News of civil unrest, Russian occupation in the disputed Crimean peninsula and overall upheaval in an already unstable Ukraine has jolted the sizable population of Jews from the former Soviet Union who reside in the Greater Philadelphia area.
And perhaps not surprisingly, some of the ideological divisions playing out over Ukraine are echoing in this region, even as many worry about friends and loved ones still in the FSU.
Irina Zalts, a part-time English instructor at the New World Association of Emigrants from Eastern Europe, a Bustleton Avenue enterprise that helps individuals from that region settle in this area, said some of her Russian-speaking students from both countries were arguing about the conflict last week.
“It got so heated that I had to interrupt,” said Zalts, a Philadelphia resident who emigrated from Ufa, Russia, 20 years ago. “People who lived in Ukraine wanted Crimea to stay with Ukraine. Russians said historically Crimea belonged to Russia.”
“I know what’s going on there, and it’s very disturbing,” she said. “Ukrainian and Russian people were always friendly before.”
Estimates of the number of Jews from the former Soviet Union living in the Philadelphia region range from 35,000 to 50,000, most of them from Ukraine. It’s equally hard to pinpoint the exact number of Jews remaining in Russia and Ukraine, although various sources put the figure close to 300,000, with more than 70,000 in Ukraine alone.
While it’s nearly impossible to find a Philadelphia transplant from the region who looks favorably on either Russian President Vladimir Putin or deposed Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, there is a general uneasiness here that the situation can’t be good for the Jews.
“It is very scary. I really worry,” said Victoria Faykin, director of member services and Russian programming at Klein JCC, which serves a large constituency of Russian-speaking Jews, mostly seniors.
“Most of the people here say it’s not right, what the Russians are doing,” said Faykin, who lives in Huntingdon Valley, but spent her earliest years in Turkestan, Kazakhstan, moving to southern Russia at age 10 and immigrating to the United States with her husband and two children in 1997. “But we wonder what it means for the Jews. We don’t know what will be next.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have direct consequences for Judaism now,” said Val Sudakin, an Upper Moreland resident and Kiev native who spent seven years in Israel before immigrating to the Philadelphia area 17 years ago.
“But in times of turmoil, Jews can be in danger. These are times when there could be crimes of opportunity — defaced synagogues and more. Jews can be political pawns. It is not a good situation for Jews there. It may eventually be unpleasant,” said Sudakin, a medical researcher in oncology pharmaceuticals whose aunt still lives in Ukraine.
He cited a Ukrainian populist movement made up of many factions, bonded by nationalism and a desire to get rid of groups said to include the Russian Jewish Mafia.
Zalts said she feels sorry for those living in Ukraine, especially Jews. “It’s never been safe to be a Jew in Ukraine,” she said.
Robert Weinberg, a Swarthmore College history professor who specializes in the history of Russia with a focus on anti-Semitism in the Czarist and Soviet periods, said the presence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine may be exaggerated.
The belief that so much of the Ukrainian nationalist movement behind Yanukovych’s deposition is driven by fascism and the Nazis “is not accurate,” said Weinberg, who visited Kiev in October.
“I don’t think anti-Semitism is a big issue in what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said. “There is no official anti-Semitic policy and it is not an active force in Ukraine politics.”
Still, on Feb. 23, the day after Yanukovych’s ouster, a synagogue was firebombed in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, according to media reports. And last week, someone wrote “Death to the Jews” on the front door of a synagogue in Crimea.
The Times of Israel reported that some Ukrainian Jewish leaders believe the incidents may have been provoked by pro-Russian forces seeking to justify Russian intervention. Others say the anti-Semitism is real and that Russian intervention will combat neo-Nazism.
With 20,000 Russian troops now in Crimea — which was part of Russia until it was transferred to Ukrainian jurisdiction in 1954 — it appears that Putin is tightening its grip on the peninsula that is home to Sevastopol, a key port on the Black Sea where the Russians maintain a naval base.
