The Jewish community is alive and well in Ukraine, according to local participants in a fact-finding tour run by the Jewish Agency for Israel and its Diaspora partners.
Visiting the former Soviet republic from June 23 to 28, the 140-person entourage toured social welfare projects, Jewish education programs, children’s camps, and the recently refurbished Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev.
Lori Klinghoffer, president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which helps fund Jewish activity in the region, continued on to Cherkassy, where the federation supports a Jewish community center and other projects.
Cherkassy in particular, said Klinghoffer, reflects a Jewish community — Europe’s third-largest — rebounding from the economic turmoil that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.
Klinghoffer remembered the “broken-down hovel of a Jewish center” she found on her first trip in the late 1990s.
“It has grown into a remarkable building that is incredibly well maintained and that is literally the center for Jewish life in the community — from young families with toddlers and babies to the day center for the elderly,” she said. “Seniors are interacting with the young people there, and they’re doing it Jewishly. They’re singing Jewish songs, and they’re celebrating Jewish life-cycle events.”
“It’s an amazing thing to see people who are reclaiming their Jewish heritage,” agreed Arthur Sandman, executive vice president of Jewish Agency International Development, who joined Klinghoffer on the tour. Between 2003 and 2010 Sandman served as associate executive vice president of what became the Greater MetroWest federation.
Many members of the community “have a Jewish mother or a Jewish father but very likely not both parents,” he said. “Many have no need to do that but simply choose to do that. They attend Jewish Agency summer camps and Sunday schools and other cultural programs. They are making something Jewish part of their lives in a modern world. It is an amazing statement about the Jewish spirit and the human spirit.”
The mission to Ukraine included lay and professional leaders from JAFI, the World Zionist Organization, and the United Israel Appeal. Klinghoffer attended JAFI’s board of governors meeting, the first to be held in Kiev.
A week after her return, Klinghoffer said the money invested in Ukraine by the Greater MetroWest federation and other agencies “is being very well spent.”
Through its Israel and Overseas allocations, the federation funds Jewish Agency activities that range from children’s camps to programs for seniors.
She called the camps a “flagship” among Jewish Agency-sponsored services.
The 6,000 teens and preteens who attend “have an unbelievable time. We saw the smiles on the children’s faces,” Klinghoffer said.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee reentered Ukraine in the 1990s to provide food, medicine, and other support for at-risk elderly Jews and struggling young families.w
“We see the elderly, who have actual programs to participate in. We see vibrancy at people’s various stages of life,” said Klinghoffer. “Our mission is to assure they can live Jewishly where they choose. I see a continuing trend toward maintaining Jewish identity.”
Klinghoffer also reported positive signs at the Jewish Agency Education Center in Kiev.
“Ulpan classes go on there, Jewish tradition activities go on there, a youth club goes on there, and we were welcomed by young, exciting professionals there,” she said.
Although few Kiev Jews immigrate to Israel, they study Hebrew “so they can pray, so they understand the language and their heritage.”
Kiev’s Brodsky Synagogue was rededicated in 2000, after having been turned into a puppet theater under Soviet rule.
“It’s in much better shape today than it was years ago. It is a thriving synagogue,” Klinghoffer said.
The trip included a visit to Babi Yar, the killing fields in Kiev where nearly 34,000 Jews were massacred by the Nazis over a three-day period in 1941.
There, the visitors were joined by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who is now the Jewish Agency’s CEO, and several hundred Jewish leaders from many parts of the world. Sharansky laid a wreath at the monument.
“The Nazis turned the Jews into objects of such hatred that it seemed almost natural to murder them,” Sharansky said at the ceremony, according to the Arutz Sheva news service. “We must remain alert to prevent the new versions of anti-Semitism, in the form of demonization and delegitimization of Israel, from taking hold.”
Sandman recalled an earlier pilgrimage to the site, when its monument to the dead had been vandalized but not repaired.
“The cyclists and skaters, lovers and young families, enjoyed the promenade skirting the dense forest arising from the ravine,” he wrote in an email, “not thinking as I do how much lusher the foliage must be for the richness of this Jewish compost.”