President Zelenskyy’s Test of Jewish Support

In Judaism, there is this concept of אהבת ישראל (ahavat Yisrael), or ‘love of a fellow Jew’. Sometimes generically referred to as saying ‘love your brother as you would yourself’. Of course in the Jewish community, it really is a core underlying value to the Jewish community — both on a micro, and a macro level. We look out for fellow Jews both in our local communities and globally as well.

So when the crisis in the Ukraine erupted this week, it was further intensified in the Jewish community because 1) there are so many Jews in the diaspora who have ancestors who have ties to that reason and/or 2) the Ukraine is home to the fifth largest Jewish community in Europe. But even more importantly, the president of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish.

I have to admit that before all of this, my entire view of the Ukraine was of it being the historical homeland of a few chassidic dynasties — and of course of the yearly Rosh Hashana pilgrimage that many Breslovers make to Uman. I honestly never gave any thought to the present-day Jewish community in the Ukraine. But I must admit, it was a pretty strong feeling of pride and allegiance even, when I found out that the present of the Ukraine, a newfound media darling to both national and Jewish news outlets, was a member of the tribe.

It did not take to long (sadly) to hear ‘some’ mumblings regarding president Zelenskyy’s non-Jewish wife and some insinuations that he converted to Orthodox Christianity (which I can’t find any proof of myself). So for those reading this who may not be so familiar with the definition of what makes a person a Jew, according to traditional Jewish law, a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother, or someone who has converted to Judaism. This is why intermarriage is such a thorny issue in the Jewish community; because your Jewishness is not as much determined by what you practice — but what your pedigree is.

Olena Zelenska with husband Volodymyr Zelenskyy and their children, Oleksandra and Kyrylo

Do not think that the Zelenskyys are anomalies though. According to this study, about 50% of children that identified as Jewish in the Ukraine are products of mixed Jewish/non-Jewish marriages.

An Acceptance (With Conditions)

There are segments of the Jewish community that have very harsh sentiments about the topic of Jewish intermarriage (that is Jews marrying non-Jewish people). There is a lot of (needlessly wasted) energy spent among Jews trying to determine if a particular person is Jewish or not. And even if a person is unquestionably Jewish (like president Zelenskyy is), then there are those who pontificate and wonder if their behavior is worthy enough to still be claimed proudly (or have the shameful ‘self-hating Jew’ label slapped on them).

Thankfully, the Jewish world has seemed to throw a solid amount of support behind president Zelenskyy. And this is absolutely the right thing to do. In spite of the fact the he is not religious and has never hid that. He and his family should be embraced and supported. But we also need to keep in mind that anywhere that Jews find themselves, there stands to be some (or many) who have intermarried and/or are not religious. These individuals deserve our support as well.

I pray that we can take this opportunity to expand our minds and hearts when it comes to inclusive thinking in the Jewish community. And of course, I pray to a swift and proper resolution to the crisis currently going on in the Ukraine.