Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky held what was called a “historic” meeting on May 6 in Kiev with the six leading representatives of the country’s Jewish community.
The meeting with the chief rabbis of Ukraine’s six most populous regions—geographically representing the entire country—included Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki of Dnipro, Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz of Kharkov, Rabbi Avraham Wolff of Odessa, Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm of Zhitomir and Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski of Donetsk. Rabbi Moshe Asman, rabbi of the central Brodsky synagogue in Kiev, also attended.
The delegation was led by Kaminezki, who says the conversation touched on the enormous size of Ukraine’s Jewish community, which he estimates at some 500,000 individuals, and its status today. “This is the sixth-largest Jewish population in the world, and he was interested in every detail: why people stay, why they leave, what we’re all seeing in our individual communities.”
Zelensky, a Jewish comedian and television personality-turned-politician, won more than 70 percent of the vote in Ukraine’s April 21 run-off election, ousting sitting President Petro Poroshenko. In a case of real life mimicking television, Zelensky had previously played a schoolteacher who accidentally finds himself president of Ukraine, before finding himself president of Ukraine.
What is no joke (puns have proliferated in headlines since Zelensky announced his candidacy) is the high-profile visibility with which he has embraced his Jewishness—not a small factor in a country with as deep and troubled a history of anti-Semitism as Ukraine.
A sense of euphoria
“There is a sense of euphoria in the Jewish community that the man who won the presidency is openly Jewish. That’s historic,” says Moskovitz, chief rabbi and head Chabad emissary in the Kharkov region in the country’s east. “He won and with a big percentage, and his being Jewish wasn’t an issue in this campaign at all. That’s very heartening to everyone here.”
Anti-Jewish history in Ukraine, where the plurality of Jews in the Russian Empire once lived, runs deep. Even prior to the Holocaust, Ukraine was the site of the infamous pogroms of 1919-1921—a third conducted at the hands of Ukrainian nationalist bands—causing the death, either directly or due to disease, of some 150,000 Jews. Local collaboration in Holocaust-era German atrocities, including among other places at Kiev’s Babi Yar killing grounds, is also an established fact.
While anything close to such terror has long been a thing of the past, a more casual anti-Semitism has prevailed for years. In recent decades, street-level anti-Semitism was a staple of everyday life for Ukrainian Jews, although such incidents have fallen rapidly in the last 10 years and even more in the last five. In fact, it’s come to the point where local Jews do not place it among their immediate worries, saying they feel more comfortable displaying their Jewishness openly in Ukraine than they do in many parts of western Europe.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Jewish politicians throughout Ukraine, from the local to the national level, have most often either buried or shied away from their Jewish identity. Non-Jews, if or when accused of being Jewish as part of an opposition smear campaign, vehemently denied it, often rushing to publicly tout their Orthodox Christian beliefs.
Not so with Zelensky, whose open Jewish identity was not a factor during the election and his eventual landslide victory.
Similar presidential meetings with rabbis have taken place in the last nearly three decades, but never with such publicity. In this case, not long after his meeting with the Chabad rabbis, Zelensky posted a picture and a long statement to his popular Instagram page, garnering 38,000 likes in the first few hours.
In his post, Zelensky quoted Kaminezki as telling him, “A little bit of light drives away a lot of darkness. There are three central factors behind the success of your leadership: justice, honesty and peace. Never do what you would not wish to be done to you.”
Childhood difficulties in the Soviet Union
Zelensky hails from the industrial city of Krivoy Rog, and in the meeting recalled to the rabbis the difficulties he experienced growing up as a Jewish child in the Soviet Union. These days, Chabad has affiliated Jewish communities in some 160 cities and towns throughout the country, and Zelensky was briefed on the vast network of schools, synagogues and social-services centers under its auspices.
For the last five years, Ukraine has grappled with war in the breakaway eastern regions of the country, which although less intense still simmers, and many hope Zelensky’s approach to settling the conflict will be more pragmatic than previous attempts. Additionally, one of his strong selling points during the campaign was his profile as a political neophyte in a country struggling with endemic corruption.
“He is very serious about his forthcoming job as president of Ukraine and accomplishing good for the entire country,” said Kaminezki, chief rabbi of the Dnipro—a city formerly known as Dnepropetrovsk, and home to the sprawling Menorah Center, the largest Jewish center in the world. “Without even getting into the Jewish aspect, this is a clean, honest individual; educated, solid morals. There is a lot of hope here.”
The meeting was held in Zelensky’s 21st-floor office in Kiev, from which the killing grounds of Babi Yar can be made out. Kaminezki told the president-elect—who at the conclusion was presented with a Chumash (Five Books of Moses) with a Russian translation—that his election was a part of the healing process of the country, particularly its Jewish community.
“The emissaries who were sent here by the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson] didn’t come here for a certain amount of time; we’re here until Moshiach comes,” Kaminezki told Zelensky, whose Instagram also quoted him as saying there was no contradiction to being a Jew and a patriotic Ukrainian. “We believe that Jews can live and grow here, that there is a great future for the Jews of Ukraine.”
This story originally appeared on Chabad.org/News.