"Jewish Studies is an open field today," says the director of an international Jewish Studies program

Illustrative photo: Emil Maiuk

Our guest is Olena Zaslavska, director of the International Interdisciplinary Certificate Program in Jewish Studies and executive director of the Zionist Federation of Ukraine. She talks about Jewish studies in Ukraine and the interaction between Jews and Ukrainians at the level of civil society.

On the International Interdisciplinary Certificate Program in Judish Studies

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Please tell us about your Jewish Studies program. What was it like to run it in 2023, and what conclusions did you make after its completion?

Olena Zaslavska: This program has existed for over 10-12 years. We took over the leadership of this program in September 2020 during the COVID pandemic: I became the administrative director, and Dr. Kateryna Malakhova was the academic director. It so happened that its organizer, manager, and coordinator stepped down at the time, leaving the program hanging in the air. For a very long time, I begged for this program to be handed over to us, and we finally became its leaders.

We have made changes to this program. The program got a new life. Next year, we will run it for the fifth time. We are currently cooperating with the Ahatanhel Krymsky Institute for Oriental Studies, so we are part of Ukraine's academic community. Our educational program provides knowledge of Jewish history and culture. It's called Judaica in Ukrainian and Jewish Studies in English.

Photo: cpjudaica.org.ua

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: I understand that these two concepts are somewhat different.

Olena Zaslavska: No, they are, in fact, identical. These terms are translation equivalents. We have been working on developing this program for nearly 4.5 years and have great students. The program resides within the Academy of Sciences and has agreements with universities. We invite their students to our program. That is, we can admit someone with a PhD or someone who just wants to study and do something.

Let me reiterate the point I have made on multiple occasions: Judish Studies is an open field today. Many researchers (the primary focus of our program) can pick topics in Jewish history and research them because there is almost no competition.

The Jewish community was destroyed; there was nothing left after the Holocaust, and you and I know there was nothing before the early 1990s. Everything was forbidden and closed. Today, there are so many topics for research that it's impossible to list them.

Scope and community of the Jewish Studies program

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You said you modified the program. What does it look like today? What does it cover?

Olena Zaslavska: As of today, we have nearly 20 academic courses, which are taught online. We realized we couldn't engage people offline during COVID, so we opted for the online format. Our program also stands out in that we invite people not only from Ukraine but also Ukrainians who live abroad but can take our courses. We have expanded the geography of the program worldwide. Crucially, students can take notes if they want to.

A lecturer sits in front of a camera and teaches via Zoom. This person can be a Doctor of Science, like, for example, Dmytro Tsolin, or a young teacher. We have a constellation of excellent young teachers under 25 years of age. They completed their bachelor's degrees at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and enrolled in the master's program only recently. Today, they are working with us, so students, including some PhDs, learn from these young teachers. We have Tetiana Nepypenko, who will teach a course on Yiddish literature. At 23, she is an incredible translator and has already done more than some people in their 50s or 60s.

Olena Zaslavska in the Hromadske Radio studio.

We have perfected our approach: having experienced teachers and finding young teachers every year.

What is very important to us is the community. Our colleagues at the Institute for Oriental Studies told us: "You are holding a conference, and we are amazed to see so many young people who want to pursue Jewish Studies. We were unaware of this kind of interest." When we participated in the Ahatanhel Krymsky Readings at this institute, we did a twelve-hour marathon. The majority of our presenters were between 25 and 40 years old. We were told, "How can this be? We didn't know that." So, we keep finding and inviting people who also want to cooperate with us at conferences.

Of course, we remember about our graduates. The program runs for two years, and our graduates come to us and communicate with us later. And this is how a community is formed little by little.

Notably, we have launched cooperation with the Department of Jewish Studies of the University of Wrocław. We are switching to English but only partly because we understand that English is suitable only for young people, unfortunately. Nevertheless, Polish professors did a three-lecture course with us. We hope to offer another course like this in the spring. And we are developing cooperation — Poznań comes next. We are already collaborating with the POLIN museum in Warsaw. The wonderful Ukrainian girls who work in the education department there make online presentations for us.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You are talking about young people and have mentioned a 23-year-old translator. This process of passing the baton fascinates and inspires me. When you get involved in something related to academia, knowledge, and education, and you see really young and engaged people there, it seems the process speeds up many times. What are other intermediate conclusions and results that are also worth mentioning?

Olena Zaslavska: This is also research. There are people working in archives and researching a topic of their choice. And then, they find things that can be presented at world-class conferences.

