1200 Years of Jews in Ukraine

I have been thinking a lot about my grandmother this week. Baba Fania, zikhra livracha, was born in a city called Kamenets-Podolsk, in Ukraine.  She moved with her family to Kremenchug when she was a girl.

Her father died when she was young, so she and her sisters were left to be raised by her mother, my great grandmother, Chana. It was the 1930’s and so she received a good Soviet education, in Yiddish. She came home one day and told her mother that there was no God. Her mother smacked her, and declared emphatically, “I don’t care what they are telling you out there.  In this house, there is a God.”

As I was eating challah last night, I was thinking of a story that she told.  At times, they could not get any eggs. In order to get the golden color, they would take used tea bags and brush them over the dough.

My Baba escaped from Ukraine in 1941, just before the Nazis came into town. Her sisters and mother did not make it out, and were murdered along with the rest of her family. Dana and I named our son after my grandmother’s cousin, who died in the Holocaust.

Over the last several days, as we have observed the tragedy unfolding in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I have been thinking a lot about my Baba Fania. I have never been to Ukraine, but it is has felt very personal to me. I know that I must have distant relatives there, who are surely fearing for their lives.  I do not know how far back my own family’s history extends, but for sure it is many centuries. 

The history of Jews in Ukraine is a long one, and has gone through dramatic ups and downs, often at the same time.

Jews first arrived in Ukraine in the eighth century as refugees fleeing from the Byzantine Empire, Persia, and Mesopotamia. The earliest written reference to Jews in Galicia, Western Ukraine, is from 1030 CE.

Some time in the centuries that followed, the territory that is today modern Ukraine was taken over by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As part of their administration, they would settle wealthy Polish Catholic nobles in Ukraine, and then encourage Jews to immigrate and serve as merchants. Jewish life prospered financially and culturally, and the population grew.

As might be expected, the local Ukrainian population, which was Eastern Orthodox, was kept in serfdom.

Resentment grew until, in 1648, as the Kingdom faced growing internal and external threats, Bogdan Chmelnytsky launched a Cossack rebellion. This led in 1651 to the incorporation of Ukraine by the Russian Tsar as a protectorate.

The Chmelnytsky revolt was devastating. Blaming the Poles for selling them “as slaves into the hands of the accursed Jews,” the Ukrainian Cossacks and Crimean Tatars murdered between fifteen and thirty thousand Jews and destroyed three hundred Jewish communities. The population declined dramatically, as many more Jews fled as refugees or died of disease and starvation.

But within a few decades, the tide would turn. The early 18th century saw the birth of Yisrael ben Eliezer, otherwise known as the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. Heavily influenced by Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, Chasidism was incredibly popular and spread through much of Eastern Europe, making a huge and lasting impact on Ashkenazi Jewry.

By the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire had completely annexed Ukraine, which created a problem, as Jews were not permitted to live in Russia. This led Catherine the Great to create the Pale of Settlement, which encompassed, among other areas, all of present day Ukraine.

Jewish life thrived through the eighteen hundreds, with the population growing and Jewish religious and cultural life expanding. At the same time, antisemitism was brutal. In 1881, Jews were falsely blamed for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. With the encouragement of the authorities, pogroms were launched against Jewish communities throughout the Pale of Settlement, including in Ukraine. 

Tsar Alexander III introduced the May Laws in 1882 that imposed systematic discrimination against Jews, establishing quotas for educational and professional positions. This led to even more widespread poverty and mass emigration. The 1886 edict of Expulsion forced the removal of Jews living in Kyiv.

Another intense wave of pogroms in 1905 led to another wave of emigration. Multiple blood libels cases occurred between 1911 and 1913.

For context, this is the time period of Fiddler on the Roof. A lot of new ideas were spreading through Europe at this time, and Jews were attracted to some of the new ideologies that suggested an answer to the problems they were facing, that seemed to never go away. Jewish thinkers and revolutionaries were attracted to ideals of the enlightenment and internationalism. Jewish revolutionaries embraced socialism and became Communists. Others embraced Zionism, with many making aliyah to Palestine.

After World War One, during a short time period of 1917 to 1921, while the Russian Revloution was taking place, the Ukrainian People’s Republic presented a hopeful, albeit short-lived, moment for Jews. It was an independent socialist state that emerged in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Yiddish was an official language, even appearing on currency. All government posts and institutions had Jewish members and all rights of Jewish culture were guaranteed. It was the first government to establish a Ministry for Jewish Affairs.

