Synagogue in Central Kiev Protesters Find Temporary Home

Kiev’s central synagogue has become a hostel for protesters who have flocked here to protest the results of last month’s Ukrainian presidential election. But that’s not the only way the Brodsky Synagogue has been affected during the political crisis.

“We began to receive threats over the phone almost immediately,” said Galina Topchiy, the synagogue’s administrator.

“One caller said they will kick us all out when Yanukovich comes to power,” she said, referring to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, whose victory in last month’s presidential ballot over the opposition candidate, Viktor Yuschenko, subsequently was overturned by Ukraine’s Supreme Court.

Then, on Dec. 1, several of the shul’s windows were shattered. No one was hurt in the incident, and the perpetrator was immediately caught by passers-by and handed over to police.

Across the country, Jews appear to be split in their sympathies. Most observers believe the Jewish vote either was split or backed Yanukovich, during last month’s balloting.

Inside the Brodsky Synagogue, however, it’s all Yuschenko.

Since protests began more than two weeks ago, the synagogue, located just blocks from the main opposition rally, has been providing free meals and lodging to dozens of young protesters who came to Kiev from other parts of Ukraine.

“We have 100 sleeping bags,” Topchiy said, pointing at piles of dark blue bags stacked during the day in a room normally used for Torah classes. “In the evening, every single one of these is being taken.”

One of the young protesters who came from western Ukraine to take part in pro-Yuschenko rallies said he appreciates the warm welcome he and his friends have received in the synagogue.

“The food here is good,” said Vasyl Kondra, a non-Jewish, first-year student at Lvov University who was warming up inside the synagogue after a shift at the rally in the outdoor chill.

Moshe Reuven Azman, the synagogue’s rabbi, insists that these actions are purely humanitarian and not intended as political statement.

“I never call on people to support any of the candidates,” said the St. Petersburg-born rabbi, who is one of Kiev’s chief rabbis.

“We will live peacefully with any regime that does not prevent Jews from being Jews,” he said. “We will support any legally elected president.”

But ordinary Ukrainian Jews appear to be more partisan. Those who fear the anti-Semitism that has been associated with Ukrainian nationalism are likely to prefer Yanukovich.

“I do not believe in the promises politicians make during the elections. But I do believe in stability, and most of all I fear anti-Semitism,” said Lina Abramovna, a retired accountant who was at a center for elderly Jews at Kiev’s Hesed Avot welfare center on Dec. 3.

Many elderly Jews approve of Yanukovich because of the relatively stable economy of the past few years, coupled with a recent increase in pensions he initiated as prime minister.

But others are backing Yuschenko, who is seen as less tied to the corruption of the regime of President Leonid Kuchma, Yanukovich’s political mentor.

Nelli Sklyar, 72, a retired economist who also was at the welfare center, was happy with the court decision nullifying the Nov. 21 runoff vote.

“Yuschenko is capable of bringing order to Ukraine,” she said. “He is the only hope we have today.”

Most major Jewish leaders have preferred not to publicly discuss their hopes for the current political situation, but a Reform rabbi took part in a Sunday night rally organized by Yuschenko’s campaign in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Standing next to Yuschenko and addressing the crowd of thousands, Rabbi Alex Dukhovny, leader of Ukraine’s Reform Jewish movement, called for national unity amid fears that the crisis could deepen the divide between different parts of the country.

JTA has learned that other Jewish religious authorities were invited to participate but declined out of fear that participating might involve the community directly in the political confrontation.

Vladimir Reznichenko, 55, a Jewish restaurateur in Kiev, joined a few patrons to down a shot of vodka to toasting the court decision nullifying the results, seen here as a victory for the opposition.

“The corrupt regime has come to its end,” said the gray-haired Reznichenko, echoing a widespread hope that Ukraine will head toward a more democratic and transparent society.

“How else would you describe a country where police are the richest people?” asked Reznichenko, who runs one of the first private eateries to open in Kiev during the last years of communism. He said police had regularly made him pay protection money.

His restaurant, located just off Kiev’s central square, serves both Jewish specialties such as gefilte fish and Ukrainian dishes like pork steak. The protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters over the past two weeks, and Reznichenko’s restaurant has been feeding 200 people daily free of charge, he said.

A second runoff between Yanukovich and Yuschenko has been set for Dec. 26, but some aren’t optimistic that the vote will calm the situation.

“In the current circumstances, a new ballot would mean the defeat of the authorities,” said Josef Zissels, a longtime Jewish leader. Zissels, a backer of Yuschenko, was one of the few Jewish activists not shy to offer his political preferences.

“The authorities do not show they are ready for a compromise, and the opposition is not going to give up in any way,” he said.

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