My friends here in Seattle are often surprised to learn that December 25th is not recognized as Christmas for most Ukrainians. That holiday is observed on January 7, since Orthodox Christianity follows the Julian calendar. But that doesn’t mean there was no celebration on December 25th this year. The date marked the second day of Hanukkah, and Ukraine’s vibrant Jewish community marked the occasion with eight days of food, drink, and parties throughout the country.
Ukraine is home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities—the third largest, by its own estimate. Kyiv, the capital, is home to the biggest Jewish population, while large communities exist in the cities of Odesa and Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), which is home to Europe’s largest Jewish community center. Jewish life has become more visible in recent years, as Jews say the war in the east and the political upheaval have prompted them to reconnect with both their Ukrainian and Jewish heritage.
Ilya Aizenshtat, a Ukrainian journalist and Jewish activist who I met while working for a Jewish television channel in Kyiv several years ago, wrote to the Ellison Center to let us know how he and his Jewish friends in the capital spent the holidays.
“Hanukkah is a fun time for young Jews in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine,” Aizenshtat writes. “We hold parties in nightclubs and restaurants dedicated to Hanukkah. Each of these parties gathers about 200 to 300 young Jews. My friends and I were also present at the lightning of the main Hanukkiyah at the Kyiv Exposition Center, which hosted the New Year Fair. The chief Rabbi of Ukraine together with Kyiv Jewish communities and non-Jews had a bright celebration.”
Ukraine’s Jewish community stretches back about 1,000 years, to the time of Kievan Rus. That heritage is felt in local cuisine, architecture, and culture more broadly. The Holocaust decimated the Jewish population and religion was not recognized under Soviet rule, but life has returned to synagogues since the collapse of the USSR.
“Local Jews are really involved in community life,” Aizenshtat writes. “The modern Jewish Kyiv community consists of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and religious Zionist synagogues. Each of these synagogues has their own youth communities. Personally, my friends and I represent the Reform community and we celebrate most Jewish holidays by gathering at someone’s home and following the tradition of each holy day.”
When Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution erupted on the streets of Kyiv in late 2013, Russian media published alarmist stories about widespread anti-Semitism among Ukrainians, claims that Ukrainian Jewish leaders rejected as false. While some right-wing groups have raised concerns among observers, anti-Semitism has not been a major feature of political debate and Jewish leaders say that violence against Jews is relatively rare and hasn’t noticeably increased since the events of 2013-2014.
Throughout the war, Jewish Ukrainians have participated in NGOs and volunteer militias to assist the Ukrainian government against the Russian-backed insurgency in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Alexander Kuleshov, originally from Odesa, served in the Israeli Defense Forces and used his military experience and background as a doctor to train medics who provide care for soldiers and residents on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine during the first months of the conflict. He has raised money to fund volunteer medical units that have served alongside Ukrainian military personnel and volunteers. He hopes to pursue more ambitious projects to assist those affected by the war.
He says that Jewish Ukrainians and Jews in Israel with Ukrainian heritage feel a sense of responsibility to help.
“Nowadays, Israel offers dozens of fascinating short- and long-term programs for Jewish youth,” Kuleshov writes. “It means that there is a much stronger connection between Israel and Ukraine now. At the same time, young people like me, who have experience similar to mine—study, army service, and work in Israel—and choose to live in Ukraine feel a responsibility to try and change things.
I can say that the common output from the Jewish community is much higher. For example, we can look at the war, which we have already been fighting for three years. Jews who live in Israel and have relatives in Ukraine want to help. And this help comes by variety of ways. For me, it began with humanitarian aid and then developed into the creation of a long-term project based on Israeli-Ukrainian partnership. There are numerous Jewish organizations in Ukraine that help the internally displaced and elderly—not only Jewish people. So, in general, Jewish the community is more active now than ever.”
Despite the solidarity felt by many in the Jewish community, many are choosing to immigrate to Israel. Some have lost their homes to the war that continues to simmer in the east, while others have left looking for a better life as the Ukrainian economy struggles to rebound.
Kuleshov sees opportunity in the crisis, and says he and Jewish Ukrainians feel more compelled than ever to leverage their resources to help.
“We are people with a double identity,” he says. “We have a sort of double standard in our hearts—in a good way. It gives us a boost to do things and to change things.”