Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

JAFI in Dnipropetrovsk continues to send many young people to the Na’aleh (high school) and Sela (university) programs in Israel. This past year, candidates were invited to a camp session in Simferopol (Crimea) where they were tested and evaluated by staff in an informal setting. The week-long camp eliminated much of the tension apparent in previous one-day testing procedures and resulted in much higher acceptance rates for both programs.

Sochnut is expanding its work in small towns as Jews in these smaller population centers constitute an increasingly large proportion of those who emigrate to Israel. JAFI aliyah coordinators visit these areas on a regular basis. Children and young adults from these towns are recruited for summer camps and other programs. Although it is difficult to find qualified Hebrew and Jewish studies teachers in smaller population centers, Beit Chana students and wives of rabbis often are very helpful in these positions. JAFI provides consulting services to local people who operate Sunday schools and other programs in these areas with small Jewish populations.

In all endeavors, JAFI seeks to work collaboratively with the local Jewish community, JDC and Nativ, synagogues, and Jewish schools. In Dnipropetrovsk, all Jewish organizations work together under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki.

Ms. Lipkin finds that many local Jews remain reluctant to speak with strangers, particularly with Israelis. Even those who may be interested in learning more about Israel and, possibly, making aliyah sometimes are fearful of taking the first step. Therefore, JAFI must take the initiative and reach out to all Jews.


20. Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine, its population numbering approximately 1.5 million people. The city has a strong industrial base, including significant defense and technology sectors, and also hosts more than 25 institutions of higher education. The capital of Ukraine from 1921 to 1934, Kharkiv often seems more sophisticated than many other cities in the country. Kharkiv lies close to the Russian border and its population is highly Russified.54

21. The Jewish population of the city probably is between 25,000 and 30,000, perhaps somewhat larger than that of Odesa. Until recently, it has been badly fragmented due to (1) a dispute over control of the choral synagogue, and (2) a coarse and abrasive approach by a major international Jewish organization to resolving internal problems.55

22. The most noteworthy event in Jewish Kharkiv during the last year has been the re-opening of the massive choral synagogue, the largest synagogue in all of the post-Soviet states and one of the largest in Europe, on May 19. About 1,200 people attended the opening ceremony.

Built in 1913 during the waning years of the tsarist period, the synagogue was confiscated by the state and used as a sports facility during the Soviet period. Its large prayer hall became a basketball court. A boxing ring was in its basement. Renovated space now includes classrooms for a girls’ machon and boys’ yeshiva, a large dining hall for the machon and yeshiva pupils as well as for elderly Jews, a computer center, and various club rooms.

Beis Menachem Choral Synagogue in Kharkiv

The interior of the cupola and the area surrounding the top row of windows are painted in different shades of azure blue. The central section with pillars and arches on each side of the upper ark encasement is painted in white. The remainder of the walls are painted in pale yellow. Such coloring is traditional in classic Russian and Ukrainian buildings.

George Rohr, who contributed the largest single gift to renovation of the synagogue is pictured at left. The words on the placard are “Synagogue Beis Menachem,” in reference to the late Chabad leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Three generations of the Moskowitz family are seen at the synagogue opening In the picture at right. Mendel Moskowitz, 13 years old, is at far left, and his father, Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz stands at far right. Rabbi Moskowitz is the Chief Rabbi of Kharkiv and presides over the newly renovated synagogue. Nissan Moskowitz, a former cantor and the father of Rabbi Moskowitz, stands in the center. Nissan Moskowitz came to Kharkiv from his home in Caracas for the synagogue dedication. The three Moskowitz men sang several songs, including one in Spanish.

(Photos: The two larger photos are provided by Kharkiv Chabad.)

