of it. I don’t think frankly, there is a way back for Ukraine. And I don’t think there is a way back for Ukrainian Jewish community. I don’t think there’s a way back for American Jewish community in responding to that. So out of this absolute tragedy you know, this should never, ever happen to any other community in the world, but out of this tragedy comes an opportunity to be a global Jewish community, to be a connected Jewish community, to be a caring Jewish community, to be sensitive to all the nuances and complexities of the situation. Not everything is this way or that way. It’s complicated. And they think we should grow to appreciate the complexity of these issues and be okay with it.

You know, it’s not this one’s fault or that one’s fault. It’s not Democrats or Republicans. It’s not those who left, and those who stayed. It’s not secular or religious. We are one global Jewish community that has to learn to live with nuances and complexities. And the sooner we do it, the better for all of us and the richer and more vibrant and powerful, our community will be. 

Yehuda: I’m grateful to both of you. And I obviously will conclude just by dedicating this to the people, our people standing in harm’s way right now, um, and praying for their, um, as we watch this story, even as we talk about all of its implications, what it means for us, what it means for the world, for America, for the Jewish people, uh, we just pray for their safety. 

Nancy: Amen. 

Yehuda: So thanks to both of you to Roman Shmulenson and to Nancy Kaufman for being on Identity Crisis week. And thanks to all of you for listening. Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and Alex Dillon, and edited by M. Louis Gordon, with assistance from Miriam Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz, and music provided by Socalled.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs to find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes and feedback about our show. If you’d like to suggest a topic, or if comments on this episode or any other, you can write to us at [email protected], you can rate and review our show on iTunes to help more people find it.

And you can subscribe to our show, wherever podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week. And thanks for listening.

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