When Russia invaded Ukraine, the countries’ Chabad rabbis also went to war
In early 2014, citing what he claimed were threats against Jews, Russian speakers and other minorities, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, sparking an ongoing conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people and decimated Jewish life in the east of the former Soviet socialist republic. Prompted by a popular uprising known as the Euromaidan in which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, deposing pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, the war wreaked havoc on a country still recovering from generations of Russian imperial control.
In the war zone, local Jewish communities — which had been gradually rebuilt in the decades following the end of Communism — began to fall apart as many of their members joined more than 32,000 of their countrymen fleeing the war for Israeli shores. During the early stages of the conflict, Jewish leaders in both Russia and Ukraine joined the fray, attacking their coreligionists in a war of words that paralleled the larger conflict between their respective governments.
In Dnipropetrovsk, an eastern city that was rapidly becoming the headquarters of Kyiv’s counter-insurgency, local Chabad emissary Shmuel Kaminezki had become one of Ukraine’s staunchest rabbinic defenders.
While Kaminezki’s congregants applauded his sermon, not all of his rabbinic colleagues were as enthusiastic about such a Manichean message. Comparing Vladimir Putin to a genocidal Biblical villain and painting the conflict in existential terms did not sit well with Russian Chief Rabbi and fellow Chabad Hasid Berel Lazar.
The Italian-born cleric was quick to respond. Several days later, on March 18, the same day that Crimea was officially welcomed into the Russian Federation, Lazar published an open letter decrying Ukrainian rabbinical protests.