We teach the basics, i.e., we give our students an idea about the Jewish community and its history.

Students also read classical Jewish texts, which is very difficult. We offer two languages, Yiddish and Hebrew. We have groups that continue their education, while some groups start from the beginning. The two groups studying Yiddish operate according to the same principle.

An essential part of our work is concerned with the history of the State of Israel. I understand that this topic attracts very little interest at the moment. We have so much on our plate now that it takes precedence over Israel's history. Still, when we think that our states are somehow similar in terms of shared history and the current situation, we need to show where this is true and where it's not. There were very high hopes for Israel, which sometimes came true and sometimes did not, so we reveal historical similarities and differences.

We have now finished an open course conducted by Vyacheslav Likhachev, a well-known historian, political scientist, and researcher from Ukraine, and Artem Fedoruk, a historian from Israel. We have a system of open courses available to all those interested. These are certified courses offered every six months. This most recent course was called "History of the State of Israel. Survival in a hostile environment." It was almost prophetic because all these events in Israel erupted at the time of the second or third lecture (the attack of Hamas militants on Israel in October 2023. — Ed.). We then held a press conference for more than 100 people, and our lecturers shared their views on Israel's future. There was also on-site reportage as one lecturer was in Israel then.

On Ukrainian-Jewish interaction in the context of education

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Many people think they know history. When there is so much information, and the topic is constantly discussed in some general terms, you get the impression you are in the know, but, in fact, you are not.
Olena Zaslavska: I agree with you one hundred percent. That is why we see our mission as providing education. The task of the Zionist Federation of Ukraine, where I serve as the executive director, is developing relations with Israel. I have been asked to share my views on the future of Jewish organizations and the Jewish community in Ukraine. To this, I always reply: education, education, and, once again, education.

There are almost no representatives of the Jewish community in our program. Ukrainians are interested and take our courses because Jewish history is a part of Ukrainian history, and you cannot throw it out. No matter how much we might want to forget about it, we cannot because it's a shared history. That's why people who don't have any Jewish roots are just incredible researchers today. They exhibit such a deep interest in this topic that I have yet to see among those with Jewish background.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: This is so valuable. One of our program's guests said that the life of Ukrainians and Jews is not life next to each other it's life together. And this has an impact on historical, cultural, and other processes.

On the conference "Ukraine — Israel: History of Mutual Relations"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Could you tell us about the Ukraine-Israel conference you organized? What was its purpose? Who were the attendees, and what were the outcomes?

Olena Zaslavska: This idea is not new. We already held a conference in 2020, right during COVID. When preparing for the first conference, I had an idea for which I got a lot of flak. My idea was that a Zionist organization had to tell people about Zionism and explain that there was nothing to fear. Since Soviet times, people believe Zionists are some terrible monsters with horns who do no one knows what. In other words, enemies. And so, to somehow overcome these stereotypes, we held the Aleph-Beth Zionism conference in 2020 and invited various activists as speakers. The event fell in the COVID period, so we held it online, and the conference was a success.

Thus, we already had the experience of holding such conferences then. Moreover, I did a lot at the Diye-Slovo studio. I talked with our colleagues from the World Zionist Organization. They have a department for working with Israelis, with the diaspora — and I felt they were turning towards us. They are deeply interested in what is happening in the Jewish communities worldwide. We know that Israelis are very self-centered, and diasporas are supposedly not very interesting to them. But it's changing now somehow; they are looking at us.

This organization gave us a small grant after I pleaded with them for a long time, arguing that this kind of conference was needed. The main reason is as follows. We have already talked with you about the very strange relations between Ukraine and Israel. We expected a lot from Israel because we have a huge stereotype. After Anna Zharova and the Israeli Friends of Ukraine took our wounded soldiers to Israel and rehabilitated them there in 2014, relations between Ukraine and Israel became very warm and close. Ukrainian society looked at Israel as a country that would be the first to respond to a full-scale invasion. And it did, though not politically. We know what the political elite did, and I'm not going to reiterate it here. But I know how Israeli civil society responded. After it recovered from the initial shock, it did everything possible to help. They helped those arriving despite what was happening at the border. Civil society members were personally engaged in this: receiving people standing at the border, helping them, etc.

Still, some Ukrainians were offended: "You are like us; you also have enemies there, and you are not the first to rush to our help?"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: So, the conference was like a bridge, an attempt to restore communication?

