“In a time of disillusionment, cynicism and rampant polarization – here is an example of true bravery.”
The words, of course, refer to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine. Valley News Group asked Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple, renowned Jewish scholar, author and teacher, named “the most influential rabbi in America” by Newsweek, to discuss the current conflict and what part, if any, religion plays in Putin’s land grab.
“From my standpoint there are two main issues. Ukraine was known as very inhospitable to Jews in World War II, but in 2019 the Pew Report stated it was the most hospitable country. Uplifting that is that it is one of the two countries in the world with a Jewish president,” Wolpe explained.
“I think this is a moment of pride for the Jewish community, that he has become this powerful world figure, and represents not just the survival of the Jewish people, because he comes from a family of Holocaust victims, but also survival of what the Jewish people at their best stand for. It is remarkable and beautiful.”
Zelensky is leading the fight of the Ukrainian military – and ordinary citizens – against the Russian aggression. “He spoke from a bunker saying this may be the last time you see me,” said Wolpe. “Such clarity from such a person is remarkable. It has a religious component as well. When the Holocaust memorial at Babyn Yar was bombed, he spoke as one Jew to Jews around the world – powerful and galvanizing.”
So what can people do to support the cause? There are now over 800,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine in one of the world’s largest diasporas. Wolpe suggested donating to organizations that directly help refugees – The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles or IsraAID, the Hebrew immigrant aid society.
“Obviously part of Putin’s motive is economic, and it is truly heartening to see the world unite to helps save a country. Every country that has the autonomy to act – and the eyes to see – is standing with Ukraine. In an age where we’re so interconnected we also see private efforts shutting down Russia with companies like Amex, Netflix and Maersk cutting them off. That kind of leverage can be divisive. It aims directly at the Russian people to put pressure on Putin. It is a really important message to send to places like Taiwan that could be next.”
Who thought that a former actor and comedian who appeared on Dancing With the Stars would rise to be the first Jewish president of Ukraine? “There is something profoundly religious about that,” said Wolpe. “One of the point of the bible is that anyone is capable or rising to greatness.”
Wolpe’s book David about King David, is in talks to become a movie. However, he said, “THIS is the story. This should be a movie. What the world needs now is a hero.”