I’ll be by your side when night time it runs on
And the children they ride high
I’ll be standing on the sun
Burn into the light, burn into the sun…
Matisyahu, “Darkness Into Light”
KIEV, UKRAINE, April 2, 7 p.m. – As the sun was setting Saturday evening, we left our hotel and began our trek through the streets of downtown Kiev to celebrate Havdallah with the local chapter of Hillel. This was a particularly meaningful visit for me. I had met with Hillel students on my other three trips to the former Soviet Union – in Odessa, Ukraine in 2006, Kharkov, Ukraine in 2007 and Tblisi, Georgia in 2008. During all three visits, I encountered – and was somewhat taken aback by – a bright-eyed young generation with a fervent desire to establish roots in their cities and help rebuild their Jewish communities despite dire economic conditions and threats of anti-Semitism.
Twenty years removed from oppressive Communist rule, these young adults have choices now, and they are choosing to stay put, rather than make aliyah or immigrate to other countries as in years past. With every pace I took through this cool evening in Kiev, the curiosity within me grew as I sought the light of a new week – and answers to my burning questions about this fascinating generation of Jews.
Why do they want to stay? Do they really have a future? How does this impact JAFI and its mission of aliyah, not to mention the spiritual call of Klal Yisrael?
* * *
By the time we arrived at Hillel, the sun had completely set. We were greeted by two students in a doorway to the side of a small storefront. The stairwell leading up to the Hillel headquarters was nearly pitch black and, through the light of our cell phones, we were able to reach the third floor, where more students greeted us.
About 15 Hillel participants were on hand, including three volunteers visiting from the U.S. and Hillel chapter leaders from Azerbaijan and Belarus, who would be traveling the next day to a conference in Paris. The mood was light and we would be greeted with hugs, kisses and high fives.
After introductions – I made sure to tell them it was I who brought the unseasonably warmer climate all the way from Florida – we joined together in a Havdallah service that was unlike anything I ever experienced. We formed a circle. A candle was lit. We recited prayers and sang Shavua Tov in Hebrew, English, Ukranian, Yiddish, Russian and Azerbaijani. The candle was extinguished in a cup of wine. And, as the darkness returned, we held hands as the light from the street cast our unified shadow on the wall. For one precious moment in time, we were one.
* * *
The Kiev Hillel chapter draws about 80 young adults, ages 18 to 26, per week to its various activities – social gatherings, holiday and Shabbat celebrations and seminars, according to Program Coordinator Olga Bard, 24. Its database has more than 800 contacts from 30 different area universities.
Not all Hillel members are students; many remain long after they are out of school to keep the social and/or spiritual connection. And not all are Jewish; many join because they hear good things about the group and want to volunteer helping with the elderly or cleaning gravesites. One student discovered her grandmother was Jewish two years after she got involved. Olga, in fact, was told she was Jewish when her father told her at the age of 17.
“Our parents and grandparents didn’t want us to know because it was hard to be a Jew in Soviet times,” said the Kiev native. “We don’t check documents when you enter Hillel. We do have programs only for Jews like Taglit Birthright Israel or camps or seminars, but persons interested in Jewish tradition, holidays or way of life we also welcome. We believe that if we tell the world we are normal, we won’t have anti-Semitic things happen.”
But anti-Semitic things do happen, but they are generally limited to incidents of speech and not violence in Kiev.
“The Ukraine is a multi-national country. Jews have lived here for centuries,” she elaborated. “We don’t experience (anti-Semitism) on a government level. But there are still anti-Semitic thoughts among people of the Ukraine, which is abusive, of course, but I never experienced anything more. One time, in school, my schoolmate called me a derogatory name in Polish but I didn’t react to it. I thought he is not normal, but it was not something physical.”
The relatively low level of anti-Semitism in Kiev and the better economic prospects that the urban center brings is giving Olga’s peers hope for their future here. In the last two years, only 10 made aliyah, many fewer than in years past. Most now choose to participate in Israel programs or visit as a tourist. The key word, Olga says, is “choice.”
“Kiev, Kharkov and the big cities have opportunities if you are trying to get them,” she noted. “If you are coming from a small town, it’s hard to develop yourself. If they can’t make it here, they might move.”
Olga said many current and past Hillel participants into their thirties believe it is important to find a husband or wife who is Jewish. She proudly pointed out that there have been 17 marriages, resulting in five children.
“Young people are trying to build their life here and want to show people you can be a Jew wherever you are,” she beamed.
Olga, who joined Hillel in 2003 and has a master’s degree in history, strives to make sure each participant’s choice to get involved with Hillel is a good one.