George Rohr, an American contributor to Orthodox Judaism in the post-Soviet states, provided a large portion of the $2.5 million necessary to restore the building. Other significant donors include local businessmen Boris Feldman and Anatoly Girshfeld, as well as Levi Levayev, the Tashkent-born oligarch who is the largest single supporter of the Chabad Federation of Jewish Communities in the post-Soviet states and Ohr Avner, the Federation’s education venture. The Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network, a Chabad-associated organization based in New York, contributed all appliances, equipment, and furniture for the kitchen and 150-seat dining hall. In addition to Mr. Feldman and Mr. Girshman, a number of other local Jewish businessmen made smaller but significant gifts to the project.56

In a conversation several days after the reopening of the synagogue, Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz commented that the May 19 ceremony was “a dream come true,” occurring after so many years of confrontation with Eduard Khodos57 over control of the premises. The synagogue’s vast size and its central location in the city accord it great significance. Members of the city intelligentsia and a large number of tour groups already have visited it and learned of its history.

23. The stature of Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz as the leader of Kharkiv Jewry appears to have grown at a rate commensurate with progress in renovation of the synagogue. Concurrently, he has nurtured a support organization, United Jewish Community of Kharkiv, that is providing much-needed funding for several community endeavors. Although the organization does not appear to be as advanced as its counterparts in Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk, it is nonetheless making an impact on local Jewish life.

About 20 individuals, said Rabbi Moskowitz, are members of the board of United Jewish Community of Kharkiv. Boris Feldman and Anatoly Girshfeld, the two men who contributed so generously to renovation of the synagogue, are the leaders of the organization. As is the case in other cities with such organizations, board members make their contributions to the organization on a monthly basis. About 15 additional local Jews contribute less frequently, but also make fairly substantial gifts. Many others contribute smaller amounts once a year. Among the regular donors, added Rabbi Moskowitz, is a non-Jewish individual who comes into the synagogue once each month to make a $1,000 gift. Rabbi Moskowitz said that he does not know why the non-Jewish man is so generous to the Jewish community.

Regarding decision-making responsibilities of the board, Rabbi Moskowitz said that board members play a critical role in deciding major issues, such as renovation of the synagogue. Now that the interior has been completed, the next issue will be repairing the façade of the synagogue. Board participation in decision-making about the synagogue exterior, said Rabbi Moskowitz, will be extensive. However, he continued, the board is not really active in decisions about day-to-day operations of the Chabad community, preferring to leave such questions to him.

54. One observer, a native Russian speaker, with long experience in both Russia and Ukraine, believes that people in Kharkiv speak better Russian than do many in the Moscow and St. Petersburg intelligentsia. Although Kharkiv is highly Russified, continued the observer, those in the city who speak Ukrainian are highly accomplished in that language as well.
55. Control over the city’s grand choral synagogue was contested throughout most of the 1990’s between its presiding rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz (Chabad), and a local man, Eduard Khodos, who represented the World Union for Progressive Judaism. With the building divided between the two men, many local Jews were reluctant to visit the premises for any type of religious or community programming, lest they become entangled in the ongoing conflict. After increasingly bizarre behavior, culminating in an arson attack against the synagogue in 1998, Mr. Khodos was removed from its premises by municipal authorities and the entire building was turned over to Chabad.

Aggressive actions in 2001 by a regional director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to replace key staff members of the local hesed, Jewish community center, and Hillel student group generated great hostility among local Jews and resulted in a fundamental distrust of JDC. Many Kharkiv Jews say that the tension between JDC and the local Jewish population has abated since then, largely because the offending Joint employee has been less visible.

56. Kharkiv native Vadym Rabynovych, the founder and self-appointed leader of United Jewish Community of Ukraine, attended the opening ceremony and made very brief remarks from the bima. A wealthy man, Mr. Rabynovych is banned from entering the United States, Great Britain, and several other countries due to allegations of involvement in organized crime, narcotics trafficking, selling weapons to rogue states, and contract murders. Mr. Rabynovych, who spends most of his time in Kyiv, was not asked to contribute to the synagogue reconstruction and did not offer to do so.
57. Mr. Khodos, who now divides his time between Kharkiv and Kyiv, has not visited the synagogue since the Kharkiv municipality expelled him from its premises in 1998. He has recently published the third volume in his series Jewish Syndrome. He supports Ukrainian nationalism, denies that the Holocaust occurred, and promotes the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He has had no relationship with the World Conference for Progressive Judaism since he was ejected from the synagogue by the Kharkiv municipality.

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