• Dzhankoi, Ukraine, early 20th century: Zionist halutzim (pioneers) established several thriving agricultural training settlements throughout Crimea.

    YIVO Archives, YIVO Archives ©
  • Simferopol, Ukraine, February 28, 2014 Death to the Zhids and a swastika were found on the doors of a Jewish center.

    Simferopol, Ukraine, February 28, 2014 Death to the Zhids and a swastika were found on the doors of a Jewish center.

    ForumDaily.com, ForumDaily.com ©
  • Simferopol today: the city center.

    Steve Haslam, Steve Haslam ©

The Crimea Report

With recent unrest in Ukraine, and in Crimea in particular, the bustling Jewish community is now facing serious uncertainty as to its security. The mood is heavy and anxious -- Ukrainian Jews find themselves torn in a conflict that is increasingly complex and increasingly volatile, and community leaders caution against any drastic outcries.

Vera Hramova is nervous about her ninth grade son’s upcoming exams. “He doesn’t miss a single day of Hebrew classes at The Jewish Agency for Israel’s center in Simferopol,” she says.

Hramova and her son Aleksandr are residents of Yalta, a warm resort city in the heart of Crimea -- the very city which captured the imaginations of Tolstoy and Chekhov hundreds of years ago.

But it’s not academic grades that Vera is hopeful about; she sees Sasha’s success as integral for the family’s future. “Our family hopes that Sasha will succeed in his entrance exams and go to Israel,” she says, smiling. “And afterwards, we will follow him. We really loved Haifa and hope to one day live there.”

The Hramov family’s Zionism, and attachment to Jewish identity, is rather fitting with the nature of Crimean Jewish history alongside The Jewish Agency’s post-Soviet-Union work there. Crimea has a long history of a Jewish presence, dating back to the creation of the Pale of Settlement in 1791, and an actively Zionist presence at that:

It was here that the Zionist hero and martyr Joseph Trumpeldor once lived -- here where Zionism began to flourish among the 40-45,000 Jews living throughout the region. In 1919, a branch of the Zionist pioneering movement, HaHalutz, was established there, with several training centers where pioneer olim were recruited and trained in agriculture.

In 1921, the Jewish community was near 50,000, many of them new immigrants who came to work in agriculture. By 1923-1924, several Jewish settlements were established, mostly with Hebrew names -- Kadima, Herut, Betlehem, Achdut and so on. According to a 1926 census, around 4,500 Jews were living in these settlements, a significant 10% of the Jewish community of Crimea.

At the start of 1941, Crimea had about 70,000 Jews, most of whom lived in large cities. But in the winter of 1941, the Nazis invaded and immediately began mass shootings of local Jews. In 1941-1942 alone, 23,325 Simferopol Jews were killed, and in the following months, 7,000 more were killed in Dzhankoi. By April 1942, Crimea was announced as completely Judenrein -- Jew-free.

Jews returned after the war to the region -- according to records, there were about 26,000 Jews living in Crimea as soon as 1959. In 1979, there were 22,600, and by the time that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 14,900 Jews. With perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was a mass exodus of Jews from Crimea to Israel. According to the Jewish Agency’s records, 14,318 Jews left through the Simferopol airport alone, between 1994 and 2001.

Jews in Crimea Today

Today, the Jewish Agency estimates that around 8,000 Jews and their family members live throughout Crimea -- with the majority in Simferopol and Sevastopol.

The Jewish Agency offers a home address to Crimean Jews. With its local headquarters in Simferopol, the Sohnut’s team works closely with the community, offering Naaleh high school programs, providing for students to study in Israel for high school, and Limmudiya Plus, a Judaic studies enrichment program for young teens.

Jewish and Israeli holidays are celebrated with the entire community, with hundreds arriving for each event. For this year’s Israel Independence Day alone, Simferopol’s Sochnut center had 700 guests participate, and on December 11, the community gathers annually to commemorate the Holocaust in Crimea with a ten-kilometer memory march. Between running Yad Vashem’s “Names” Project, holding “Israel Today” events and meetings, and Hebrew language study courses that begin as early as kindergarten, the community’s involvement has only strengthened.

“No One Believes the Jewish Community is Being Targeted

On February 28, Forum Daily reported that local resident Anatoly Gendin found the entrance to a local synagogue painted over with “Death to the Zhids” and swastikas -- the first anti-Semitic act in over twenty years in the area. “We have asked congregants to not come to services for a bit, so as not to expose them to the threat of attack,” Genden said.

Out of sensitivity to the atmosphere, public Purim celebrations have been canceled. As the Jewish Weekly reported this week, Jewish leaders are cautioning against alarmism. “No one believes the Jewish community is being targeted,” said Dr. Misha Galperin, President & CEO of International Development for The Jewish Agency. Here, it’s security that most Jewish leaders are nervous about, more than anti-Semitism or Ukrainian nationalism. Galperin has announced that the Agency’s emergency fund will distribute $400,000 to some 108 Jewish institutions in Ukraine this week, earmarked for boosting security for Jewish institutions, though the funds will need replenishment as long as the conflict endures.

While the Jews of Ukraine continue to face uncertainty, The Jewish Agency continues to serve as a major mainstay for the local community. “We have to be sensitive...” said Roman Polonsky, Director of the Russian Speaking Jews Unit of The Jewish Agency. “The Jewish Agency is here and ready to help.”

Click here to help ensure the safety of Ukrainian Jews, in schools, synagogues and community centers located throughout the country. The Emergency Assistance Fund was established by The Jewish Agency for Israel in the aftermath of the Toulouse massacre, to provide funding to protect Jewish institutions worldwide.

10 Mar 2014 / 8 Adar II 5774 0
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Avital Chizhik is the Digital Content Editor of The Jewish Agency for Israel. Avital grew up in Highland Park, New Jersey, the daughter of Russian immigrants who came to New York in 1980. She is a graduate of Yeshiva University; her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Forward, and Tablet, and she is a frequent essay contributor to Haaretz. She currently lives in New York.