But the backlash was severe. Anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists went to war against the Soviets, and in the process killed approximately one hundred thousand Jews in pogroms between 1918 and 1921.

By 1921, Ukraine had been conquered by the Soviets, becoming one of its republics. The 1920’s saw brutal efforts to eliminate Jewish religion and leave it with only a secular cultural identity, explaining why my grandmother learned in Yiddish that there was no God.

The Holocaust was devastating. More than one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and many Ukrainian collaborators.

In 1941, there were 2.7 million Jews living in Ukraine. In 1959, that number was 840,000. By 1989, there were less than 500,000 Jews living in Ukraine.

Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, and this led to continued changes in the situation for Jews living there. Hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated, most making aliyah to Israel.

At the same time, throughout the 1990’s, Jewish life began to reemerge. There was a lot of interest from Jewish communities in Israel and the West to support Ukrainian Jews and help them come back. The government has returned dozens of old synagogues and other buildings to the Jewish community which had been confiscated by the Nazis and the Soviets.

While antisemitism seems to have declined in the past thirty years, there have certainly been many instances of antisemitic attacks.  A far right Ukrainian nationalist party gained more than ten percent of the popular vote in 2012. On the other hand, last year, in 2021, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a new law defining antisemitism and providing compensation for victims.

Attempts to determine the number of Jews currently living in Ukraine are wildly varying. Questions of Jewish identity, after 70 years of Soviet suppression, make it difficult. A 2020 census estimated 43,000 self-identifying Jews, but 200,000 would qualify for aliyah under the Law of Return. The European Jewish Congress claims that there could be as many as four hundred thousand people with Jewish ancestry in Ukraine.

Most Jews live in the cities Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Odessa. Those who live in villages tend to be elderly, and extremely poor. There are multiple synagogues, Hebrew schools, day schools, mikvaot, kosher restaurants, and six Jewish community centers. There are Jewish summer camps, which were able to resume this past summer after closing for Covid restrictions.

Ten Jewish newspapers are published in Kyiv alone, four of which have circulations of more than ten thousand. A weekly television program, Yahad, is shown on state television.

Most of these Jewish institutions are run by Chabad-Lubavitch. The Reform movement is active in 20 cities.

The Conservative movement has also been active in Ukraine since independence. Through Masorti Olami, the global branch of the Conservative Movement, Ramah, and the Shechter Institute in Jerusalem, it runs programs supporting communities in multiple cities. It sponsors youth groups, and has been operated a Camp Ramah since the early 1990’s. There are several Masorti Rabbis serving Ukrainian communities.

Right now, some members of the Ukrainian Jewish community are fleeing to the West.  Others are staying where they are, praying for peace and trying to survive. Not surprisingly, the Jewish Agency is receiving many inquiries lately about making aliyah.

And of course, we must mention Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected President of Ukraine in 2019 with 73% of the vote. Zelensky is Jewish and the descendant of Holocaust survivors. At the time of his election, the Prime Minister of Ukraine happened to be Volodymyr Groysman, who is also Jewish. For a few months, Ukraine was the only country in the world other than Israel with a Jewish President and Prime Minister.

I encourage you to watch President Zelensky’s passionate appeal for peace to the people of Russia right before the invasion. I also encourage you to watch the forty second selfie video that he took with other members of his government on the streets of Kyiv Friday night as the city was preparing for being attacked. He insisted that they are not going anywhere. If you have not seen them, I encourage you to do so. And keep in mind the long history of Jews in Ukraine. To see the Jewish President of Ukraine speaking so courageously on behalf of all Ukrainians is astounding. It gave me chills to watch it. After over a thousand years, with all of its ups and downs, to see this, someone courageously standing up in the face of brutality and such danger is incredible.

If you have the capacity to do so, there are organizations that are trying to support people in Ukraine who are fleeing, and there will certainly be a tremendous need to support refugees in the months ahead.

I made a donation yesterday to Masorti Olami. The immediate cause they were trying to support was a group of one hundred fifty children who had fled to Lviv, in Western Ukraine.

I would like to close with a prayer for peace that was delivered at a service hosted by the Masorti movement on Thursday night. 

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