Who Are the Jews of Ukraine?

350,000 Jews are served by 200 Chabad couples in 35 cities and towns

By Dovid Margolin | Chabad.org

Ukraine has 350,000 Jews who call it home. For many Jews around the world, the name Ukraine conjures images of the place their grandparents or ancestors fled in the late 1800s or early 1900s, or as a region where millions of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. All this is of course true, but what is also true is that Ukraine has been an increasingly hospitable home for hundreds of thousands of Jews whose families lived in its towns and cities for centuries and remained there even after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Today, Ukraine boasts a thriving Jewish infrastructure that includes synagogues, mikvahs, a matzah bakery, Jewish schools and yeshivahs, and social services organizations. The first permanent post-Perestroika Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries to Ukraine arrived in 1990 to what was still the Soviet Union, and began leading the synagogues in Kharkov and Dnipro (Dnepropetrovsk until 2014) that had just been returned to the Jewish community by the authorities. Their work built on Chabad’s deep roots in the region, including decades of underground Jewish activism throughout the Soviet era.

Today, 35 cities of all sizes throughout Ukraine are served by 200 Chabad emissary families. Often, the Chabad rabbis and their wives create the only Jewish infrastructure in the city. These emissaries do not only work with the Jewish communities in their own towns but reach out to dozens of smaller cities, towns and villages around them, arranging and running Jewish holiday programs and the like throughout the year.

Chabad maintains Jewish orphanages in Zhitomir—the children were evacuated farther west this week—Odessa, and Dnipro. It is far from only relief work that they are engaged in. As the quality of life in Ukraine has risen, so has the quality of Jewish life. Chabad maintains a Jewish university in Odessa and has built the largest Jewish center in the world in Dnipro. Kosher restaurants dot the country as well, signaling a level of material and spiritual comfort few could have predicted just a few decades ago.

As the world continues to pray for the safety of everyone in harm’s way, a quick look at the basics of Jewish life in Ukraine.

 

Teen volunteer gives a Chanukah menorah kit to an elderly Ukranian Jew.

 

Jewish Geography

The Russian Empire was not home to a large number of Jews until the First Partition of Poland in 1772, when swaths of Poland were annexed by its neighbors, including Russia. In 1790, Empress Catherine II established the Pale of Settlement, a 472,000-square-mile territory where Jews were allowed to live. This included much of modern-day Moldova (Bessarabia), Belarus (White Russia), and Ukraine. Jews were not allowed to live east of Chernigov, Poltava and Yekaterinoslav regions without a permit. Even within the Pale, however, there were certain cities, such as Kiev and Nikolayev, where Jews could only reside with a residency permit.

These rules remained in place until the 1917 Russian Revolution. For example, part of the reason why Mendel Beilis was chosen to be the victim of the infamous 1911-1913 blood libel in Kiev was because, as the manager of a factory, he was one of the only Jews in the area permitted to live there.

According to the Soviet census of 1926, some 50 percent of the Soviet Union’s 2.7 million Jews lived in Ukraine, and 87 percent of them lived in small towns or villages. This began to change slowly in the early Soviet period and accelerated during the early 1930s hunger resulting from forced collectivization, as Jews began to head to cities for work and food.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Musuem, prior to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, “Ukraine was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe… While scholars are still researching the scale of the Holocaust in Ukraine, they estimate at least one and a half million Jews were killed there.” The Nazis, with the help of local collaborators, gathered Ukraine’s Jews in local ghettos, but, for the most part, instead of deporting them to camps, shot them in forests and fields close to home. Such killing fields dot the entire Ukraine, with places such as Babi Yar outside of Kiev—where some 40,000 Jews were murdered—among the most well-known.

Many surviving Jews returned home after the war, and traces of the former Pale of Settlement were readily visible as late as the 1980s and early 90s. Back then, small, historically Jewish towns in western Ukraine still had synagogues and significant numbers of native Yiddish speakers, their concentration diminishing the farther east one went. When Chabad of Zhitomir was established in the early 1990s by Rabbi Shlomo and Esther Wilhelm, one of their responsibilities was to reach out to the dozens of smaller Jewish towns where throngs of older Jews still lived.

