This is a summary of a presentation hosted by Machar, the Secular Humanistic Jewish Congregation of the Washington DC Area, through the Machar Adult Education Panel Discussion, on January 22, 2023. It is written by Marlene Cohen, Machar Member and Secretary of the SHJ Board of Directors.
An audience of over 40 people, in person and online, benefitted greatly from the knowledge of David Abramson, our Adult Education Chair and Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst on Russia-Asia Relations for the US Department of State (speaking for himself, not the Department, of course); Machar President Elaine Dancis, who was born and lived her first 26 years in Kyiv; and long-time member Marina Broitman, who was born in Odessa and moved with her family to Hazelton Pennsylvania when she was four years old. That none of Elaine or Marina’s extended families live there anymore show how difficult life was for Jews in Soviet Ukraine in past decades.
Both families left Soviet Ukraine because of the challenges of being Jewish. Marina’s father couldn’t get into university and it took bribes to get into junior college. Her mother wanted to go to medical school but it was not an option for a Jew. She instead went to a conservatory of music. These decisions were not based on skills or intellect. Many career paths and the best universities were closed to Jews. They both knew of Jews who interviewed many times for jobs that were then closed to them. The Broitmans had waited years for an apartment.
Elaine Dancis as a single mother went to Georgia (learning another language) to be able to work as a civil engineer, but then escaped Georgia after the Russians invaded there in April 1989. After the long immigration process Elaine and her daughter came to the US as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1990. For many years, she did not look back or want to think about Ukraine.
Marina and Elaine remember beautiful cities, parks and fields in Ukraine and find it so painful to see so many places bombed, including buildings which Elaine helped to design. All the places Elaine remembered from childhood were damaged by this senseless war. Bucha and Irpin were places where Elaine and her brother went to summer camps. Her aunts lived in Kherson and Odessa where the family frequently visited. Crimea was a place for many family vacations.
The destruction of so many innocent lives is hard to discuss, though the success of a Jewish President makes them proud. He has a “cult of personality” as a former comedian and actor, so there was little talk against Zelensky being Jewish, and anti-Semitism seems much lower in Ukraine now. Some Ukrainians have Jewish ancestry also. A major improvement within Ukraine is that passports no longer separate citizens into categories. There used to be an infamous Paragraph #5 in the passport that identified a person’s “nationality” based on the nationality of his/her parents. If your parents were Jewish – your nationality on your passport was automatically Jewish. Today, you are Ukrainian if you were born in Ukraine or are a legal Ukrainian citizen.
Elaine also does much work now in the US for refugees, remembering how amazing HIAS and its volunteers were from the moment she and her daughter landed in Austria, then traveled to Italy and finally to the US. Her daughter sees Elaine as her hero for the journey they took.
Even thirty years ago, Ukrainians felt Ukrainian, not that they were Russian, or a part of Russia. The idea that many Ukrainians welcomed Russian troops invading across their borders one year ago is quite exaggerated. They value democracy and their independence very highly, clearly suffering a great deal now to defend it. An exception is among some in eastern Ukraine, where mining work incorporated both countries. Also Russians were relocated to eastern Ukraine for many years to spread positive views of Russia.
David Abramson pointed out that, just in mid-January 2023, Defense Minister Lavrov of Russia said that the West is using Ukraine and is mobilizing the countries of Europe against Russia into Ukraine just as the Nazis did. Russian propaganda is that the US is fighting an immoral war. Putin’s regime believes it needs to present Russia as the victim, which makes the chances of Putin withdrawing very slim. They know they do not have any Western support, but they work actively to secure the cooperation of other key countries, such as China and India. It is interesting that, so far, right-wing leaders in Italy, Hungary and elsewhere have not broken from Western sanctions. Russians are dying in the war at a much higher rate than Ukrainians, yet this does not seem to deter Putin or his regime’s ability to wage a war that appears to have no clear end. The Russia economy will suffer increasingly over the long run, but that too hasn’t been a deterrent.
Corruption of course has been common in Russia and Ukraine. It would be great if Ukraine, after the war, could become a model of anti-corruption (Zelensky just did fire some military commanders for that.)
How will this war end? Experts point out that it is bad to either appease Putin or isolate him. It is a rough situation.
After World War II many Jews stopped believing in God because there was so much death and crime against Jews and humanity. Elaine believes after the war in Ukraine, for the same reason, more Jews there will have become secular. Elaine suggests that, if there will be many secular Jews in Ukraine, after this war we need to establish SHJ in the country, just as Orthodox Jews have gone into many places in eastern Europe, including Ukraine.
She volunteers to go there to help set up a branch of SHJ and build our secular humanistic Judaism movement!
If you’d like to watch this panel discussion, or any Adult Education program of Machar from 2022-23, use the link below to direct you.