Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Journey To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1999

Four existing organizations merged to form the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine: the Vaad (identified with Yosif Zissels and Rabbi Yaakov Bleich); the Ukrainian Jewish Council (Єврейська рада Украіни; Ilya Levitas); the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Community (Киівська місьска єврейська громада; Rabbi Bleich); and the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine (Об’єднання іудейських релігійних організацій Украіни; Rabbi Bleich).10 Its structure provides representation for a number of smaller Jewish groups, such as the Union of Jewish Students, Magen Avot (a national welfare organization), an association that supports preservation of Jewish buildings and cemeteries, the Association for Humanistic Judaism, the Association of Jewish [Day] Schools, and the Jewish Press Association.

The Confederation has attracted the leadership and financial support of more than 20 wealthy Jewish businessmen from across Ukraine.11 However, the organization may be equally noteworthy for its initial failure to attract the ten Or Avner Chabad communities in Ukraine, which include the major Jewish population centers of Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Donetsk. Rabbi Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner hasid, is keenly aware of their absence and is negotiating with Or Avner, the Chabad umbrella group, to effect their inclusion.12 Rabbi Bleich also recognizes that inclusion of several individuals with questionable leadership styles who are associated with member organizations of the Confederation may prove problematic, but believes that their shortcomings can be surmounted; their exclusion might have created enemies for the nascent organization.

The establishment of the Confederation, with its capacity to outmaneuver and undermine Vadim Rabinovich, has drawn widespread encouragement from Western countries and international Jewish organizations, many of which are troubled by Mr. Rabinovich’s use of Ukrainian Jewry as a potential shield against prosecution for his criminal operations. The organizing conference of the Confederation was attended by an extraordinary array of foreign dignitaries who wished to show their support for an alternative to Mr. Rabinovich -- ambassadors from eight countries, as well as numerous foreign rabbis and officials of foreign Jewish organizations. Also in attendance were many prominent local public figures.13


1. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner hasid and Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, remains the dominant Jewish figure in Kyiv. His primary focus during the past year has been developing the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. Rabbi Bleich is respected throughout the country for his analytical and organizing skills as well as his inclusive approach to community-building. He maintains productive ties with Ukrainian government officials and the foreign diplomatic corps.

Rabbi Bleich also has embarked on several renovation projects. The basement of his synagogue on Shekavitskaya street in the Podol district is being renovated for use as a Jewish community center. Several affiliates of the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Community will have offices in this facility, and program space will be set aside for various Jewish youth activities. The Ministry of Religion has informed Rabbi Bleich that it soon will return a three-story building near the Lybid Hotel in the center of Kyiv to the Jewish community. Rabbi Bleich intends to use most of this structure for offices of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine; a small synagogue also will be located in the building.14

The matza factory on the premises of the Shekavitskaya street synagogue baked 120 tons of matza this year, distributing it throughout Ukraine and in adjacent countries. Among its customers was the large Chabad organization in Ukraine, which previously imported its matza from Israel.

2. Rabbi Bleich was the catalyst in organizing the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Community, an umbrella group embracing: the Makor Youth Center (a coordinating and resource center for Jewish youth groups); a comprehensive educational program that includes a nursery school, day school, summer camps for children and adolescents, and teacher-training programs; a club for intellectuals; a monthly newspaper (Водрождение-91or Revival-91); a weekly television program (Yachad); an educational publishing center; a literary union for young writers; a children’s theater; a musical theater; musical and dance ensembles; a sports club; the Hesed Avot welfare program (in cooperation with the Joint Distribution Committee); a Jewish women’s club (Chavah); a memorial association that perpetuates memory of Holocaust victims; and a chevra kadisha (burial service).

3. Born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Rabbi Moshe Asman began to study Hebrew and Judaism as an adolescent, meeting clandestinely with like-minded other young people and several elderly rabbis who had spent decades in Siberian labor camps for their commitment to Jewish tradition. He emigrated to Israel as a young man in 1987, entering a yeshiva almost immediately upon his arrival in Zion.

Initially sponsored by Tsirei Chabad (Young Chabad), an Israeli group aligned with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and associated with Rabbi Yosif Aronov, Rabbi Asman came to Kyiv in 1996 to develop Jewish religious and communal life at the great Brodsky synagogue,15 a historic landmark. The synagogue had been confiscated by the Com-munists in 1926 and was operating as a puppet theater.

Artist’s rendering of the renovated Brodsky Synagogue as seen on cover of a fundraising prospectus.

Negotiations for its return to the Jewish community commenced shortly after Ukrainian independence in 1991. Ordered by governmental authorities to vacate the synagogue in 1993, the puppet theater refused to do so. Additional pressure was applied to the puppet theater following Rabbi Asman’s arrival, including the implementation of various Jewish programs alongside the puppet theater activities. Finally, upon payment of $100,000 to the puppet theater management by Vadim Rabinovich, the puppet theater left the building in December 1997.16

Rabbi Asman has begun extensive renovation of the synagogue. Its major features are a large sanctuary, a smaller prayer room, a kitchen and a dining room seating 300, six classrooms, several conference rooms, and a mikveh. Funding for completion of the project is in doubt, in part because Tsirei Chabad terminated support for Rabbi Asman.17 Reflecting a lack of experience in Western countries, Rabbi Asman has found it difficult to attract other foreign sponsors.18 Although Rabbi Asman has had some success in outreach efforts to both local and foreign Jews in Kyiv, these efforts have not yielded significant financial resources.

Notwithstanding the current renovation process, which has left much of the synagogue unavailable for daily use, Rabbi Asman continues to operate a number of community programs, some of which are located temporarily in other quarters. The programs include daily prayer services, various classes, a library, youth and women’s activities, projects with the hearing-impaired, outreach to prisoners, holiday celebrations, publication of a monthly newspaper (От сердца or From Heart to Heart) with a circulation of 30,000, a soup kitchen serving 100 elderly Jews six days each week,19 and distribution of a limited amount of medicine and clothing to those in need. The synagogue also operates a small store in which kosher food products and various Judaica items are sold. Rabbi Asman recently opened a 10-acre Jewish cemetery; he is using scrap wood from the synagogue reconstruction to assemble caskets, stacks of which could be seen among the building materials in the future sanctuary.

10. Rabbi Bleich, was the guiding force behind organization of the Confederation. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he maintains close ties with the U.S. Department of State.
11. At least four of the businessmen actually live in Israel and commute to Ukraine. Another lives in Canada.
12. Rabbi Moshe Asman of Kyiv is independent of Or Avner. United Jewish Community of Ukraine (Rabinovich) also has failed to attract the mainstream Chabad Jewish communal organizations.
13. The ambassadors included the representatives in Ukraine of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Greece. Israel, whose ambassador was absent from Kyiv at that time, sent its charg¾ d’affaires. Among the Jewish dignitaries were: Lord Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain and current President of the Conference of European Rabbis; the chief rabbis of France, Belgium, Greece, London, Berlin, and Moscow; Serge Cwaigenbaum, Secretary-General of the European Jewish Congress; and Amos Lahat, Acting Director of the Jewish Agency Department for the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The local dignitaries included: Leonid Kravchuk, the first President of Ukraine; numerous other government figures; and many prominent Jews.
14. Some observers have suggested that Rabbi Bleich is eager to develop in a synagogue in the center of Kyiv so that he can “compete” more effectively with the centrally-located Brodsky synagogue. The existing Shekavitskaya street synagogue is located in Podol, an area that appears to have relatively few young families.
15. The Brodsky synagogue was constructed in 1898 with funds contributed by Lev Brodsky (1852-1923), one of five wealthy brothers who were generous supporters of numerous Jewish causes. The major portion of the family fortune derived from the sugar industry.
16.The $100,000 gift was designated for renovations at the Kyiv building now used by the puppet theater. In response to the demand by the theater to support repairs and improvements at its new facilities, the synagogue asked the theater for compensation to cover more than 40 years of unpaid rent as well as remodeling and restoration of the synagogue. The synagogue’s request was not answered.
17. Rabbi Aronov is known for his proclivity to maintain tight control over all programs under his purview, a strategy that is difficult to apply successfully when attempting to direct operations in the post-Soviet states from abroad. The relationship between him and Rabbi Asman could not be sustained.
18. Rabbi Asman has prepared a fairly sophisticated list of “naming opportunities” for renovation of the synagogue and support of various synagogue and communal activities. However, he lacks contacts and experience in Western countries, a situation that became obvious on a recent unsuccessful fundraising trip to the United States.
19. The Joint Distribution Committee contributed $15,000 toward renovation of the synagogue kitchen and continues to support the cost of meals for 60 of the clients four days each week.

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