Even today, though that generation has all but disappeared, the legacy of the Pale remains. In Sumy region, through which the border of the Pale once passed, you can have one town with hundreds of years of Jewish history and an active community, but then drive thirty minutes east and find yourself in a town with a very sparse Jewish history and a Jewish population that came mostly during the Soviet era. That has not stopped Chabad emissaries Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo and Rochi Levitansky, directors of Chabad of Sumy, a small city near the border with Russia that has seen heavy fighting in the last days, from establishing a permanent Jewish presence in the town in 2004 and working with its 3,000 or so Jews, many of whom do not even know that they are Jewish.

In Sumy, Ukraine, a small town near the Russian border Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky, above, serves a Jewish community of about 3,000.

 

Cradle of Chassidic Movement

The historic regions of Volhynia and Podolia, west of Kiev, was the birthplace of the Chassidic movement. Violent pogroms had long impacted the Jews of what is Ukraine, none worse than the violent peasant uprising led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648-49, in which tens of thousands of Jews were massacred, left the Jews of the region in despair. It was as a direct result of those attacks that Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, who was born in the region in 1698, began to reveal his teachings, to raise the spirits of a broken nation.

The Baal Shem Tov’s teachings and movement swept through the region, quickly becoming the dominant stream of Jewish life in the area. He passed away in 1760 and is buried in the town of Mezhibush (Medzhybizh), about 200 miles west of Kiev. The Baal Shem Tov was succeeded by Rabbi Dovber of Mezritch (?-1772), whose students spread out throughout Eastern and Central Europe to bring the message of a joyous Judaism and a loving G‑d to one and all. The Maggid’s spiritual impact can be seen around the world, but his physical life can be encountered in modern-Ukraine: He was buried in the village of Anipoli (Hanopil), also western Ukraine. Not long ago, the Chabad rabbi of Rovna (Rivne), Rabbi Schneor Schneersohn, discovered that the synagogue structure out of which he and his wife lead Jewish life in Rovna was in fact the synagogue of the Maggid himself.

The Maggid’s student and the spiritual “grandson” of the Baal Shem Tov was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement, who expounded upon his masters’ teachings by developing a comprehensive intellectual framework for exploring the unity of G‑d as it manifests in the world and in man. Though Rabbi Schneur Zalman (known also as the Alter Rebbe) lived and taught in the towns of Liozhna and Liadi in White Russia, he spent a year in Mogilov-Podolsk, Ukraine, and was buried in the Ukrainian town of Haditch, in what is today the Poltava region east of Kiev.

His son and successor, Rabbi Dovber Schneuri (the Mitteler Rebbe) founded a string of Jewish agricultural colonies in the Kherson region in Ukraine, which allowed Jews to leave the poverty of the cities and earn a living by the fruit of their hands. Rabbi Dovber passed away in Niezhin, northeast of Kiev, in 1827, and he was buried there.

Both his and his father’s gravesites, along with those of the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid and dozens of other Chassidic masters (notably the resting place of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the city of Uman, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev in Berdichev), draw many thousands of pilgrims to Ukraine each year.

Children at the Mishpacha Orphanage in Odessa.

 

The Rebbe

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s seventh-generation successor, was born in 1902 in Nikolayev, Ukraine (the Russian Empire at the time), where his grandfather served as rabbi. In 1908 the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, was appointed rabbi of Yekaterinoslav (today Dnipro) where he led the Jewish community for more than three decades.

