Accessibility links

Breaking News

Reports Of Plans To Evacuate Odesa’s Jewish Community Appear To Miss Mark

Jewish men attend morning prayers at a synagogue in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.
Jewish men attend morning prayers at a synagogue in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.
Odesa’s Chabad House -- one of two functioning synagogues in a city that is home to an estimated 12,000 Jews -- is about a 10-minute walk from the trade union building where a fire killed more than 40 people on May 2, most of them pro-Russian protesters.

That Friday, as about 100 people were attending Shabbat prayer services, reports said the smoke could be smelled from the synagogue.

Jewish community leaders expressed alarm. Press accounts of that alarm were shocking.

“Buses and armed guards: Odessa Jews ready for mass evacuation,” screamed the headline on the website of RT, Russia’s English-language propaganda arm. “Odesa again anticipating a Jewish pogrom,” wrote the UralPress website.

The reports derived from a May 5 article in “The Jerusalem Post” addressing concerns among Odesa’s Jews. The paper reported that Rabbi Avraham Wolf, who runs Odesa’s Chabad House and is also the city’s chief rabbi, had prepared a fleet of 70 buses after the May 2 event to evacuate the Jewish community.

But in follow-up reports the community denied the plan and a spokesperson for the Russian Jewish Congress said they had been exaggerated in Russian media.

On a visit to the synagogue a week after the trade-union-building fire, an RFE/RL reporter saw no buses outside and did not have to pass through any security to enter the building. There was one visible guard, who sat behind a desk in the building’s foyer. He did not question the reporter.

Wolf was not in Odesa and was unavailable during RFE/RL’s visit, but Berl Kapulkin, who acts as Chabad House’s press spokesman, said the rabbi’s comments were misinterpreted.

Kapulkin said that given the uncertainty about the political situation in the country, there are contingency plans to protect vulnerable communities -- including a Jewish orphanage -- in a worst-case scenario for the city. But nothing has happened that makes him think doing so will ever be necessary.

“As citizens of Ukraine, the Jewish community felt tension and indeed depression after the tragedy,” said Kapulkin. “Specifically as Jews, we don’t feel a new threat.”

But Kapulkin said some outlets have “peddled” a narrative that attempts to put Jews on one side or another in the battle between those who support pro-Russian separatists and those who support Kyiv.

Russia, which has refused to recognize the new authoritiesin Kyiv who came to power when former President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine, has relentlessly accused the government of supporting “fascists” and “anti-Semites.”

And in Donetsk, where armed separatists backed by Russia now control much of the region, a mysterious pamphlet was distributed outside a synagogue that demanded that Jews pay the separatist authorities a registration fee or face deportation. This was widely seen as a provocation organized by an opposing political force.

Real or not, the constant attention may be having an effect on some in the Jewish community. According to the Jewish Agency, the 762 Jews who emigrated to Israel from Ukraine in the first quarter of 2014 represent more than double the figure for 2013.

-- Glenn Kates