Betsy Gidwitx Reports



Rabbinic Presence



50.  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[90] 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 2011).


In the absence of Rabbi Bleich, the writer spoke with Yevgeny Ziskind, the longtime executive director of the synagogue.  The major focus of the discussion was the completion of a new community building, located just to the right of the synagogue.  Although the exterior of the structure had been finished several years previously, several interior functional issues, e.g., the plumbing system, delayed opening of the building to communal use.  Even after resolution of all construction-related problems, the facility still was not officially open because bureaucratic issues delayed the issue of necessary permits.  Regardless of its official status, however, major portions of the facility were open and serving the general Jewish public.   A low-cost hotel consisting of 21 rooms lodging 45 people had opened in January 2012 and already accommodated Jewish Agency seminars and conferences for other groups.  The rooms are modest, but adequate; each has its own en suite full bathroom.  A large conference hall on the fourth floor seats 200-250 people; it also is rented out for seminars and generates revenue for Rabbi Bleich's community.  The conference hall does not have its own kitchen, but food can be ordered in from a dairy café on the ground floor or from other kosher catering concerns in the city.  The café, which is light and pleasant, is operated by a private investor and already has attracted a regular clientele. 













The limestone community building (at right in photo to the right) and a comparable building to the left of the classic choral synagogue frame the synagogue in the Podil district of Kyiv. Each of the new buildings had its own primary local donor. (The unseen building at left is of similar size, but somewhat different design, and houses a yeshiva and residence hall for yeshiva students, a yeshiva katana for boys, and apartments for rabbis.) The community building hotel consists of 21 rooms similar to the one at left.  In addition to the hotel, large conference room, and dairy café, the community building also houses a new mikveh with a separate entrance and with preparation rooms for both men and women.
      Photos: the writer.


Hotel and conference facilities in the community building are available to various Jewish organizations for relatively low-cost rental.  Aleksandr Rodnyansky, a Kyiv communi-cations magnate, was the primary donor for the community building.


Responding to several questions, Yevgeny Ziskind said that 40 to 45 men were currently enrolled in the yeshiva.  Most would learn for about two years, he said; only a small number would continue to prepare for the rabbinate, all in other countries.  The majority would teach, supervise kashrut, or embark on business careers.  Coincidentally, an equal number of boys were enrolled in the yeshiva katana; the yeshiva katana served the entire Orthodox community, enrolling boys from Rabbi Bleich's own Karlin-Stolin hasidic community, Chabad families, and other Orthodox backgrounds.


The matza factory, located in an older building behind the synagogue, produced about 150,000 tons of matza for Pesach in 2012, said Mr. Ziskind.  These were distributed throughout Ukraine and all of the post-Soviet states, including the Central Asian countries.  Individualized boxes with designated logos were available for specific groups, including Chabad.  The total of 150,000 tons was only about half of what the factory had produced before the onset of the financial crisis, Mr. Ziskind averred.  The Joint Distribution Com-mittee, in particular, had reduced its order drastically, he com-mented, and other groups also had cut their purchases.


Yevgeny Ziskind, left, is the longtime executive director of Rabbi Bleich's synagogue, a role that has increased in importance in recent years as Rabbi Bleich spends less time in the city.



Photo: the writer.



Rabbi Bleich's community owns its own summer camp, located in western Ukraine.  It is likely, Mr. Ziskind said, that the camp will operate two three-week sessions in 2012, one for 100 girls and the other for 100 boys.  In mid-May, at the time of the writer's visit, they had just begun to organize the 2012 season,[91] stated Mr. Ziskind.  Modest renovations would be necessary to repair damage sustained from winter weather, he said.


Notwithstanding Rabbi Bleich's frequent absences, the synagogue continues to operate community programs, said Mr. Ziskind.  It plays a critical role in organizing a Shabbat meal hosting network that involves several synagogues.  Every week, explained Rabbi Mordechai Neuwirth, several Jewish families in Kyiv (from a list of about 25 families), some of them prominent in business or culture, host home Shabbat dinners to which a total of 30 to 40 people are invited.  Although the host families are not necessarily observant Jews, they agree to make their homes kosher for the occasion and they are instructed in Shabbat procedures.  Participants are recruited through Facebook, said Rabbi Neuwirth, and a paid manager matches guests and hosts with common interests.  About 200 individuals, most of them young adults, were introduced to Shabbat through such home hospitality in 2011-2012, Rabbi Neuwirth continued.  Additionally, he said, as many as 180 people gather at the synagogue for monthly Shabbat dinners (which require reservations and advance payment).[92]


51.   A native of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Chabad Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman studied Judaism in an underground quasi-yeshiva as an adolescent and subsequently moved to Israel where he entered a Chabad yeshiva.  Rabbi Asman also studied in a Toronto yeshiva, but some Chabad adherents claim that he never completed rabbinic studies according to Chabad standards and never received Chabad smicha (ordination).  Nonetheless, he settled in Kyiv and became rabbi of the famed Brodsky Synagogue (the Main Choral Synagogue) even as it remained under the control of a puppet theater.


Rabbi Asman presided over removal of the theater and subsequent renovation of the synagogue.  The synagogue building now contains an elegant prayer hall, a kosher café, the upscale King David restaurant, a small yeshiva, a soup kitchen/dining hall on the lower level, and offices for an independent welfare service.  Rabbi Asman also supervises a small offsite day school, a home for at-risk children, a burial service, and a cemetery.



Though some doubt his rabbinic credentials, Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman (left) is rabbi of the centrally-located and prestigious Brodsky Synagogue (Main Choral Synagogue), constructed in 1897-1898 with funds from Lazar Brodsky, a wealthy sugar merchant. 

Photo of Rabbi Asman by the author, photo of the synagogue by the Jewish Agency for Israel.


Rabbi Asman is supported by a few local Jews, Russian-speaking Jews living abroad, and various foreign organizations.  He is not associated with the Chabad Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, and does little fundraising within Kyiv.  Explaining his reluctance to attempt to raise money within Kyiv, Rabbi Asman said that he really has no local community.  Kyiv is an international capital, he said, and the synagogue draws foreign worshippers with no roots in the country and no inclination to support Ukrainian Jewry.  Kyiv also is a national magnet for Jews from other Ukrainian cities and towns.  When Ukrainian Jews from outside Kyiv migrate to the capital, he continued, their previous rabbis pursue them to Kyiv and urge them to continue to support their previous synagogues and Jewish communities.  Many of the migrants do so, he said, and decline to contribute to his efforts at Brodsky.  He disbanded the Board that he had established because he was unable to recruit local Jews willing to support the synagogue.


He has been able to attract funds for operation of his dining hall, which feeds approximately 200 Jews every day.  His welfare operation also provides medicines to people not supported by the hesed and pays fees required for hospital stays, including some surgery, bed linens, and certain other items.  He maintains some health service capacity in small towns in which no hesed is located or in which a local hesed is ineffective.  His welfare system also provides free burials in a Jewish cemetery that he controls.  A donor from England supports his residential program for at-risk children, which currently accommodates 25 youngsters in family-like settings with house parents.  However, he stated, he has been unable to raise funds anywhere to support Jewish education and acknowledged that the Mitzvah day school that operates under his auspices is seriously underfunded. 


In response to a question about the beating of a young man during the Pesach holidays who is a student at his yeshiva, Rabbi Asman said that the circumstances of the attack remain unclear, but no evidence has emerged to date that confirms that the incident was antisemitic in intent.  Rabbi Asman arranged for the victim to be flown to Israel for medical care.

[90] 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.

[91]  Late spring organization of children's summer camps in the post-Soviet states is not unusual. 

[92]  See page 71 for other activity organized by Rabbi Neuwirth.


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