Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Rabbinic Presence


70. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a native of Brooklyn and a Karlin-Stolin hasid, is the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine. He arrived in the country in 1989 and presides over the Great Choral Synagogue[98] in the Podil district of Kyiv, an area of significant Jewish population prior to World War II. In the more than 20 years that he has served in Kyiv, Rabbi Bleich has developed a number of Jewish community institutions, including the Orach Chaim day school, homes for Jewish children from unstable families, a Jewish summer camp, an assisted living residential center for elderly Jews, a matza factory, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine, and the Kyiv Jewish Religious Community.


Rabbi Bleich’s native American English and familiarity with American culture have facilitated easy access to American representations in the Ukrainian capital. He also represents Ukrainian Jewry in the European and World Jewish Congresses as well as in other international Jewish organizations. Yet he is increasingly an outsider, noted more for his absence from the country while attending to family matters, fundraising, and appearances at international conferences than for local presence. Further, he is a Karlin-Stolin hasid in a country in which Jewish religious life is dominated by Chabad. His outsider status, compounded by ongoing economic developments, is felt within his own institutions in Kyiv. Several of his umbrella organizations have shriveled, his publications have ceased, his day school is withering, and his own synagogue no longer is open on a daily basis.


Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, no longer resides in the country on a fulltime basis.


Photo: the writer.


In a meeting in his synagogue office, Rabbi Bleich told the writer that he has engaged a fundraiser in the United States to seek support for his various community institutions. Because the fundraiser is being compensated according to the amount of money he raises, he has a strong incentive to work diligently, Rabbi Bleich noted.


The new community building to the right of the synagogue remains incomplete, Rabbi Bleich acknowledged. However, he is confident that new sewage pipes will be installed in the near future and that the structure will be ready for a grand opening in September, in time for the yahrzeit (annual anniversary of a death) of the mother of the principal donor, Aleksander Rodnyansky, a Kyiv communications magnate. As he had stated in previous discussions, Rabbi Bleich will try to lease space in the community building to an independent kosher restaurant operator and perhaps to another independent individual capable of managing a small hotel to be located in the structure. Other program areas to be located in the community building are a large multipurpose hall for community events, a kosher food and Judaica store, and a mikveh.


About 50 young men are learning in a yeshiva that is housed in the Vladimir Shifrin Educational Center, a structure located to the left of the synagogue. The yeshiva is a “serious” learning institution, stated Rabbi Bleich, but smicha (ordination) is not a goal for most students. Contemporary Ukraine offers few employment positions for [non-Chabad Orthodox] rabbis, Rabbi Bleich continued, so it is anticipated that young men in the yeshiva will remain there only a few years and then leave to teach, supervise kashrut, and/or work in secular positions; all will be educated to live observant Jewish lives and those who are successful in the general economy will be able to contribute funds to Jewish life in the city and the country. He expects that all will contribute in some way to “building [Jewish] community” in Kyiv and Ukraine.


The heder for boys from religious families also is located in the Shifrin building. Rabbi Bleich volunteered that its program of secular studies requires improvement. About 35 boys from a variety of Orthodox backgrounds are enrolled in the heder, Rabbi Bleich said. The machon for religious girls enrolls about 30 girls, continued Rabbi Bleich, and convenes at the Orach Chaim girls’ day school. About 60 percent of the girls in the machon are from Russian-speaking homes and only 40 percent are from homes of rabbis, Rabbi Bleich noted.


The older building in back of the synagogue continues to accommodate a matza factory that will have produced 200 tons of matza in 2011, Rabbi Bleich said. The matza will be distributed throughout the post-Soviet states, much of it in custom cartons carrying the design and logo of different Jewish organizations.


Rabbi Bleich acknowledged that his assisted living center is facing severe economic difficulties. Only two floors are occupied because no funds are available to furnish the remaining two residential floors. The endowment fund consisting of money from residents who sold their apartments in order to move into the assisted living center does not yield sufficient income to support building operations. Some unfurnished units are being rented to students and other people of limited income who will bring their own furniture and prepare their own meals in the apartment kitchenettes, rather than eat in the general dining hall. This rental program will be expanded, said Rabbi Bleich, in the hope that rental income will improve the financial viability of the assisted living project.


In response to a question, Rabbi Bleich acknowledged that several of his Jewish umbrella organizations are dormant or functioning only at a low level. These will be re-organized, said Rabbi Bleich, so that they provide real services in an economically efficient manner.[99]



71. Rabbi Aleksandr Dukhovny, a native of Kyiv, has been rabbi of the Kyiv Hatikvah Congregation for 12 years, succeeding several foreign-born rabbis who had served in the position for much shorter periods of time. Rabbi Dukhovny completed his rabbinic studies at the Leo Baeck Rabbinic Training Seminary in London.


The Hatikva Congregation currently has almost 500 members, said Rabbi Dukhovny. Most members pay dues, which are limited to 1.5 percent of income for employed individuals and a lower sum for retired individuals. The congregation occupies a 110 square-meter ground-floor apartment, which includes a 60-seat hall, several smaller rooms, and offices. The premises also serve as a base for World Union of Progressive Judaism activities in Ukraine.


Hatikvah Congregation operates a family Sunday school, said Rabbi Dukhovny, which includes English-language instruction, art, and drama. About 25 teens are active in a Netzer youth club. The congregation also sponsors Jewish activities in two municipal preschools in Kyiv that enroll a total of 65 children. Parents of some of the children in these kindergartens are active in Hatikvah.


The World Union for Progressive Judaism currently is raising funds for new Hatikvah premises, Rabbi Dukhovny stated. The desired property will be between 300 and 500 square meters, which will accommodate existing Hatikvah/WUPJ programs in the Ukrainian capital (excluding the preschools) and allow room for expansion. The likely site, con-tinued Rabbi Dukhovny, is a floor or significant portion of a floor in a modern commercial building near public transportation. He is confident that more attractive premises will bring new members to Hatikvah.



Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny stands in front of the ark in the Kyiv Hatikvah Congregation, joined by Alexandra Haydar, President of Hatikvah.


Photo: the writer.


[98] The Great Choral Synagogue on Schekavitskaya street in the Podil district of Kyiv should not be confused with the Main Choral Synagogue in the same city. The latter, better known as the Brodsky synagogue, is larger and more centrally located. Built with funds contributed by Lazar Brodsky of the wealthy sugar industry family at about the same time as the Schekavitskaya street synagogue, the Brodsky synagogue was confiscated by Soviet authorities in 1926 and converted into a workers’ club. It later became a variety theater and a children’s puppet theater. After substantial international pressure, the Brodsky synagogue was returned to the Jewish community in the 1990’s and restored. Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, an independent Chabad rabbi, presides over the Brodsky synagogue.

[99] See pages 117-118 about the Kyiv Jewish Community, a secular organization associated with Rabbi Bleich.

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