Ukraine’s Shrinking Jewish Community Remains Defiant
Orthodox Jews in Ukraine

“There’s no separate Jewish aspect in this war. Jews suffer and sacrifice like all Ukrainians. They fight, they volunteer for aid projects,” said Jewish activist Josef Zissels.

By Alex Panchenko, TPS

Our correspondent in Kyiv reports that battle losses and Jews fleeing the war has left Ukraine’s Jewish community shrinking.

Numbers are scarce. Ukraine doesn’t disclose its military casualties, but consistent media reports suggest that up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers are killed daily.

Veteran Jewish activist Josef Zissels told the Tazpit Press Service he estimates that “20-30 Jews died defending Ukraine in 2022 alone,” and adds that another 50-60 were injured. He cautions that his estimate “is based on social media and my knowledge of the Jewish demographic.”

But he stresses that, “There’s no separate Jewish aspect in this war. Jews suffer and sacrifice like all Ukrainians. They fight, they volunteer for aid projects.”

The city of Bakhmut may be symbolic of Ukrainian Jewry’s place in the war. Russia has been trying since August to capture the city in the Donetsk region’s frontline.

Among Bakhmut’s fallen defenders are at least four Jewish soldiers. Medic Veniamin Khalapov was killed Jan 16. Denys Savchenko was a veteran of the 2014 revolution which ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych — later a member of the Azov Regiment, which Moscow vilified as neo-Nazi. Daniel Sztiber, the son of a synagogue benefactor in Poland, volunteered and fell at Bakhmut.

They were defending a city which the majority of the Jewish community had already fled in 2014, when Moscow started a proxy war in the Donbas region, the same year Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

More than 60 percent of Bakhmut is destroyed. Emblematic of Jewish hardships was a video that emerged on Jan. 5 showing the 150-year-old synagogue building in flames after being hit by an artillery shell. At least four functioning synagogues are known to have been destroyed or damaged by Russian shelling in other areas of Ukraine.

Bakhmut may repeat the story of Mariupol’s ruin. Mariupol, a port city, 170 km east of Bakhmut, is occupied by Russia.

When the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022, Mariupol’s vibrant Jewish community had just rented a larger building for a synagogue. Many Jews were able to flee the Russian-occupied areas, but others stubbornly refused to leave. In December, the landlord found the community’s menorah among the ruins of his building. Thousands of civilians died in the Russian siege of Mariupol, including at least two elderly Jewish women.

Unverified reports say “hundreds” of other Jewish civilians may’ve been killed or injured by warfare across Ukraine, although Josef Zissels was not able to confirm this figure to TPS.

Numbers on Ukrainian Jews leaving for Israel are more clear, however. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 15,500 immigrated to Israel from Ukraine in 2022. Untold others fled to other countries.

Zissels told TPS, “We think that about 25,000 Jews left the country,” or around 10% of Ukrainian Jewry. “Hardly 30% of those who fled will return,” he laments.

Ukrainian men between the age of 18-60 are prohibited from leaving the country.

According to Zissels, Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure which began in October triggered a further surge of terrorized Jews fleeing either the region or the country. Jewish charities are rushing in diesel generators for synagogues and schools, while Kyiv is making contingencies for a “complete prolonged” disruption of power, heating and water supply.

Jews are united in ending the war without concessions. Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman has repeatedly called for a “complete victory rather than a ceasefire.”

Zissels, a Soviet-era dissident, agrees. “The fight for freedom is as continuous as life. You can’t pause life. We can’t pause our war – we must win it instead.”

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