(JTA) — Their son may be on TV every night, but the parents of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have consistently declined countless requests for interviews about their own lives.
This week, Rabbi Liron Ederi, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s emissary in the city, spoke at length to an Orthodox newspaper in Israel about his ties with Oleksandr and Rymma Zelensky, whom the rabbi said have helped him promote at least two Jewish community causes with their son, the president.
The interview with the rabbi afforded a rare glimpse into the lives of Zelensky’s media-shy parents, amid the intense international interest in him. To many, Ukraine’s president is a hero — some Jews have called him a “modern Maccabee” — because of his transition into a wartime leader following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion into Ukraine and the outbreak of hostilities that have left thousands dead.
The information in the interview has not been verified, and it is impossible to know whether Ederi’s account is accurate. Zelensky’s office, which is managing Ukraine’s response to a two-month-old war, did not reply to a request for comment.
The interview — which was published this week in Hebrew in Ktifa, a magazine that belongs to the Israeli Yated Ne’eman newspaper — could prove controversial in a country where antisemitism is common and where Zelensky has vowed not to replicate the corruption and nepotism of previous governments.
Ederi told the newspaper about one case in which he said the president’s father allegedly helped prevent legislation to ban the production of kosher meat. (While efforts to ban kosher meat production have been widespread elsewhere in Europe, no such legislation has made news in Ukraine.)
“What good is having the president for a son if not for that?” Ederi said.
Ederi described Oleksandr Zelensky as a highly engaged member of the Jewish community of Kryvyi Rih, a city mostly known for its steel factories. The president’s father designed a computer class curriculum for the city’s Jewish school, which has about 300 students, Ederi said. “He worked on it for hours, revising and rewriting,” Ederi said.
More recently, Ederi said, he enlisted Oleksandr Zelensky in an effort to lobby his son around the rabbi’s strategy for directing more government funding to Jewish schools. If Jewish history were a required secular subject, state funds could cover Jewish studies, not only secular subjects such as math and English.
“I asked Prof. Zelensky to help promote a plan in which Jewish studies would be part of the mandatory subjects in those schools,” Ederi said.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the school funding issue on hold. It has also caused Zelensky’s parents to leave Kryvyi Rih, Ederi said. The city of 700,000 was largely spared in the war’s first phase but is expected to face more attacks as fighting shifts to the country’s east and south.
“I believe that after the war Prof. Zelensky will continue to help us,” Ederi told Ktifa. “He won’t return to live here, he’ll stay living near his son, daughter-in-law and his two grandchildren but our relationship will continue, God willing.”
Oleksandr Zelensky comes to synagogue often but not regularly, Ederi said, and arranged for his rabbi to meet his son soon after the president, a former actor and comedian, was elected in 2019.
Ederi described the encounter in some detail, telling Ktifa that Oleksandr Zelensky asked the rabbi whether he wanted to meet the president.
“I said sure, why not,” Ederi recalled, adding he didn’t think the meeting would actually happen. “My heart was racing a bit, I have to say. I know the parents well. But the president I don’t know so well. I came to the spot [and] Zelensky looked up at me and asked: ‘Yes, what do you want?’ What could I say? I told the truth: ‘I don’t know, your father said you wanted to meet me.’ It was a bit strange. The father is a good man, he wanted to honor me but I didn’t have anything specific to discuss with the president.”
Andriy Yermak, the head of Zelensky’s office who also has Jewish roots, was also present at the meeting, Ederi said.
“Eventually it became less awkward. We talked,” the rabbi said. “You put three Jews together, they’ll always have something to talk about.”
Confirming other reports, Ederi said Volodymyr Zelensky’s parents do not like the media’s interest in them — before providing the sort of information that dozens of reporters have sought in Kryvyi Rih.
“I remember when his son was elected, he complained to me one day, asking why his Volodymyr was doing what he was doing,” Ederi said.
“What was missing in his life that he wanted to become president? Why?” Ederi recalled the father saying.
After the election, “the parents went into defensive mode,” Ederi said. “They didn’t want to be famous. They didn’t understand why their son needed it, what got into him. They wanted their quiet. A peaceful family life. Having their son become president was more of a nightmare than a dream to them.”
Zelensky has posted frequently on social media about his love for his parents. He deals differently with his Jewish roots, which he has neither denied nor frequently highlighted. In one exchange typical of his dry humor in 2019, he told an interviewer from France: “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.” He also told an interviewer that his father had prohibited him from accepting a scholarship to study in Israel after high school.
Ederi is one of nearly 200 rabbis leading communities in Ukraine as part of the Hasidic Chabad movement, which has roots in the country. He has been the head rabbi of Kryvyi Rih since 2002. Last year, his community announced a plan to expand its ritual bath, and last month, amid war, it dedicated a new Torah, according to Chabad-affiliated news reports.