From The Bombs of Ukraine to Cardozo Law School: The Story of Professor Dmytro Vovk
Professor Dmytro Vovk, currently a visiting law professor at the Cardozo School of Law, is a Ukrainian refugee. I was privileged to speak with him over the holiday break and learn his story.
While in Ukraine, Vovk ran the Center for the Rule of Law and Religion Studies at Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Kharkiv and taught law at the Ukrainian Catholic University, in addition to other positions, including a fellowship at Brigham Young University (BYU).
When the invasion began in February, Vovk was living with his wife and children in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine as well as its academic center. Russian forces soon began indiscriminate bombings. While his youngest daughter had little idea of what was going on, his ten-year-old was traumatized when bombs began to fall on the city within a mile of their apartment. Additionally, he had to worry for the safety of his parents, who lived in central Ukraine. When a missile hit a shopping mall half a mile from his parents’ apartment, “we all understood we were in danger after that.”
On the third day of the invasion, the Russians began to assault Kharkiv directly, but were beaten back by the Ukrainian armed forces. Five days after the bombardment began, Vovk and his family fled westward, toward a safer part of the country. Looking back, he isn't sure why they waited those five horrible days, perhaps it was all just too surreal. Worried for their safety, due to the support of European colleagues, he managed to send his wife and children to Bratislava, where they stayed for a half of a year. While it would have been easy to become hysterical under such circumstances, he said, “If you ask me my main feeling [from that time] it wouldn't be fear … The main feeling was nonsense. How is it possible that there is a war in Europe in the 21st century? ... There is no rational reason for this war.” Indeed, since the invasion, NATO has only been strengthened by the inclusion of new members while Russia has had significant losses of men and material.
While he was figuring out what to do next, Vovk received an offer from Yeshiva University to serve as a visiting professor at Cardozo, which prompted his move to New York City. Despite the difficulties associated with moving into a new city with young children, the family managed to settle in well. Vovk particularly enjoys cultural centers like the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side.
Vovk shared interesting perspectives about life in Ukraine and America.
The history of Jews in Eastern Ukraine, for whom Vovk’s family serves as a microcosm, has been tumultuous since the turn of the nineteenth century. Many turned to secularism and celebrated the Russian Revolution as a form of emancipation from medieval persecution and discrimination they experienced in the Russian Empire, while many others fled to America. This, as well as Holocaust and Soviet repressions and atheistic campaigns , resulted in the near total disappearance of Orthodox Judaism in Ukraine, which stareted recovering and becoming more visible only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While Vovk and his immediate family are secular Jews, he praised Ukraine’s recent moves towards a society tolerant towards all, including religious Jews. He contrasted this with Russia and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, where Putin has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation towards minority groups, including Jews. However, the Jewish community in Ukraine is still quite small, which Vovk noted makes it a remarkable “sign of diversity and pluralism of Ukrainian society, and also religious freedom” that Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, obtained the presidency and has become a media sensation.
Steering the conversation toward his experience here at YU, Vovk expressed his gratitude to the university for welcoming him. When I asked him to evaluate the school’s religious character and compare it with his stints at the Ukrainian Catholic University and BYU, he remarked, “In all communities you have more liberal and more conservative people … It’s impossible to say that the whole university thinks in one way, but I am always joking that in some way conservative universities in the US are more liberal than some liberal universities in eastern Europe. I mean academic freedom, first of all.”
Personally, I was struck by Prof. Vovk’s personable and unassuming exterior, along with his sharp, strong-willed and immensely knowledgeable interior.
At the end of the conversation, I wished him success in settling in New York. “They say if you can make it here [in New York] you can make it anywhere,” he replied. “Well I am still in the process of making it here, but we can always hope.” Prof. Vovk serves as an inspiration to myself and the human race as a whole, and it is an honor to welcome him to the YU community.
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Photo Caption: Prof. Dmytro Vovk
Photo Credit: Wilson Center