Asher Cherkasskii: ‘I was saved by the Almighty, after all the grenade exploded above my head an arm’s length from me’
It’s easy to identify Asher amongst the fighters of the special operations regiment ‘Dnepr 1’ on the group photo; a long beard, Tzitzit tassles…On the social networks they call the only religious Jew fighting in the ATO zone a Mossad agent and there is information that a price has been put on his head, that the separatists show photos of him around their troops to scare them… but all this is just ‘lashon-ara’ and this ‘anti-cult’ has very little to do with the actual person. In civilian life Asher Cherkasskii is a father of three, a practising Jew, who studied at a yeshiva. Not long ago he lived in Crimea but after the appearance of the ‘little green men’ without hesitation, he left with his family for Dnepropetrovsk and there signed up as a volunteer…
‘How did you end up in the ATO zone?’
‘I already had the experience of serving in the Soviet army behind me. When I took the decision to sign up as a volunteer, I applied to the special operations regiment ‘Dnepr 1’. It was a balanced and informed decision. I knew that this was not a game, that it was war with all the possible risks! A man who goes into a war zone, should be aware that he can not only be wounded, but killed. The military must be guided by higher principles to be ready from the beginning to give their lives for their country and for the peaceful future of those who are near and dear to them.’
‘What does the Torah say about this kind of decision?’
‘I think that from the point of view of Judaism my participation in a war against nazi Russia is absolutely justified. In the Torah it says that when we know someone is preparing to attack and kill us, then we are obliged to attack first. That is to say to carry out a preventive strike. This is my guidance.’
‘What was the first situation where you realised where you had ended up and how serious was it?’
‘I remember it very well, though I’d prefer not to. I was taking part in an operation, saving our troops from encirclement near Ilovaisk, ‘The Ilovaisk Trap’. The moment we crossed into enemy territory [it was under the control of Russian fighters] I cannot call the feeling of what I saw around me pleasant. The situation itself gave a clear understanding of the reality and I understood that we might not return. Was it scary then? Certainly. After all, a man who is afraid of nothing - a diagnosis.’ [Ed. / Currently there is an investigation underway of the events in Ilovaisk, an ad hoc committee of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine has been set up. At its session the commander of the voluntary regiment, Yuri Birch, said that during this operation 22 fighters of "Dnepr-1" were killed.]
Which prayer have you recited most often over the last six months?
‘"Shema", of course! I have the impression that it’s because of it that I’ve got through everything in one piece. How many times have I read this prayer - only the Almighty knows. But I know for sure that it’s a lot. I read it from the first day, when I arrived at the front. There, too, are sections of road where attacks are carried out and we have roadblocks positioned there. At one of these sites they completely shot up a vehicle with our guys in it. Thank the Lord they reacted in time and no one was even injured. So when you go to the front line, on the front itself and on the way back - everywhere there is a danger of fire and people die.’
‘Are you able to pray on time?’
‘I always have a siddur, tzitzit, tallit and tefilin with me. I am not always able to pray on time. The opponent does not wait, if he attacks and the battle goes on till five o’clock you have to stop him and hold your position…You can always pray later in those situations.’
‘How do you remain focussed on prayer and not get distracted from ‘kavanot’ in such rough conditions?’
‘ There is a well–known saying that there are no atheists in the trenches. ‘Kavanah’ is the default setting here. After all, you want to live and it is precisely in such situations you most put your trust in Hashem and rely on His will. And then, you cannot even imagine how easily people focus on prayer.’
‘A religious Jew can be seen from a long way off…’
‘I’ll tell you now I have not come across any anti-Semitism. The guys, from the very first day, treated me and the religious aspect of my life with great respect. In our regiment there are Muslims. We have worked out a traditional form of greeting: half-jokingly they say to me, "Shalom Aleichem!", and I greet them with; "Wa Alaykum Salam". The guys are well aware that I need to pray and keep kosher, etc. While I was there, everyone tried to eat meat from kosher [relatively speaking] animals, out of respect for me and tried not to eat or cook pork or bacon. It was not my request, but their decision. I went to the hospital and they started a feast! [he jokes, laughing]
‘Are there many Jews amongst the Ukrainian fighters?’
‘I don’t know exactly how many, but there certainly are. My Jewish friend, Sergey Pilipenko, who died in Ilovaisk, and many other wonderful people. If not halachic, then at least with the right to repatriation. Some of my friends on the battlefield, did not even know that they have "roots" and rights. It became ridiculous, when a man is talking, and he argues that he is not a Jew, and adds: "Only my mother is Jewish!" And then you explain the how and what of it all ...’
‘What canons of Judaism are the most difficult to incorporate into life under conditions of battle?’
‘For example, when it is Shabbat, you cannot ask the enemy to wait until it is over. There is no opportunity to explain to him that you will not fire, that there are 39 melahot that you cannot violate on the Sabbath; the enemy will not wait until the candle burns out and the sun goes down, like a bullet or a missile released by them, they cannot be stopped on the 25 hours of the Sabbath. But in situations where there is a threat to life and it is a question of survival - we can even break the laws of the Holy Saturday. With the exception of three dogmas: idolatry, adultery and bloodshed. The latter relates primarily to cases of unjust killing.
‘How do you manage to keep kosher out on the field?’
If a person wants to comply with the laws of the Torah, the Almighty gives him that opportunity. Among the food, which is distributed to the fighters there is fish in oil [canned], there are grains that can be steamed ... In some situations, I had to choose: to violate kosher laws or save my life – I ate, not to fill myself up, but to survive. You know, when you are in the conflict zone you think about food in a completely different way. The first goal is to do your duty, not to let the enemy further, to protect civilian Ukrainians. After all, among them is your family - this is your country. This requires strength.
