Crimea’s sole rabbi advises Jews ‘not to become targets’

Rabbi Michael Kapustin, whose Reform synagogue was vandalized Thursday night, speaks out against ‘Russian aggression’

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.

An unidentified man guards the entrance to a local government building in Simferopol, Ukraine, on Saturday, March 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
An unidentified man guards the entrance to a local government building in Simferopol, Ukraine, on Saturday, March 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

The sole rabbi in the Crimean peninsula said Sunday he is advising his congregation to stay indoors and away from the center of Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Crimean republic and the epicenter of the Russian invasion, where hundreds of soldiers were deployed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.

Speaking to The Times of Israel from the relatively quiet outskirts of Simferopol, Rabbi Michael Kapustin, an ordained Reform rabbi, said there is an atmosphere of fear in the city, with few cars and fewer pedestrians on the streets.

Located in the heart of Simferopol’s Old City, Kapustin’s Ner Tamid synagogue was vandalized on Thursday night with anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas, “Death to the Jews” and far right extremist emblems. According to Kapustin, the attack was anti-Semitic in nature, but likely not carried out by a member of any far-right party, since the emblems were apparently “botched.”

Friday night, Kapustin and the few members of his congregation who arrived for Shabbat evening prayers lit candles and said a prayer for peace. The rabbi subsequently asked his congregants to go home and canceled Saturday morning prayers in an effort to keep his members out of danger zones.

“I would say the situation is dangerous; a lot of things might happen,” said Kapustin, who is sending his wife and two small children, 1.5 years and nine months, to Israel on Monday.

'Death to Jews' on the Ner Tamid synagogue in Simferopol in Ukraine's Crimean Republic. (courtesy)
‘Death to Jews’ on the Ner Tamid synagogue in Simferopol in Ukraine’s Crimean Republic. (courtesy)

Kapustin has asked his congregation not to voice any political opinions in public, either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian nationalist, and not to make targets of themselves.

But he did not hold back. “As a rabbi I am in the public eye. I am not afraid to speak. I am a patriot of this country and I believe what is happening is an aggression on the part of Russia,” said Kapustin.

The rabbi was born in Russia but raised in Georgia. In 1991-2 he and his family fled to Ukraine as refugees. He subsequently studied in England and Israel, but returned to Ukraine to serve those he calls his countrymen.

“Now basically I am the only rabbi left in the Crimea and I look after anything Jewish. I’m talking about thousands of people,” said Kapustin.

Kapustin asks the Jewish communities of the world to support Ukraine and the Jewish communities of Ukraine and Crimea “that is under aggression from Russia” for support. He specifically that requests Diaspora Jews speak with their governments and demand sanctions against Russia.

“We are very poor and miserable, but it’s not a question of money, it’s a question of freedom,” said Kapustin.

According to the Joint Distribution Committee, there are an estimated 17,000 Jews in Crimea today, mostly located in Simferopol, Sevastopol, Feodosia, and Yalta.

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