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27.11.2014

Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin: ‘It’s not so easy to change the sign, if people have got used to something…’

The story of Rabbi of the Communities of Progressive Judaism of Simferopol and Ukraine, who in March of this year was forced to flee Crimea after its annexation by Russia.

The majority of Ukrainian rabbis are foreigners who came in the 90’s to revive Jewish religious life. A reversal did not come about, but this may have been a blessing in disguise… Recently, by the invitation of the Jewish community of Slovakia, Mikhail became a rabbi of this country and its capital Bratislava. Our conversation started with what caused Rabbi Kapustin to leave Simferopol where he had worked, and quite effectively at that, for seven years.

Let’s go back a year – how were the events at Maidan perceived by Crimea as a whole and by the Jewish community in particular?”

“There were mixed reactions, but the community was outside politics and I, as a rabbi made no statements about the situation in the country. However I did have my own opinion - after the beating of the students, after which, in fact, the Revolution of Dignity started, I told the congregation that if the same thing should happen in Simferopol and they came knocking at the doors of the synagogue (as they knocked on the doors of the Mikhailovsky Monastery in Kiev) I would, without question, let them in. This is in my opinion beyond politics, it’s pikuach nefesh – saving lives, and as Jews we should understand this.”

How did the congregation react to this? It is, after all, no secret that Crimea has always been a pro-Russian region and Jews, being a small section of that society, shared the same worldview as the surrounding population.”

“That’s true, but far from everyone thought the same way, especially after Maidan, in the period of the preparation of the Russian annexation of the peninsula, many were not happy about it. There were more of those who were simply waiting to see how it all ended. As for me, I didn’t hide that I was very encouraged by the Ukrainian movement towards Europe but I never, until the Russian invasion, talked about it publically. On the night of the 27 February after the seizure of the Crimean parliament and the appearance of the ‘little green men’, in Simferopol for the first time in the 23 years of Ukraine’s independence, the anti-Semitic graffiti ‘Death to Yids!’ appeared on the walls of the synagogue ‘Ner Tamid’.”

And soon after on 3 March you made a statement to the international community with a call to ‘save our country, save Ukraine!’ and supported a petition on the White House website with calls to introduce sanctions against Russia for the occupation of Crimea. However, an item soon appeared on Russia Today, where against a background of shots of the graffiti on the ‘Ner Tamid’ you were gathering your belongings, seemingly preparing to flee from anti-Semitic threats emanating from the new government of Ukraine. This looked very strange…”

“Yes, it was a classic and very expert set up. Journalists from Russia Today quoted my phrase ‘I don’t want to leave, but I want my children to feel safe, to be free and able to express themselves. For this reason I am leaving’, thus, seeming to intimate my unwillingness to live under the ‘new fascist government of Ukraine’. I really did say these words but in precisely the opposite context – having in mind the annexation of Crimea by Russia and not wanting to live in that Crimea. I saw the interview after already leaving the peninsula and had to answer the bewildered questions of my friends and acquaintances.

In the first half of March I gave dozens of interviews to various media outlets and despite certain inaccuracies of interpretation I didn’t insist on a retraction. For instance in an interview to one of the Israeli publications I replied ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Did you write a petition?’, thinking of the open letter which contained an appeal to save Ukraine and support one of the petitions on the White House website, for my letter, in essence, was a petition. However this publication made me the author of the petition on the White House website, and this was quickly picked up by other media.

However Russia Today, had not acted out of negligence, they had fabricated an item based on a half-truth, in which I played one of the leading roles. They simply used me for their own goals. At first I was bursting to write a rebuttal, but then having forced myself to step aside from my emotions I took the decision not to write anything and not to give any more interviews. It was obvious that any interview would be used by the opposing side to stir up the information war, and at a time when I had left my home and had yet to find another one, this was the last thing I needed. Soon the news resource ‘Stop Fake’ showed this item as a classic example of the lies of Russia Today and the necessity for any additional rebuttal fell away.”

A few days after this memorable interview the referendum was triumphantly held in Crimea, in which, no doubt, your congregation took part.”