“Hillel is a place where you can find out whether you are a Jew and what it means to you,” she said. “We provide traditional ways of ceremonies and holidays, Shabbat, Havdallah. If person decides he or she needs more, they usually go to a synagogue. For us, it is mission accomplished, because we know the person already strongly believes he or she is Jewish and it is meaningful for them. It’s hard to lose each person, but we’re glad to know they are following it.”
“The goal of Hillel is to renovate Jewish life,” she stressed. “For 75 years, our parents and grandparents did not observe or celebrate Jewish traditions and law. We’re telling our parents and grandparents what they should do. It’s a weird situation for Jewish tradition because they are supposed to teach us. Here it is vice versa.”
* * *
Ilana Azimbekora, 28, is the Hillel coordinator in that southern republic, where about 100 people participate in programs every month and the database tops out at about 600. Because of Azerbaijan’s predominantly Muslim population, Jews cannot be as public about their activities.
“There are issues with anti-Semitism,” said Ilana, whose father is Muslim and mother is Jewish. “It’s a very different political situation. There is a lot of pressure on minorities.”
So much pressure than Ilana herself boldly went on television earlier in the week to make a statement against the constant threat of terrorism, saying she had to do so as the representative of the only registered Jewish youth organization in the country.
“People in the community said I was too brave. They said they may be hunting me!” she noted.
Ilana said she was compelled to do what she did after a recent anti-Semitic incident that took place during Purim. About 250 young people were celebrating the holiday at a local night club. A group of non-Jewish people were trying to get in to celebrate a national holiday.
“It ended up in a fight,” she recalled. “The people trying to get into the club were yelling, ‘What are you Jews doing here in our country?’” The Jewish group ended up in a physical confrontation with security.
“These acts are cheap,” said Ilana, undeterred.
She is hopeful, based on the government’s efforts to support minorities, noting the current president is helping to rebuild a synagogue for her native Kafkazi community. But she knows it’s not the ideal situation politically and fears the Jewish community as a whole is not organized enough to stay strong.
Ilana plans to make aliyah with her husband, whom she met at Hillel, and three-year-old daughter. She said it was their personal choice (there’s that word again), insisting it has nothing to do with the issues in her native country.
“It feels okay in Azerbaijan and I love my ancestors, but I’ve read enough to believe Israel is the place to go,” she reasoned. It was not a bittersweet decision. She simply doesn’t want to regret not going to Israel, where she has family.
“For me, Israel is the ultimate destination,” she said, mentioning it is best for her daughter. “I’m thinking about our future.”
* * *
After my discussions with Olga and Ilana, I concluded (at this point) that the future of the Jewish community in the FSU is simply a matter of personal choice, which will inevitably be swayed by the winds of politics and economics.
I posed the issue to our tour guide Natalia, who is not Jewish, but knows our rich history in the Ukraine since the 9th century and talks about our culture in very endearing terms. While anti-Semitism still exists on the grass roots level, the government is much more supportive of the Jewish community. For example, the president of the Ukraine conducted a menorah lighting ceremony this past Chanukah. On Passover, you can purchase matzo in the supermarket. “This was unheard of before.”
Yet she still sees the challenges faced by the local Jewish community and feels that the economy will ultimately be the deciding factor.
“My heart breaks to see young people leaving,” she said. “But people have a choice. That’s something they never had. Some leave for spiritual reasons, to become part of the nation (of Israel), others for economic reasons. I can’t blame them. But I understand many want to stay here. It is a conflicting mission. Both are absolutely important.”
Unfortunately, Natalia is not optimistic about the Ukrainian economy: “There is a major brain drain and labor drain. Conditions are not making it possible to advance yourself.”
It appears that in most major metropolitan centers like Kiev and Kharkov, the trend for young Jews is to stay – for now.
That poses an interesting dilemma for our service organizations – JAFI and the JDC. Most of JDC’s resources are geared to helping children at risk and the elderly whose only choice is remaining in the FSU. JAFI focuses primarily on aliyah and identity programs leading toward the goal of relocation. “Jewish renewal” is also part of both organizations’ mission, but are they prepared fully to support the increasing numbers of those who wish to remain? That’s a question that will have to be answered. In the meantime, if there is any hope for a Jewish future in the FSU, it exists in the bright eyes of Olga and the many others who now choose to be “pioneers” in communities that once flourished for centuries – places that many of us can claim as our origins.
Will they be able to bring the next few generations of Ukrainian Jews from darkness to light?