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Wednesday
Feb242016

CHASSID IN FULL BATTLE GEAR

R Asher Cherkasky with his flowing gray beard along with his olive green uniform catches peoples attention wherever he goes. RAsher, who is part of the Chassidic community in Dnepropetrovsk, made a big Kiddush Hashem throughout southern Ukraine by fighting the pro-Russian separatists who took over the Crimean peninsula. * Today he is a member of the city council after being elected by 100% of the votes. * “A story like his could only happen in the birthplace of the Rebbe,” says shliach, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky. 

It was Cherkaskys outward appearance, in contradistinction to that of his colleagues, that made him famous, thanks to a brief video that was made on the war-front in the winter of 5775. He stood there proudly with his long beard, a Jewish soldier in uniform.

“Cherkasky is one of the symbols of the new Ukraine. He is the connecting link between the various nationalities who see Ukraine as their homeland,” says Ukrainian journalist Dmitry R. According to him, the gray beard became a strong and somewhat ironic symbol of unity.

R’ Asher Cherkasky’s appearance definitely stood out in the Ukrainian army. With his olive green uniform and long flowing beard, he caught people’s attention wherever he went. Today he is part of the Chassidic community in Dnepropetrovsk.

Who are you really, Asher Cherkasky? I called the Ukraine and spoke with Asher himself and with the rav of the city and its shliach, R’ Shmuel Kaminetzky. I heard a most fascinating story.

FASCINATING LIFE STORY

Asher is 46 and a familiar public figure in Dnepropetrovsk and not just in his role as member of the city council where he was voted in by 100% of the votes.

At 30 he started taking an interest in Judaism. It was when his father was sick in 5759 at the age of 52 and the doctors had given up. Asher knew that only G-d could help and he started visiting the shul. Unfortunately, a month and a half later, his father died.

Asher continued attending shul and also dropped in now and then into the yeshiva of Dnepropetrovsk. At the time he was a businessman. He imported vehicles from Germany for various factories around the Ukraine. He did very well and donated a lot to the local Jewish community.

He made progress in his knowledge of Judaism but due to problems with his papers and not being able to prove his Jewish lineage, he had to undergo conversion (giyur l’chumra).

At the time, he was studying in university for a degree, but because classes were on Shabbos and attendance was mandatory, he realized he couldn’t have it both ways and he had to make a decision. It was a tough decision to make when he had just started learning about Judaism. Asher, with unusual courage, decided to stop his studies in the middle so as not to desecrate the Shabbos.

In the meantime he got married and had three children, all of whom learn in Chabad schools. “His children do not attend the regular Chabad school, which caters to most of the communities families; they go to the Talmud Torah and Machon Chaya Mushka where the children of Anash go,” said R’ Shmuel Kaminetzky.

At a certain point, his business started to falter. At the same time, his mother who lived in Crimea became sick and needed him. He left Dnepropetrovsk and moved to Crimea. As difficult as it was, he and his wife left their two older children behind because there were no comparable schools where they were moving to. They only took their youngest son along with them.

They lived in Crimea for over a year, not without difficulties, but he felt he had no choice. He hoped to rehabilitate his business, but then the Russian army invaded Crimea and the takeover by the pro-Russian separatists ruined his plans. Crimea was annexed by Mother Russia. He was offered Russian citizenship but as a Ukrainian patriot he refused. “I felt that it wasn’t my country and I could not remain there,” he said in our phone interview. He did not say so but I heard from others that he underwent persecution for this.

Cherkasky left the small city he was living in, Feodosia in Crimea, after the area was annexed by Russia in Adar 5774. He returned to Dnepropetrovsk, to the heart of the Jewish community in eastern Ukraine, where he joined a troop fighting against the pro-Russian rebels in the area. The unit was funded by the Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, also a Jew.

Cherkasky joined the militia supporting the pro-western regime that now ruled in Kiev. His bearded, bespectacled face, so different from all the rest, turned him into an unusual symbol of the conflict.

“G-d gives us the ability to choose, to fight the wicked or flee,” Cherkasky says. “In light of the situation here, you need to leave or fight. I chose to fight. As long as I have the ability to defend this country I will fulfill my civic duty and my duty toward my family. If the territorial integrity of my country is compromised, I must defend it.”