Olena Zaslavska: A bridge, yes. At the level of civil society. Let's separate things. Diplomacy is diplomacy; let our heads of state engage in diplomacy with the heads of other states. It's not our business. Our work is education and journalism; it's about providing information. After that, people should analyze this information on their own. You can teach them to analyze or not teach them — that's not our business either.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: And then these people, as civil society, can influence state policies.

Olena Zaslavska: Yes, it's a kind of circle. But we still have to be in our place and do our thing. And we organized this conference, which was very successful. Its full name was "Ukraine — Israel: History of Mutual Relations." We did it with my colleagues, well-known journalists Natalia Malinovska and Yuri Korohodsky. The conference focused on the history of our mutual relations from the beginning. Independent Ukraine began to somehow restore relations with Israel, which did not exist before. There were no diplomatic relations; it was only in 1989 that the first consuls came.

The pool of speakers at our conference included Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Oleh Bai and political scientist Yevhen Mahda. We also asked such renowned researchers as Ihor Semyvolos and Serhii Danylov to share their views on Ukraine-Israel relations. We did it for those who wanted to understand something and sought first-hand information instead of relying on gossip.

The conference consisted of three parts. The first one was on 14 May, the Day of the Righteous Among the Nations and Israel's Independence Day. It was followed by two more sessions. One was journalistic, and the other was attended by leaders of the Jewish and Ukrainian communities and centered around a fascinating discussion. Psychologists also spoke at the conference.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Events like this tend to produce insights or plant something in your mind and soul that later begins to preoccupy you. Did you have anything like that at this conference?

Olena Zaslavska: I think the second part, where the journalists presented, was most successful. For example, there was an unusual speech by Anna Zharova and an intriguing presentation by Rostislav Goltzman, an Israeli journalist from Haifa. We talked with people who were leaders of NGOs and civil society, and they told us about their activities.

Photo: radiosvoboda.org

Some people still have the idea that the Israelis are doing nothing for Ukraine, but this is not so. We don't talk about it at the leadership level, but I really wanted people to hear that at the civil society level. And they did. It was an analysis of how they actually perceived what was happening in Ukraine. This is what they shared with us.

I also invited Ihor Romanov to the conference; he spoke in the third part. He is the head of the Jewish community in Dnipro. I know him personally, so I asked him to tell us what they (the Jewish community — ed.) did at the beginning of the war. Romanov led the campaign to receive people from Lyman, Rubizhne, Bakhmut, and all the towns that no longer exist. People were arriving by the thousands. Through the efforts of the Jewish community, all of Dnipro turned into one big hostel. When accepting a person, no one asked about their ethnic background, never. In this work, no one asks whether you have a connection to the Jewish community. If you do, good; you will later be handled by some Jewish organization. If not, you will receive help in some other way. The city of Dnipro, with all its schools and kindergartens, was a single camp for half a year. Romanov told me they turned yet another kindergarten into a shelter and brought mattresses there. He said they would put up people there and then see what would happen next. I really wanted him to talk about these activities at the conference because only a small group of people communicated with him, while a much broader audience needed to hear it. I think that's what we achieved.

On the activities of the Diye-Slovo studio

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What about the activities of the Diye-Slovo studio? What events can be attended? What projects are there that people could join?

Olena Zaslavska: We will have a project about the Dreyfus affair. The excellent Israeli historian Michael Bronstein, who is over 70 years old, told me he wants to defend Ukraine but cannot wield a gun. Interestingly, he is not originally from Ukraine. He says he is so old that they simply won't accept him. But he has assured me that he will help with lectures. You know, intellectual help is also help. We need to talk about it, and there are many such people. I thought it was not possible, but it is. People come and say: "We will teach a course of lectures for you." Bronstein will teach his fourth course, this one about the Dreyfus affair.

We will also offer a big course as a kind of extension. Vyacheslav Likhachev will teach the history of antisemitism. The opening lecture will be about whether there is antisemitism in Ukraine today and what to expect. It's a critical topic. He will explain, among other things, why there have been no pro-Hamas rallies in Ukraine. Five more lectures will follow, and certificates will be issued to successful students. We will start this course in mid-February.

Vyacheslav Likhachev. Photo: zn.ua

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Where can these events be followed by those wanting to become involved?

Olena Zaslavska: I cordially invite everyone who wants to join us visit the Facebook page of the Diye-Slovo studio. The studio has its website; our Jewish studies program has one, as  does the Zionist Federation of Ukraine. Facebook is better because we stream live broadcasts there. You can turn them on like a radio without even logging into Facebook. You can submit your questions, and I will ensure they will reach the lecturers.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.

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