From Crimea: "Tell Them There are Still Jews Here"
Overcome with emotion, the young man confined to a wheelchair began to sob. “Please tell them – tell everyone – that there are still Jews here…”
Walking outside into the crisp, salty Black Sea air, there wasn’t much to say. We gulped in deep breaths, clearing away the smells of unkempt hallways, unsanitary bathrooms, and uninhabitable bedrooms inhabited by residents in this Crimean sanatorium. They were residents who were ostensibly forgotten, ignored, underfed, and utterly disrespected, residents with disabilities ranging from moderate to severe, with few nurses or attendants in sight. We gulped in a harsh reality, unlike any we’d ever seen before.
It was March 2008. I traveled from Jerusalem to Crimea in the Former Soviet Union with two classmates from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. This experience was the “Pesach Project,” in which HUC students living in Israel were sent on shlichut, as emissaries to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to spend Passover among Jewish communities.
We were paired with Rabbi Misha Kapustin, a progressive rabbi and lifelong resident of Simferopol, a Ukrainian city you’ve likely heard of in the news in recent weeks. With a wonderful interpreter and Yuri, a German-trained rabbinic student who grew up in the Crimean seaside town of Yevpatoria, we traveled from Simferopol to Sevastopal to Yevpatoria, leading Passover seder after Passover seder and enjoying our fill of cabbage, herring, and cognac.
We thought we were traveling to Ukraine to help educate, teach, and celebrate a holiday that would be impossible to observe without a group of five young rabbis and rabbis-to-be. But the joke was on us. For in each community we visited, we did not lead them in the rituals of Passover.
They led us. So much so that at one point, when we found ourselves marching in a circle on the bimah in Simferopol as I played an old classical guitar and we all sang Debbie Friedman’s Psalm 150, it wasn’t clear who was leading and who was following, who was teaching and who was learning, where the circle stopped or where it started.
Halleluyah! Psalm 150 intones! The joy of our singing juxtaposed with the sadness of his plea: "Please tell them,” he begged us. “Please tell everyone that there are still Jews here…”
Admittedly, I can no longer remember the man’s name. We communicated through our interpreter, but language was not necessary. His tears, his eyes, that place – spoke volumes.
His family had moved him to that facility some 20 years prior but only came to visit once in every 10. He wasn’t forgotten because he was Jewish, rather because he was among this stigmatized population of severely disabled. With cultural norms that isolate the ill and infirm and with little government financial support, he was marginalized and forgotten.
Somehow, he found joy amidst awful squalor. He had a partner in being forgotten, who, amid her own medical infirmities – wheeling herself around on a platform close to the ground, dragging and scooting herself through the halls by hand – found joy in tiny moments of daily life. The bananas we shared with them brought gladness to their faces. He found strength in reading everything he could about Jewish life, history, and culture. He was well-versed on Israeli politics and he dreamed about Israel.
“Would you take a letter I wrote and put it in the Western Wall in Israel?” he asked us.
“Of course,” we agreed. “Is there anything else we can do?”
“We don’t have a stereo, so we can’t listen to the news or to Jewish music.”
“Of course, of course,” we gestured.
I don’t know what became of this man or his girlfriend. We met them because the devoted Rabbi Kapustin served as their only connection to the Jewish world. The synagogue he serves in Simferopol was recently vandalized, and I know he is safe from an email he sent a few weeks ago, but he is scared.
Dear Friends, Teachers and colleagues!
Our town, Simferopol is occupied by the Russians.
Help us, save our country, save UKRAINE!
Ask your government for help!
Misha calls out, too: “Please tell them – tell everyone – that there are still Jews here…”
So I’m telling you.
There are still some 70,000 Jews in Ukraine. Small remnants of communities long forgotten, populations diminished by the Holocaust, aliyah to Israel, or resettlement in Germany and the US. Those with fewer resources or the desire to stay in their birthplaces remained. In recent years, the Ukrainian government has restored ownership of synagogues to local communities. Chabad has been a presence in the area for nearly 30 years, and Hillel and the Progressive Jewish community (sustained by US) have begun to deepen their roots. There are approximately 10 progressive rabbis working throughout Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Hillels are a vibrant community of young people, not restricted to the American university model, but reaching out to any young person who wants to learn more about her Jewish identity.
The communities we visited each had active Jewish lay leaders who were well-versed in leading the Passover seder and Jewish rituals and are committed to revitalizing their communities. Many have traveled to or lived in Israel and speak Hebrew; most people we met were above the age of 75 or, if they were young adults, may have found out only in recent years that they are Jewish.
Fortunately, Chabad has heeded their call, but they need more help. You can support these communities in Crimea – regardless of whether Crimea resides in Ukraine or Russia – by supporting the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The WUPJ is a powerful organization that helps US support Jews around the world living in communities who are often marginalized and forgotten, are victims of anti-Semitism, who have far less resources or are far less free to worship as Jews or in progressive ways that bring meaning and richness to their lives.
"Please tell them,” they call out to us, “please tell them there are still Jews here…”
So I’m telling you. There are Jews in Ukraine. There are Jews around the world. There are Jews who need us.
Please don't forget them.
Because I promised him I wouldn't.
To make a contribution, please visit WUPJ GIVING. If you’re using a credit card, please mark “Kiev Appeal” in the box that says, “Enter description.” Please call Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor with any questions or concerns: 212-452-6531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.