Did you undergo military training?

Years ago I served in the Soviet army and now, before I joined this troop, I went to a training course like everyone else. Many of my friends who sacrificed their lives had never held a weapon before. The fighting is hard and dangerous. There were times when within a few days we evacuated tens of wounded from the battlefront. Still, thank G-d, I did not kill anyone.

How can you integrate Chassidic life with military service in a place like this?

Cherkasky who is far along in his personal growth is shomer Shabbos and kashrus and he said that observing religious practices and the need to eat only kosher on the front was very difficult.

“Obviously, nobody was cooking especially for me so I had to open up some canned food and pour boiling water on kasha, or I would eat sardines directly out of a can.”

He goes on to say that he never encountered anti-Semitism on the part of his fellow Ukrainian soldiers. This is surprising considering that Ukraine, which is mostly Christian, has a long history of massacring its Jews and otherwise exhibiting extreme anti-Semitism.

When the Yomim Nora’im came around, he spent Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur deep in pits, not far from the front, where he was constantly davening. Among other things, he prayed that Hashem save him from harm, since the Russians had the badly outnumbered Ukrainian soldiers in their sights.

From when he became a soldier he became an attraction. Over his tzitzis he wore his uniform and flak jacket. A reporter came from the Los Angeles Times and wrote a book in Russian about his life and that of other soldiers in the Ukrainian army.

Some see Cherkasky as a symbol of the new Ukraine, which has parted ways with Moscow despite their strong ties in the past. The new Ukraine yearns to be embraced by the west. “Russia attacked Ukraine,” he says about a war that has gone on for twenty months and has cost the lives of over 9000 people.

Did your friends in the community or family members try to convince you to leave the army?

There were constant attempts to convince me to leave the army by acquaintances in Crimea and family in Russia. Friends called and said, “What are you doing – you have children!” But the Torah obligates us, “One who rises up to kill you – rise up first to kill him.” When there is a threat to our lives, we need to attack first. It is my obligation to fight for the future of Ukraine so that it enters the European Union and builds a new society.

In the course of your service, did you meet other religious soldiers?

Religious, no, but I did encounter many Jews. There was even a situation in which I informed one of them that he is Jewish. He sort of apologized and said, “I’m not Jewish, just my mother is Jewish.” I explained the facts to him. But the nationality issue is no big deal; we are all Ukrainian citizens. We also have Moslems in the unit and there is no tension between us. By the way, my beard is longer than theirs…

ELECTED BY 100%
OF THE VOTES

Today, even though sporadic clashes occur on the front, there is a ceasefire which has significantly diminished the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Cherkasky, in the meantime, has taken off his uniform to serve in politics and won a seat on the city council of Dnepropetrovsk in local elections which took place in November. He defeated opponents who were businessmen and powerful politicians.

Cherkasky is, above all else, a member of the militia. At the same time, he emphasizes, “If I would see that my military service is preventing me from being an effective member of the city council, I would resign from my military position because I think that I can be more influential as a member of the city council.”

R’ Asher is not only a colorful and unique personality, he is also charismatic and gifted with oratorical abilities. These attributes helped him be elected with 100% of the votes. The opposing side did not even get 1% of the votes.

“His story is famous. He is not only a proud Jew. His appearance is unique and he is also a fabulous speaker,” says R’ Kaminetzky about Asher’s extraordinary success in the city elections. “These talents, along with his fighting the Russians, created a positive image that Jews are patriots and ready to fight and put their lives on the line. He made an unprecedented kiddush Hashem.

“In his new role as member of the city council, and due to his high popularity, he also helps the community in connecting with important public figures. He has brought politicians and army commanders on visits to the community and to Menorah (the Jewish center) and this helps us a lot in our shlichus.

“The mayor is very supportive of us because of Asher’s dedication under fire. I can tell you that we just recently got a piece of land from the mayor to build a hundred apartments for families of Anash so that the children will be in a warm, Chabad environment. When the mayor awarded me the land he asked that we designate one apartment for Asher; that is how popular he is here.”

What influence does he have on the community?

R’ Kaminetzky immediately responded with, “He has enormous influence. He is definitely an influential figure. A story like his could only happen in the birthplace of the Rebbe.”

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