“My family and I left on the day of the referendum but people really did vote en masse, one of my friends coted three times, so important was it for him. People sincerely believed that the changes would lead to a better life and were in a very pro-Russian mood.”

Has the euphoria subsided?”

“Not amongst everyone, and the main argument of those who have no regrets is, if there had been no annexation then Crimea would be in the same state as Donetsk or Lugansk. So people are glad that there is no war, compared to Donbass it is a trouble-free region.”

“Has the Russian annexation had an impact on the activities of the community? Even the chairman of the Association of Jewish Organisations and Communities of Crimea, Anatolii Gendin, who is totally loyal to the new authorities was, to put it mildly, concerned about attempts to build Jewish religious life on the peninsula into the Russian vertical.”

“I know Anatolii Isaakovich quite well and I don’t have a bad word to say about him as a person. Although our political views are diametrically opposed, we continue to maintain good relations. Yes, our community is now a member of the Association of Organisations of Contemporary Judaism of Russia, and its charter was changed accordingly to be in line with the legislation of the Russian Federation. But I don’t think that reshaping the whole of Jewish life on the peninsula into the Russian model, where the main movement is Chabad, will be very easy. It transpired that in Crimea there is a rather strong reformist movement, we have three synagogues, a few communities and in many respects it is thanks to Anatoly Isaakovich Gendin. It’s not so easy to change the sign, if people have become used to something…”

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As for the synagogue in Simferopol, of which I had the honour of being the rabbi, it will continue to function – the community worker regularly holds prayers and a rabbi from Moscow comes for religious festivals.”

How has your personal life been since your flight from Crimea?”

“We lived for a week in Kiev—the four of us (My wife, two children and I) in a single room and for that I am grateful, thank the Lord that they housed us. Then I was contacted by the Jewish community of Slovakia and they invited us to stay with them for some time. After we had got to know each other better they offered me to stay and work as a rabbi of Bratislava and Slovakia. At that time it was the only offer of work, so I accepted and have no regrets about that.”

The community is, naturally, not Russian speaking. Were you able to establish a mutual understanding with new people in a new country?”

“I am conducting services in English at the moment (I graduated from the the Leo Baeck College in London), but I’m gradually improving my Slovakian in order to speak with the congregation in their own language.”

The Jewish community of Slovakia is terra incognita for us, can you tell us a few words about it?”

“It’s a small community, but it does exist. A few hundred Jews live in Bratislava today and in the country, around two thousand with extremely marginal emigration. It’s interesting that in Slovakia there is essentially no reformist or orthodox communities in the way that we understand them. There is just a community, part of the members of which prefers to worship in a Chabad synagogue and part who attend the reformist synagogue. Many go to both synagogues because it gives them the opportunity to visit not just one Jewish ceremony, but two. I now find myself in their court, although the community has been served for the last 20 years by a Chabad rabbi, with whom I have formed a good relationship.

Regarding community life, it leans heavily on Jewish education since the tendencies towards assimilation are very strong. In Bratislava and Kosice there are Sunday schools, in the capital there is a Jewish kindergarten and a Jewish group in a usual kindergarten. They take the bar mitzvah very seriously in Slovakia and start preparing for it a few years before they are thirteen, including in the smaller communities which I occasionally visit. Whatever it may concern, my main work consists of educational projects and people are more interested in them than in Ukraine, they willingly attend and leave Tzedakah .

Could you give us more information about this – how self-sufficient is the community?

“Fully self-sufficient mainly due to a successful process of restitution, within which the community’s property was returned. Without doubt it is better off than in Ukraine, although I don’t know a single Jewish structure that has sufficient funds to realise all its plans and the Slovakia community in this respect is no exception.”

Mikhail, Slovakia is a developed country in Eastern Europe (with a GDP of $23,000 per person), a member of the EC etc. etc…Nevertheless do you feel homesick for Crimea? Do you not want to return to a city where you are understood and respected?”

“I do feel homesick of course, but it’s not for the Crimea that my relatives and friends who stayed behind tell me about, but for the one for which we made plans for the future before March 2014. In the middle of May I went to the peninsula to sort out some issues with documents in order to get a residency permit for Slovakia, but it was already a different Crimea and I was finally convinced that leaving was the right decision to have made…”

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