Crimean Jews surprised by new referendum to join Russia

As unidentified gunmen patrol the peninsula, some Jews increasingly feel as if they’re ‘sitting on explosives’

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

A tent with the symbol and the name of the Ukrainian Communist party are seen as people discuss the situation at a central square in Simferopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Sergei Grits)
A tent with the symbol and the name of the Ukrainian Communist party are seen as people discuss the situation at a central square in Simferopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Sergei Grits)

The decision Thursday in Crimea’s parliament to hold a referendum on March 16, asking whether the semi-autonomous region should become part of Russia, took some members of the peninsula’s 17,000-strong Jewish community by surprise.

“No, you are mistaken,” said Alexander Stesin early afternoon Thursday when asked by The Times of Israel how he felt about it. Based in Simferopol, the regional educational coordinator of Hillel said, “The referendum is on broadening Crimea’s autonomy in Ukraine.”

Rabbi Michael Kapustin, the sole remaining Jewish clergyman in Crimea since the start of the crisis in Ukraine weeks ago, told The Times of Israel everyone he spoke with today was surprised, but he personally had been expecting such a move — although not nearly so quickly.

“Yesterday, I looked at the official website of the Crimean parliament and the official date of the referendum was March 30 and only one question was raised — and it didn’t deal with becoming part of Russia. No one expected them to change it so fast,” said Kapustin.

‘No one expected them to change it so fast’

Crimea’s parliament is already somewhat autonomous under current Ukrainian law and a different referendum was originally scheduled for March 30 on the question of increasing this autonomy within Ukraine.

Under new leader Sergei Aksyonov, 78 members of the parliament voted Thursday in favor (with eight abstentions) of holding a revised referendum offering two choices: to remain part of Ukraine with broadened independence, or to become part of Russia.

As some 11,000 unidentified Russian-speaking “peace-keeping” forces patrol the region, Aksyonov says he is in consultations with the Russian government, and with the support of Ukrainian riot police, the region is under control.

It is the presence of these unidentified Russian-speaking troops that so worries Hillel coordinator Stesin, however.

“There is no proof of them being from Russia,” said Crimean-born Stesin, who supervises some 400 students in the Hillel programs in the Crimean capital. “They speak Russian, not Ukrainian, but we don’t know who they are.”

“My family doesn’t feel safe with them around, because we don’t know what is going to happen. We’re afraid about the future. We don’t know the people who tell us they’re our government: We know who are the leaders of the parties, but we didn’t choose them,” said Stesin.

Kapustin said he does know of a group of Crimean Jews who are planning on making aliyah in light of the unrest. Some others are taking a wait-and-see approach, keeping the option open.

“I would say that the absolute majority will stay under rule of Russia — most of the people have no place to go. Elderly people, how can they be refugees?” said Kapustin, who admits he’s not sure what his plans will be.

‘Elderly people, how can they be refugees?’

The main Chabad communities in Crimea say they are continuing services, but its two rabbis are not currently in the region.

Stesin cancelled all Hillel activities last week, but did hold programs this week, despite the anti-Semitic graffiti found on the city’s main synagogue Friday morning. Kapustin cancelled Shabbat morning prayer last week after finding the graffiti on his Ner Tamid synagogue.

Stesin brushed off the importance of the graffiti attack, saying similar things could easily be found in less-desirable parts of the city at all times, if one went looking for them.

On Thursday, the Crimean Jewish leaders decided to continue planning for the communities’ Purim celebrations. But next week’s international Good Deeds Day — after four months of planning — will be curtailed.

Security measures have been enhanced at many of Crimea’s Jewish institutions and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) released a statement this week saying it has stepped up delivery of food and medicine to the homes of its elderly and poor, beefed up security at its three Hesed social welfare and community centers, activated an emergency phone chain to track needs of clients round-the-clock, and prepared appropriate contingency plans in case the situation worsens.

‘I’m not just “sitting on explosives,” but there’s also a great ring of fire around them’

“I want to thank those people who support us in their thoughts and prayers, and financially for security measures. I want them not to forget that when there’s trouble, we’re just as Jewish as they are,” said Kapustin.

Hillel’s Stesin continues to create as normal an atmosphere as possible. “But how normal could it be when you have unknown armed soldiers patrolling the streets?” he asked.

Expressing the uncertainly of the political situation in this isolated region, Kapustin said, “Any single provocation may start the war, and then the neighbors may start killing each other.

“The problem is that I’m not just ‘sitting on explosives,’ but that there’s also a great ring of fire around them,” said Kapustin.

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