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The Ukraine, my 1/2 Shekel

02/24/2022 03:31:42 PM


Many of us are concerned about events in the Ukraine, as we watch footage of Russian troops pouring in and hear responses (or non-responses) from around the world.  Each has our own perspective.  Some are afraid for the wellbeing of those under attack. Others are fearful of global destabilization and an escalation of conflict around the world.   Still others are concerned about the effect on our own country’s world standing and already dysfunctional political system.  Some focus on the effect on their wallets, whether the price of gas at the pump or a drop in retirement accounts.   I share many of these concerns, but as a rabbi, rather than a pundit, I want to offer a view through the lens of Jewish history and ethics. 

One thing that every reader of the Bible understands, from reading the books of Deuteronomy, Judges and beyond, is that history is cyclical. That wars and enemies will come and go.  I’ve spoken to congregants who remember Russian tanks rolling into Hungary, as children, witnessed Nazi troops bringing death and destruction across Europe.  However, scarcely a generation has gone by in the last thousand years of European history without armies marching across borders.   

Our tradition reminds us that unfortunately, our Jewish people are often caught in the middle of world conflicts, and are often the scapegoats for events that are beyond our control. In this case, that is certainly true.  Russian President Putin said that his goal is the “denazification” of Ukraine.   This claim is ironic and offensive given that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky,  is a Jewish TV personality, who lost many family members in the Holocaust.   It has been the way of totalitarian leaders, starting with Pharaoh, to demonize Jews, often with the most cynical of language.

Few of us are knowledgeable about Ukraine as a country or its Jewish community.  Ukraine is one of the largest countries in Europe, larger than California, and with a similar population.  It has huge agricultural and mineral resources.  Its Jewish community dates back centuries.  Many (including my mother’s father) fled Pogroms over 100 years ago, or emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Still more were murdered by the Nazis. And yet there are over 100,000 members of the Ukrainian Jewish community, and, despite a long history of antisemitism (and what European country doesn’t have that?), it is one of just a handful of countries that have had a Jewish head of state.

The second major lesson our tradition offers is that, as Jews we look after all in need, but we have a responsibility to our fellow Jews.  This week we read about the ½ shekel- each Jew has something to contribute, and each Jew has value.  We have seen this in action. As other airlines were shutting down operations, El Al ran extra flights to evacuate US citizens via Tel Aviv, and drew up plans for a mass rescue of Ukranian Jews if need be.  Though Ukranian airspace is currently closed,  the stories of Israeli planes evacuating tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews in just a weekend could not be believed if they had not been documented.    Right now our Conservative/Masorti rabbis and synagogues in the Ukraine are working to help move their fellow Jews out of harm's way.   As a congregation, we are supporting this effort directly, synagogue to synagogue. Click Here to help.

While history is doomed to repeat itself, we as Jews believe that the world can be improved.  As Jews, we cannot stop war, but we can ensure that those who need to flee have a place to go.





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