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Protecting Jews in Ukraine

Protecting Jews in Ukraine

Odessa's Jewish community leader speaks out on threats of violence. An exclusive.


As luck would have it, the Great Choral Synagogue is located not just in Odessa's central district, but at the epicenter.

It is the last place a Jew would want to be during the current Ukrainian civil unrest, where local militias have seized government buildings and police stations, and where running street battles have claimed thousands of casualties.

The two sides facing off: those who favor increased Russian influence in Ukraine, versus those who seek more independence and closer ties to the European Union.

This weekend, Rabbi Refael Kruskal of Odessa isn't taking any chances. He has moved nearly 1,000 Jews out of the city and to a rural retreat.

When there's trouble, Jews always seem to be caught in the middle.

"When there's trouble, Jews always seem to be caught in the middle," says Rabbi Kruskal who, as CEO of the Tikva social services network of in Odessa, is responsible for hundreds of orphaned children, college students and the elderly.

"I hesitate to use the word evacuation, which has emergency connotations," he told "We are taking the students to an environment where they're able to feel more relaxed."

This weekend is a double-barreled powder keg. On Friday (May 9, 2014), fierce gun battles left a police officer and dozens more dead on Victory Day – the anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Germany in WWII. On Sunday, Ukrainians take to the polls for a controversial referendum on the secession of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

The temporary evacuation of Odessa Jewry began as a security precaution, yet Rabbi Kruskal – having mastered the art of creating positive educational opportunities – brought in a special speaker from Israel and reconceived it as a long weekend retreat.

"We don't want to get caught in the middle," he said. "At such times it's best for the Jewish community to keep our head low and stay off the streets."

Sordid History

Ever since last November, when pro-Russian forces began agitating, Ukrainian Jewry has felt the heat.

2014: "Death to Jews" scrawled on a Ukranian synagogue

  • In April 2014, Gennady Kernes, the Jewish mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, was the target of an assassination attempt, shot in the neck during his routine morning jog.
  • The community got a scare in April when a leaflet of dubious origin calling for Jews to "register" was handed out in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk.
  • Several other anti-Semitic attacks, including stabbings and attempts to torch Ukrainian synagogues, have occurred since November.
The 1941 Odessa Massacre saw 80% of the 210,000 Jews murdered.

Odessa, a Black Sea shipping port, is already soaked in Jewish blood. Throughout the 19th century when Jews comprised some 40% of the city's population, a succession of deadly pogroms forced many Jews to flee. And in 1941, the Nazi-backed Odessa Massacre saw 80% of the region's 210,000 Jews murdered.

Today, Odessa's 45,000 Jews constitute just 4% of the population of one million, the fourth largest city in Ukraine.

Tikva program for underprivileged Jewish youth in OdessaOriginally from London, Rabbi Kruskal has spent 15 years in Odessa as CEO of Tikva, an organization founded in 1993 to assist the hundreds of local Jewish children without homes, suffering abuse and neglect, and relegated to bleak institutional settings or to living on the streets.

Rabbi Kruskal says that today many Jews are struggling to survive in an economy where the average wage is $50 per month, and which lacks social safety nets – to the point where some parents cannot cope and abandon their children out of sheer desperation.

The Tikva network is bringing a Jewish revival to Odessa, though how long the region remains safe for Jews is another question. Recent weeks have brought ruckus street demonstrations to right outside the Great Choral Synagogue – replete with masked gunmen.

Every day seems to pose a new challenge. "There was a rumor a few days ago that the water supply in Odessa had been poisoned, so everyone went scrambling for fresh water," Rabbi Kruskal says. "The rumor turned out not to be true, but people are stocking up, just in case. So there's a lot of fear and worry."

The violence and chaos raging in Ukraine has put Rabbi Kruskal in an unusual position from the standpoint of Jewish law: He has needed to answer phone calls from the police on Shabbat.

While remaining optimistic about the future of Odessa Jewry, Rabbi Kruskal – who also serves as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis – is not taking any chances. "Many of the propaganda websites are blaming the Jews for creating this entire mess," he says. "We've already added a special guard to the synagogue, and this weekend's retreat is a precaution to ensure that our community is out of range."

The near future is, unfortunately, expected to remain volatile. May 25 is the scheduled date for new presidential elections, and the ongoing violent tensions punctuated by mob rule increasingly resemble the beginning of a civil war.

Rabbi Kruskal is resolute about protecting his community. "If things get worse," he says, "we'll evacuate to a different country, if necessary."

May 10, 2014

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 23

(18) Pauline, May 13, 2014 7:51 PM

HELP them get out NOW!!!

My husband & his parents left the Ukraine (USSR) about 1990. Even with permission from the USSR & USA, and having passports, and having enough money to buy airplane tickets, and being healthy enough to travel (with all food in tow) to where the airplane tickets were for sale, and healthy enough to stay overnight (3 days & nights) in line for tickets, they finally got to the front of the line, to be told the place has "no tickets available today and to try again and maybe some will become available"....maybe if you know who to bribe??? So, when hearing of this, my husband's uncle (in USA) bought the airline tickets in USA, and paid someone that was going to Ukraine, to hand deliver the tickets. In other words, one can not get out so easily, if at all, on their own. They need personal help. And some may have special health needs that need extra precautions. I do hope all can be helped to go to Israel asap. Perhaps some Russian-Israelis could go to help in the Ukraine, to speak with and address the concerns of the people.

(17) Hindy Kierman, May 13, 2014 1:33 PM

Jews of Lvov (or Lviv)

My husband and I were privileged to spend Shabbat meals with the Rav and Rebbetzin of Lvov or Lviv as it is now called during the summer of 2012. They are Rabbi and Mrs. Mordechai and Sara Bald. They are not Chabad, but rather Karlin-Slonim Chassidim. They do amazing work in trying to save the assimilated children of Lvov and surrounding areas, in a Yeshiva and day school. They provide meals for them, (often the only ones these kids get all day) and also run the only shul in Lvov, which also has a soup kitchen. The congregants are elderly, and were it not for the Bald's, these people would have no connection with Judaism or food. We have been in contact with the Bald's, (who are American). They have said that so far, they are okay. They are also in dire need of funds, as things have gotten extremely expensive. The Hachnassat Orchim or hospitality, that they showed us was incredible. We were in Ukraine for another event, the commoration of the yahrzeit of the mass shooting of the Jews of Trochenbrod, in l942, about four hours ride from Lvov. Thanks to the Bald's we at least ate kosher meals on Shabbat. During the week is was cucumbers and apples. However, I think the situation is more dire than they are saying. They just do not want to leave the people there, as they both have families here. They are super dedicated people and are performing a real Kiddush Hashem.

(16) sonia, May 13, 2014 2:20 AM

Some Ukraine Jews just don't want to leave

My great-grandmother came from Odessa.
I remember the family story of those who did not want to leave, and indeed remained, in the 19th century, because in the American continent "even the stones were treif".
What if those people just dont want to leave and need simply protection, not evacuation?

richard terry, May 14, 2014 11:32 PM

internal protection does not exist

As WWII has shown us, the police of every country, sided with the invaders. And turned over their Jews to the Nazis.
The only people that care about the safety of the Jews
or long existence are other Jews

(15) Sabus, May 12, 2014 8:51 PM


Thank you very much Rabbi Kruskal and your team for the charity and rescue work you do. I hope God is on your side, adding more grease to your elbow. We pray the situation will not come wores than this and hopefully Jews will not suffer compared to ww1&2 and alike.

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