‘What is daily life like in war?’
‘Well, what normal life can there be in ‘conflict zones’ We either slept in trenches, or in abandoned buildings. It's not even a secret to our enemies. We slept wherever it was possible to hide. When it’s your shift you man your post and those who are not on shift, rest. But everyone to a man, wherever they were, slept dressed in full combat gear. After all, they could launch an attack at any time. When you wake up, well if all is quiet around at least, maybe you have a quiet wash. Washing on the frontline fighting is virtually impossible. Being without water, you know, is very bad. And you don’t always have it. And even when there is some, then you are weighing up; should I drink it and save some for cooking food or wash with it. So we often used moist tissues. Volunteers gave them to us. Our thanks go out to them!
‘How often have you had the opportunity to eat properly?’
‘Once or twice a day maximum. If it was quiet in the morning, you could quickly cook something hot. And in the evening, so as not to give away our positions with an open fire, we ate what volunteers gave us. Although many of our positions were known to the enemy due to their technical support: "drones" that constantly flew over us. This, unfortunately, is not a secret, because video footage of our positions were posted on the Internet by the DNR. But we remain in our positions and keep them in spite of all the "trumps" of the enemy. We defend our own without eyeing anyone else’s – the Almighty is with us.’
‘Your position was in the area, termed the "dead fire zone" for cannon fire; you were the rearguard for fighters who were holding Donetsk airport, etc. What helps to survive, at times in desperate situations? You cannot really count on a technical competitive advantage...’
Of course, faith saves you, the good leadership of our command and the volunteers who have sent us: an ambulance (it is now possible to transport the injured promptly), vehicles for transport, thermal imaging devices, etc. And the fact that our military hardware and equipment is inferior to that which the Russian Federation provides the occupiers, we compensate with the confidence that we are fighting for a "just cause", against all odds to defend our country and our families. The technical discrepancy is compensated by the faith and heroism of our soldiers.
‘How often do troops rotate?’
‘Rotation occurs regularly, because it is very cold. Command ensures that personnel receive the necessary rest, not staying in such difficult conditions for longer than a person can stand. Although many guys, of course, show miraculous heroism and remain at the front.’
‘You have an injury and are now receiving treatment. What happened?’
‘The enemy came very close. This was the famous "Vostok" battalion, with whom we had fought directly. They began shelling with underground grenade launchers. I was saved by the Almighty, after all a grenade exploded over my head, literally at arm's length. If it had been slightly lower I would have had more severe injuries ... The explosion was quite powerful and I received a barotrauma – a contusion. By the way, while I was at the front, not a single fighter from "Dnepr-1" died, not even a single serious injury among my comrades. The Almighty protected us all.’
‘What happened to you then?’
‘They examined me immediately after the battle. We have very competent doctors, some of whom are Jewish. Together, we received a package from Vadim Bikipera from Israel, who recently distributed the first kosher products in the ATO through the volunteers of “Kharkiv is our home". We are very grateful to him.
Then I was at the front for a while, but because of hypothermia and the effects of concussion, I was sent to the rear. They brought me here and immediately hospitalized me. First I was in the hospital of the Interior Ministry then I was transferred to the Mechnikov hospital in Dnepropetrovsk. The consequences are dizziness and a constant ringing in the ears ... But it's a standard phenomenon experienced by many fighters in the ATO. The dizziness is gone, and as for the rest - with the help of God ... I’ll live with it, of course, it’s not very easy, but this is war!’
‘The hospital has repeatedly made statements about the lack of medicines or absence of specific drugs. The relatives of victims raise money for treatment or buy them at their own expense. Do you need any medicines?’
‘I'm not used to complaining ... I have been treated and I am very grateful to the doctors and hospital management, and those caring people who offer help ... I also have a salary ...’
‘A military wage, sorry for the skepticism, and three children! .. How long will the recovery period last?’
‘I don’t know yet if I will go for further rehabilitation or just go back to the battlefield. I haven’t received the order yet, whatever it is, I’ll carry it out and if necessary go to the front. I'm a military man, I gave the oath. But it may be the command’s decision to keep me in rehab. In this case, I get 10 days leave to recover. Some go home, or go to Western Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States and other countries that take our soldiers for treatment. What my case will be, I don’t yet know.
‘Do you not regret leaving Crimea in the spring? You could have got Russian citizenship, and be living peacefully in the Russian Federation...’
‘No! I believe that if you want to be a citizen of another country, you must give up your own citizenship. And to take the citizenship of the Russian Federation - a country that is at war against my country - I just could not do it. In my understanding, it is ethically and morally associated with the term "treason". I am also the father of three children, what would I teach them through adopting such a position? ... For this reason I had to leave Crimea. We went very carefully and quickly: loaded the things that could take, and arrived in Dnepropetrovsk. We went to the synagogue, I approached the rabbi, explained the situation and Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki housed us in a home for the elderly "Beit Baruch," as people with "refugee" status. The Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk really helped us! Special thanks to Rolland Khandros, the Kaminezki and Chernyak families, Rabbi Baitman, Benjamin Chernyshov. I am grateful to them and to others for their assistance.
... I’ve never once regretted that I left Crimea,! After all, Ido not want my children to be in an environment in which the residents of Lugansk and Donetsk find themselves in; I do not want those... I don’t even know what to call them, just don’t want to swear… to come to them. I dream of peace and that is what I am making a stand for!
PS: We can support the ATO fighter with regular kosher food, as well as help in the purchase of essential drugs for the stage of his recovery.
Details for donations: PrivatBank, 4149 6054 5034 1144 David Cherkassky.
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