Someone Shot at a Synagogue in Ukraine, but the Community Tried to Keep It Quiet

A local rabbi said the idea was to avoid panic and not talk about the one bullet that didn't penetrate the second pane of glass and the security guard didn't even hear

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A woman in 2016 visiting the memorial to victims of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews in Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine.
A woman in 2016 visiting the Kyiv memorial to victims of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar. Credit: Efram Lukatsky / AP

After an unknown gunman shot at a synagogue in central Ukraine in early May, the leaders of the local Jewish community kept the incident under wraps for nearly a month in an attempt to avoid a panic.

The shooting in the city of Kremenchuk that left a bullet hole in a window was first brought to the public’s attention Monday when a news website affiliated with the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, an umbrella group, covered the story with the permission of a local rabbi, Shlomo Salamon.

“Sometimes we made noise and sometimes not,” Salamon told Haaretz by telephone Wednesday, saying that he initially opted for silence because he was concerned about causing a panic and that “sometimes we think it’s worthwhile to stay silent.”

“It was one bullet,” he added. “We suddenly saw that the window had a hole and the guard didn’t hear it. The bullet didn’t penetrate the second pane of glass and on into the synagogue.”

Salamon said he only decided to discuss the attack after he was contacted by the United Jewish Community of Ukraine’s Vitalli Kamozin.

“Our policy is to make it public, to attract attention,” Kamozin told Haaretz, noting that the Ukrainian parliament is considering legislation to make it easier to prosecute hate crimes against Jews. “It is important to adopt a definition of antisemitism in Ukraine. This has not yet been done in 30 years.”

The community announced this week that it would pay to upgrade the synagogue’s security cameras.

The news of the shooting came on the same day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the country’s first Jewish head of state, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “there is no antisemitism in Ukraine.”

“Sometimes there are provocations, but it happens everywhere,” he told the German newspaper.

On Wednesday, the Russian-language Jewish News website, which broke the Kremenchuk story, also reported that in February vandals daubed crucifixes on the back entrance of a synagogue in Kyiv belonging to the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic sect.

Ukrainian nationalists marching in Kyiv in April. Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP

Jewish sites have been vandalized a number of times in Kremenchuk in recent years. In 2016, the tomb of a local Hasidic rabbi was set on fire. The same site was vandalized in 2013, 2014 and 2015, sometimes with Nazi symbols spray-painted on. In 2012, unknown vandals tried to set fire to the synagogue, and in 2009, paint was splashed over the structure.

The latest incident comes less than a year after a security guard at a synagogue in the eastern city of Mariupol overpowered a man armed with an ax who broke into the compound shouting “where’s the synagogue?”

Asked about the how his congregants responded to the latest news, Salamon replied that while some people took it hard, others dismissed it as children playing with an airsoft replica toy gun.

“When I go in the street with a kippa, I don’t feel any antisemitism,” he said.

According to Kamozin, there was no link between Zelensky’s statement and the decision to publicize the incident.

“He is right, propaganda is not justified. It is being conducted by other countries,” Kamozin said. “But antisemitism in Ukraine still exists, albeit at a low level. We are following this very closely. I do not see any connection between this statement and this incident.”

Since the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, the Kremlin and Russian state media have claimed that Ukraine is controlled by a fascist junta that has made Jewish life in the post-Soviet republic intolerable, a charge local Jewish organizations deny.

Immediately after the revolution, antisemitic vandalism, especially against Holocaust memorials, rose significantly, though violence against Jews remains rare.

Earlier this week, grave robbers allegedly raided a Holocaust-era mass grave in the village of Pykiv southwest of Kyiv, exposing and scattering human remains.

JTA contributed to this report.

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