On Sunday, March 13, 2022, almost 1,200 participants had the privilege of joining a Zoom meeting with Ruslan Kavatsiuk, Deputy CEO of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (see their website for a full explanation of the plans for this project) and Natan Sharansky (who was born in Ukraine), Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.
(Aleksander Kwasniewski, former president of Poland, had been scheduled to participate but had to decline because of a conflict.)
Kavatsiuk’s participation was especially poignant because he was reporting in from Ukraine. He and his family had had to escape from their home in a Kyiv suburb when the Russians began shelling the city.
“Ukraine: Past, Present, Future” was a collaborative initiative of the Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Center at Yeshiva University (Dr. Shay Pilnik, director) and the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, JewishGen, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Association of Holocaust Organizations, the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust and a multitude of other national and international organizations.
The meeting was moderated by Dr. Pilnik along with Mark Weitzman (COO for the World Jewish Restitution Organization) and Kelley Szany (vice president of education & exhibitions for Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center).
Dr. Pilnik began by welcoming people to the event and explaining that the purpose of today’s meeting “is to explore the war in Ukraine in a broad historical and geopolitical context [and to hear] an inside perspective about the war and gain a deeper insight into the situation in Ukraine, the future of Europe and, by extension, the future of the entire free world.”
Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, opened the gathering by focusing on what he considered the key takeaway from the Purim story: when it comes to Jewish history, we know that in the end we will win, but the crucial task for Esther is not to save the Jews, who will find salvation, but for her to choose her part in the story that aligns with the deliverance of the Jewish nation, “to write herself into the story so that she will be remembered.”
The same is true for people now at this moment in history, a moment “that not just about the fate of the world but about the fate of ourselves: what will our role be in the story of humanity—in other words, how will we write ourselves into this story.” He noted that one of the gifts of a meeting like this is being in the presence of people like Ruslan Kavatsiuk, who has dedicated his life to the preservation of Jewish history, and Natan Sharansky, “perhaps the greatest example of someone with the moral clarity to respond to the call of history and encourage us all to respond to that same call.” Their words challenge us “to think about what our role is going to be in what is happening, and how are we going to help move the story forward in a positive and peaceful way with care and love and compassion, which is what our tradition is all about.”
Over the next hour, both Kavatsiuk and Sharansky, prompted by excellent questions from Weitzman and Szany, expressed their solidarity with the Ukrainian people, explained the context of this war from both a Jewish and geopolitical perspective, and called for everyone everywhere to do whatever they can to encourage the nations of the world to stand on the side of preserving freedom and the sovereignty of Ukraine.
As Kavatsiuk so forcefully stated, “Two and a half weeks ago we had a normal life. We did not do anything to provoke the Russian Federation to attack us, except that we are a free and democratic country. We are not victims, we don’t want to be victims; we want to be fighting for our country, and we will not give up. It is important to understand that the spirit of our people is very strong, and we do not need anyone fight in our stead. What we do need is for the world to react to what the Russian Federation is doing—this is not just Mr. Putin’s war. It is important to understand that and act on it.”
Sharansky shared this sentiment, responding to a question during the Q&A in this way: “What is the moment for which we exist now? This is a unique moment for the free world as well for the Jewish people, the kind of unique test where, for the rest of your life, you will come back to that moment and think whether you failed or you succeeded and how either has affected your life. I speak about this from my own personal experience.”
This is the third in a series of presentations about the war in Ukraine. Here are links to the first two:
- Ukraine Under Attack: The YU Community Comes Together
- War by Other Means: The Legal, Cyber and Economic Fronts in the War in Ukraine
Attend these upcoming events on Ukraine through yu.edu/yuvoices
Freedom, Human Rights and Jewish Values: The War in Ukraine
Tuesday, March 15, 2022 | 8 p.m.
- Rabbi Yosef Blau: Mashgiach Ruchani [spiritual supervisor] of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary
- Suzanne Last Stone: University Professor of Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at Cardozo Law School; Professor of Law; Director, Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization
- Dr. Joseph Luders: David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in Political Science; Associate Professor of Political Science; Chair, Department of Political Science
Elegy for Odessa
Monday, March 28, 2022 | 8 p.m.
- Dr. Jess Olson: Associate Professor of Jewish History
- Dr. Jacob Wisse: Associate Professor of Art History
- Val Vinokur: Associate Professor of Literary Studies, the New School
- Alyssa Quint: Associate Editor at Tablet; a Senior Research Scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies; contributing editor of The Digital Yiddish Theater Project
Trauma and Repair: Psychologists and Social Workers Reflect on the Ukraine Crisis
April 6, 2022 | 8 p.m.
- Dr. Jess Olson: Associate Professor of Jewish History
- Dr. Jordan Bate: Assistant Professor, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology
- Dr. Vera Békés: Assistant Professor, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology