The Reform synagogue in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Crimean republic, was vandalized Thursday night as the city saw clashes between thousands of armed pro-Russian protesters and Ukrainian nationalists.
Simferopol’s 150-member Reform congregation, Ner Tamid, is housed in the city’s historic Old Synagogue building, which was returned to the Jewish community after the fall of the Former Soviet Union through Holocaust restitution efforts.
Vandals spray painted anti-Semitic messages on the outside walls of the historic building, Ukraine’s Chief Reform Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny told The Times of Israel on Friday.
Early Friday, Ukraine accused Russia of a “military invasion,” saying that Russian troops had taken up strategic positions in the Crimean peninsula. Later in the day, the chief of Ukraine’s security council seemed to back away from those claims, saying that gunmen had attempted to seize airports in Simferopol and Sevastopol.
Amid all of the recent chaos, Dukhovny, born and raised by Jewish parents in Kiev, maintained that anti-Semitism is currently marginal in his country.
Dukhovny was ordained in London 15 years ago and returned to his hometown spurred by a “desire to present multi-colored Judaism, not just the black side-locked version, with the values of a liberal approach to the world.”
In his conversation with The Times of Israel, Dukhovny said whereas once Ukraine supported 11 congregations, now there are some 50 Liberal institutions. Among them are communities that label themselves “Masorti,” the international version of the Conservative movement.
Liberal Judaism is a growing phenomenon in a broader Jewish community of up to 350,000 Ukrainians, according to figures provided by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which operates throughout the country.
Kiev saw the birth of a new Masorti community in March 2012 with the arrival of Simferopol native Rabbi Reuven Stamov, who was ordained in Jerusalem’s Schechter Rabbinical Seminary a month prior.
When Stamov began building the Kiev Masorti community in 2012 there was just a Sunday school with a few children and a small Hebrew ulpan.
He started unifying and building a community — initially only on Shabbat, in a small rented apartment. Stamov said those who came often “wanted to learn but not pray, but slowly, slowly new people from throughout the city who didn’t belong to a community started coming.”
In October 2013 the community moved to a space twice the size of its previous base, and Stamov told the Times of Israel Friday that the new location is starting to feel too small, as well.
Though he said it’s hard to say how many members he has, “Every Shabbat there are at least 30 adults and a few kids.” The activities center on Shabbat day with mincha and lessons on parashat hashavua (the weekly Bible portion) and halacha (Jewish law), and then havdala marking the end of Shabbat. On Sundays the community holds activities for the whole family.
Stamov said he doesn’t personally know anyone who participated in last week’s violent protests and would prefer not to talk politics at his congregation.
“There are many opinions. What I say is we are not a political body and everyone can have his own opinion. We pray together, maybe eat together, we don’t talk about politics because it only builds a wall between people,” said Stamov.
“The situation is very complicated… it is impossible to understand thoroughly what is happening,” explained Stamov, of the recent upheaval in his country. He is increasing security surveillance at the congregation, but like Dukhovny, he said anti-Semitism is not a serious threat in Ukraine today.
Dukhovny is an unabashed self-proclaimed Ukranian nationalist: “I am a Ukrainian patriot, I love Ukraine, I love Ukrainians.” He was invited along with Muslim clergymen to give a speech by the Maidan protest movement in Independence Square last week, but declined at the request of the international Reform movement that felt it “dangerous not only for me, but for the Jewish communities I represent.”
Like many Reform rabbis around the world, Dukhovny is passionate when it comes to justice.
“As a citizen I desperately wanted to go, but I made my statements in many written ways, and have broadly said I am pro-European, whose values often coincide with the values of the Jewish people,” said Dukhovny.
His Judaism is a broad tent religion of Jewish ethics and Western values. His communities accept as full members those who can claim one Jewish great-grandparent on either side.
Originally the Ukrainian Reform movement used the Right of Return as its basis for acceptance. Now Dukhovny has broadened that definition, with children of the “fourth generation” — those who were born after Ukraine’s independence — in their early twenties and beginning to start families of their own.
The rabbi currently counts 13,000 Ukrainians as members of his congregations. In many places in Ukraine, Reform is the only sort of active Jewish congregation on offer. The movement owns seven buildings through Holocaust restitution, and in September 2013 opened its headquarters, the Hatikva Center for Progressive Judaism, in Kiev, with the support of three prominent North American families.
“I have my homeland, Israel, and I have Ukraine where I was born, where my parents and grandparents were buried… where my mother was persecuted. But it is also the place where my mother was saved by Ukrainians who are today recognized as Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem… Each coin has two sides,” said Dukhovny.
Though his congregations did not hold services last week, Dukhovny reiterated that anti-Semitism remained at low levels in the country, perpetrated by “ignorant extremists.” He said this even though one of his congregations was defaced Thursday night.
Dukhovny said Jewish communities were raising funds for preventative security measures.
“Anti-semitism and racism come from lack of education. We were striving for social rights and are still trying,” said Dukhovny.