At the time of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s election, Yekaterinoslav had many religious Jews but was also home to a large contingent of Zionist and secular Jews, some of whom initially objected to his appointment, assuming he would be intolerant of them. They quickly learned that they had been mistaken, and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and his wife, the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana, became beloved leaders of the community, their home open to one and all no matter what their politics or level of observance. Notably, when Jews were forced by the Czarist government to flee regions close to the frontlines during World War I, Rabbi Levi Yitzcak and Rebbetzin Chana led a massive aid effort for the thousands of Jewish refugees flooding into the region.

“The home of the Yekaterinoslaver Rav, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, was the point of respite for the suffering Jews of Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic States …” journalist Aharon Friedenthal would later write. “During those stormy days, the rabbi’s residence gave off the impression of a beehive. Jews were continuously streaming in and out. Some were searching for help and support, for bread and clothing for their families, while others came looking for medicine and help for sick and exhausted refugees… The rabbi and rebbetzin, during those horrible days, knew nothing of their own lives. Everything was committed, dedicated to the rescue effort.”

Following the 1927 arrest, imprisonment and eventual expulsion from the Soviet Union of the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak became the leading rabbinical figure in Ukraine and the entire Soviet Union. In April of 1939, after successfully leading kosher-for-Passover matzah baking efforts for his community and the wider region, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was arrested by Soviet authorities and sentenced to five years of harsh exile in Kazakhstan.

His stature was such that in 1943, when the Communists were seeking to fill the vacancy of chief rabbi of Moscow to appease their Western allies—the previous chief rabbi, Rabbi Shmarya Leib Medalia, was arrested and shot by Stalin in 1938— they briefly considered appointing Rabbi Levi Yitzchak before nixing the idea because they could not give it to a Schneerson. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak passed away in exile in Kazakhstan in 1944.

Today, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s Dnipro is home to the 500,000 square foot Menorah Center, the largest Jewish center in the world. Chabad of Dnipro was founded in 1990 by Rabbi Shmuel and Chani Kaminezki, who have served the city’s 50,000 Jews ever since. The Menorah Center, which stands adjacent to the Golden Rose synagogue, houses kosher restaurants, a kosher supermarket, Judaica store, florist and other stores.

A flight of black granite stairs brings visitors into a two-story Holocaust museum. The complex includes two hotels, a concert hall, two convention halls and offices—one of them housing the city’s Israeli consulate. Though the Menorah Center is massive and gleaming, it is only one of the dozens of Jewish infrastructure addresses in Dnipro, which also includes the Beit Baruch old age home and an educational campus.

Some 700 children attend Chabad’s Ohr Avner Levi Yitzchak Schneerson Jewish Day School, and its affiliated yeshivah and girl’s school. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s own former synagogue on Mironova Street now serves as an orphanage for Jewish boys.

Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz at the Chanukah celebration in Kharkov.


The Current and the Future

Ukraine has a dark antisemitic past, one that did not end with the pogroms, either, but extended deep into the Holocaust, when millions of Jews were killed by Nazis assisted by local collaborators. While Ukraine shares this black legacy to one extent or another with every country in Eastern Europe (and most of Western Europe, for that matter,) it remains true that Ukraine’s earth is saturated with the blood of innocent Jews.

Even while it is vital to remember the past and learn from it, it is also important to look towards the future. Ukraine has evolved greatly over the years. It has, in the last 30 years, become increasingly modern and tolerant. Both Nikolayev and Dnipro have named city streets in honor of the Rebbe. Ukraine’s president, comedian Volodymr Zelensky, is Jewish, and one of his first actions after winning the election in 2019 was to meet with a delegation of the country’s six leading rabbis.

Today Ukraine is a welcoming home for the Jews who have chosen not only to remain there, but sink their roots deeper into the ground and build an active Jewish life. As the situation is forcing men, women and children to hide for cover in basements, subway stations and synagogues (Chabad of Kharkov’s Choral Synagogue is serving as a shelter for at least 50 local Jews), let us pray that peace and tranquility return to this region that has seen too much sorrow.

Take a moment to say some Psalms, do a mitzvah and donate some charity for the support of the Jews of Ukraine and in the merit of every person in harm’s way.

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