My introduction to Ukraine began in the check-in line at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Despite torrential rains, our flight was scheduled to leave on time, according to a Ukrainian man standing behind me who spoke in a heavily accented English. Nervous to be flying on the Ukrainian national airline, I turned to him for assurance that AeroSvit would get me there in one piece. Unfortunately, he had none to offer - he hadn't been back to his birthplace in the 14 years since he immigrated to the US. Instead assurance came via a young haredi, who seemed ready to vouch for the airline.
He was one of many haredim to board my plane, a strange counterpart to the high-heeled, flashy Ukrainians - mothers and daughters alike - with bare midriffs and summer bronzed skin.
I had heard about Chabad's efforts in the Ukraine. The "Rebbe's army" acts as a strong presence, sometimes the dominant one, in Jewish outreach efforts throughout the former Soviet Union.
My understanding had been that Chabad and the Jewish Agency were engaged in a turf war, each wanting to shape what was left of the Jewish community in their own mold, particularly in the realm of summer camps. But over the next five days as I traveled to Odessa and Kharkov with a group of journalists, organized and paid for by the agency, it seemed that in Ukraine the organizations had to flex their muscles to suit the needs of the community. Chabad here was not the Chabad of the US nor was it that of Israel.
Ukraine's Jewish community seems to be barely surviving. Most of those who sustained a strong sense of Jewish identity through the post-Stalin era emigrated from the Soviet Union, leaving behind a large group of relatively unidentified Jews, who know very little of their heritage. It is hard to determine exactly how many Jews remain in the former Soviet Union, in part because of problems with lost documentation, but a population survey in 2002 estimated 450,000. With a high intermarriage rate and few affiliated with any Jewish framework, the community is at risk of dying out. That's why for over a decade, Jews of all stripes have been rushing to their rescue, setting up schools and summer camps, ulpanim and community centers, before the window of opportunity closes.
The underlying question for all those engaged in outreach efforts - be it Chabad, the agency, the Orthodox Union or the Reform Movement - was whether Jews have a future here and, if so, what kind.
My instinct was right. The haredi in line with me at the airport was on his way to a Chabad summer camp. When I mentioned the purpose of my trip - visiting Jewish Agency summer camps - our conversation ended abruptly. And when the Ukrainian who stood behind me realized that perhaps I was also a Jew, he too turned away, leaving an awkward silence.
Ukraine, which was known for its fierce anti-Semitism, has not yet transcended its past. Traveling through Odessa and Kharkov, residual anti-Semitism was physically noticeable in several desecrated memorials we visited.
Last year, an Israeli photography exhibit in Kharkov called "That's How We Live" was set on fire two days after opening. Agency officials believed the burned exhibit showed even more poignantly the way Jews live, and demanded that the exhibit remain open in its desecrated state.
Visiting the monumental memorial at Drobitsky Yar, a ravine just outside Kharkov, where in December 1941, Nazi troops began a year-long massacre of local inhabitants, we noticed several Ukrainians picnicking. Some farmers had even begun growing potatoes in the fields surrounding the monument, where thousands of Jews were transported to be killed.
Today's anti-Semitism may be complicated by envy, explained Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz, the chief rabbi of of Kharkov, sitting in his office in the only remaining synagogue in the city. Originally built in 1909, it is a large impressive building that, unlike the rest of the buildings on the block, is set back from the street to conform to a law requiring synagogues to be a certain distance from the cathedral down the block.
"Last year I stopped someone in the park on Succot, as Lubavitchers often do, and asked if he was Jewish," said Moskovitz, who was sent here from his home in Caracas, Venezuela. "He said, 'Unfortunately not.'" Moskovitz used this anecdote to explain the complicated relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.