“I would like for Russia to move out of the Crimea, but no doubt it is already an occupation,” Sudakin said, adding that he doesn’t “buy into the notion” that Russia is in Crimea out of Russian concern for Russian citizens. “I grew up in the Soviet Union and I saw Soviet propaganda.”
He voiced the hope that the rest of the world doesn’t abandon Ukraine and applauded the Obama administration for denouncing Russian “aggression” and threatening economic sanctions.
“If Russia is to pay a political and financial price for this occupation, and would be isolated, it may be open to a withdrawal,” Sudakin said.
But even he and others acknowledge that Crimea — home to about 10,000 Jews — holds special implications for Russia. And Putin may have the West in the firm grip of economic and political reality — Europe needs its gas and oil, which is pumped through Ukraine, and the United States is keenly aware that Putin can tip the finely balanced fulcrum of American interests in Syria and Iran.
“America and other nations also have to be sensitive to Russia’s geopolitical concerns,” Weinberg said, referring to Russia’s hurt pride and diminished sphere of influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Russia has become more important as a world player over the last 10 years, and we need to be aware of that.”
Alex Shraybman, president of the New World Association, agrees that Russia should get out of Crimea but he doesn’t think the United States has a role to play.
“They have no right to Crimea and are acting like obnoxious bandits,” the retired electrical engineer, who emigrated 34 years ago from Lvov in western Ukraine, said of Russia.
“What has America to do with Russia and Ukraine? Let them kill themselves. It’s not my business,” said Shraybman, who resides in Southampton, Pa.
Shraybman, who conducts weekly Shabbat services and Torah study sessions at Klein JCC for Jews from the FSU, said he emigrated from Ukraine because the situation for Jews in his homeland was not good. He noted it was Ukrainian nationals and militia, not Russians, who joined with the Nazis in 1941 to launch the Lvov pogroms, two massacres of Jews living in what was a major Jewish cultural center that was part of Poland before World War II.
In contrast, Marina Lipkovskaya, the New World Association’s executive director, said she never personally suffered in Ukraine because she was Jewish.
“People don’t think about ethnicity until the economy is no good. Then, Jews are always the first to blame,” conceded Lipkovskaya, who emigrated from Ukraine just 11 years ago, following her children. She said she finds the current events difficult to comprehend.
“It’s a crisis of leadership and of economy, and it hurts. This is not a civilized way to solve the issues,” Lipkovskaya said.
Senior citizens enjoying a pre-Shabbat luncheon at the Klein JCC on March 7 had plenty to say about what is going on in Ukraine.
Northeast Philadelphia resident Rita Shekhtman, a Kiev native who has been here nearly 23 years, said she is worried. “I was 55 years in Kiev. Praise God, my two daughters are here. When they left Kiev in 1991, it was horrible toward the Jews,” she said. “I am worried about the city itself.”
Shekhtman would like to see Putin out, as well as Yanukovych but she doesn’t think the United States should interfere. “Hang them both on the same tree,” she said, adding that both countries “need to change their presidents.”
But cooler heads believe Putin is there to stay — in Russia and, soon, in Crimea, where the 60-percent ethnic Russian population is expected to vote favorably on Russian annexation in a March 16 referendum.
“Putin is a very tough guy — slick, smart and manipulative. He is a dictator with KGB roots — a czar. He won’t go,” Zalts said.
Weinberg, the Swarthmore professor, expects Crimea to vote to secede from Ukraine, and doesn’t think a new Cold War will emerge as a result.
“Crimea being part of Ukraine is just a fluke of history,” he said. “The international community won’t like it, but for all intents and purposes, Russia has Crimea back.”
He also thinks it’s best for Crimeans Jews if the world concedes it to the Russians and averts further Russian aggression. “If Russia invades Ukraine, they could always blame the Jews for destabilizing the political situation. The extreme right could play the Jewish card.”
He said he doesn’t think it would make much difference for Crimean Jews if they remain Ukrainian citizens or become Russian citizens. “Most Russian and Ukrainian Jews are very well assimilated in society.”