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March 18, 2014 9:58 pm

Crimea Unrest Witnessed Up Close by Chabad Rabbi

avatar by Sean Savage / JNS.org

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Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Lipszyc, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Crimea for more than two decades, with a Torah scroll. Photo: Chabad Lubavitch of Crimea.

JNS.orgWhile the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold, Jews in the disputed region of Crimea have been caught in a battle over nationalism.

Like many minority groups in the area, Ukrainian Jews fear for their safety and their future amid the heightened tension.

“The main action in Crimea was taking place right across the street from our synagogue,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Lipszyc, who has been a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, for more than two decades. “There were demonstrations with over 30,000 people. The protestors were pro-Ukrainian. But eventually the ones who took over were in the unidentified uniforms—they were obviously Russian military. There was Cossacks there too; for Jews that was a bit scary because of their history in the pogroms.”

Lipszyc, who was recently forced to leave Crimea with his wife Leah, spoke with JNS.org about his experience during the protests, the Russian military occupation of the area, and the state of the Jewish community there.

JNS: What has life been like in Crimea?

Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Lipszyc: “For the last 22 years under the Ukrainian government, everything has been going very well. When this situation began, it turned things upside down. We were told by Chabad headquarters to get out and we barely made it out. My wife in fact got the last two tickets on a train out of Simferopol on the night before everything got sealed off by the Russians (Feb. 27).”

Can you describe the political situation in Crimea?

“When this whole thing started, a number of people were afraid. I would say that, and I’m not a political analyst, probably most of the people wanted to stay with Ukraine, because that was what they were familiar with.

“But then when the Russians took over the media and propaganda switched the other way, within days we saw it swing towards being overwhelmingly pro-Russian. However, there were many still against Russian because they were afraid. From what I heard, when the referendum came, many people didn’t vote because it wasn’t legal and they were standing against it.

“The situation is not good, especially for Americans like us. Americans were persona-non-gratis for both Ukrainians and Russians at this time. For Russians it is because of the stance the American government has taken against Russia. While on the Ukraine side they are deeply disappointed that America is not doing enough to help them.

“Oddly enough we had to leave there more because we were Americans and not because we were Jewish. The situation is still difficult. We are personally apolitical and there simply to help the Jewish community in any way we can.”

Did you experience anything particularly noteworthy before you left Crimea?

“One interesting story that occurred for us, that we consider a miracle, was when the area around our synagogue was taken over and cordoned off by the Russian military. You couldn’t get in or out by car or even by walking. We therefore moved the synagogue to our house, which was outside the cordoned off area, but we still needed to retrieve the Torah from the synagogue.

“We didn’t think we could get in at all. So my wife suggested that we approach the area and try to get as far as possible. We also wrote a note to the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe, to ask for his help to get us through.

“Believe it or not, when our friend reached the military checkpoint, he explained to them that we needed to retrieve the Torah out of the synagogue, [the Russian soldier] suddenly moved out of the way and removed the barriers to let him in. On his way out, the solider actually even apologized to him for the inconvenience, which was unheard of there! It was a miracle!”

Do you plan to return to Crimea?

“I hope to as soon as possible, but it is a little difficult for us because we are Americans. Our basic stance was that as soon as it stabilizes, we will go back there. For us, it doesn’t matter who is in charge, Russian or Ukrainian, we are apolitical. We are there for the Jewish community.”

With Crimea now under Russian control, do you think the Jewish community is safe there?

“As far as the record goes in Russia, the Jewish people have been able to practice and be Jewish without any major problems. Of course there is anti-Semitism, but it isn’t state sanctioned.

“In Crimea, I hope that Putin will want to prove that it will remain safe for Jews.

“The Jewish community in Crimea needs help. We have to prepare for Passover and need to raise a lot of money to help with the extra costs. We not only need extra security, but we have taken loses during the process.

“For example, we were getting our kosher meat from Ukraine, we had ordered and paid for it, but they [Russian forces] didn’t let it through. We also paid for the Matzos, but that didn’t get through either. We need to figure out how to all our supplies through now. We are appealing to everyone to help out the Jewish community there.”

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  • Zelda Zadorah

    I am a lot more astounded that:
    the Israelis complain constantly about anti-Semitic hate propaganda and on the other hand have this two-faced reaction to have friendly relations with a non-elected NEO-NAZI government.
    The Svoboda Party came to power with help of violent snipers murdering policemen, who where just doing their job. Is the Israeli public asleep at the wheel?
    Do the Israelis agree that this is ok?
    Jews have been murdered by the millions by NAZIs. Has everyone forgotten this? Especially the families from Ukraine?

  • Zelda Zadorah

    When Israeli columnists comment on the evils of NAZIs, facists and anti-semitism
    I am astounded that:
    Israel, whose self-proclaimed goals used to be the defence of the Jewish people against anti-semitism now supports Ukraine’s non-elected government where a
    pro-Nazi party controls key levers of state power.

    I am astounded that:
    According to the Jewish News Agency (JTA), a former Israeli army officer played a leading role in the protests in Ukraine, commanding a group of about 40 Ukrainian militants and five Israelis, known as the Blue Helmet unit, under the direction of Svoboda, the NEO-NAZI party.

    It follows then that I should not be astounded that:
    Netanyahu’s visit to Washington followed a meeting between Israel’s ambassador to the Ukraine, Reuven Din El, and Ukraines NEO-NAZI Right Sector head Yarosh. The embassy gave this fascist its stamp of approval, stating on its web site: “Dmytro Yarosh stressed that Right Sector will oppose all [racist] phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means.

    I also should not be astounded then that:
    Israel’s response to the crisis in Ukraine testifies to the fact that the Israeli ruling elite speaks not for world Jewry, but for Israel’s capitalist class, a corrupt and venal social layer that carries out criminal
    attacks on Palestinians and others in alliance with Washington.

    The 20 wealthiest Israeli families control about half the stock market and 25 percent of the major
    corporations, notably the newspapers, banks and high-tech companies. A number of these oligarchs came from Russia and the former Soviet republics, having made their money through the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

    If Israel supports NEO-NAZIs in Ukraine now, it seems that they no longer mind anti-semitic remarks .
    I only wonder if they gave the same support if Facists overthrow today’s government in Germany

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