Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
The continued political upheaval in Ukraine has brought the focus of the entire Jewish world on the delicate situation of Jewish communities there. Jews are denounced by anti-Semites through the media. A shul was firebombed and burned to the ground. Jews have been beaten on the streets. Public statements by representatives of Jewish organizations are carefully composed so as not to generate antagonistic attention. Simultaneously, in Odessa, a new mikveh was inaugurated with great, though somewhat concealed, fanfare.
Odessa, with a present population of more than one million, is the third-largest city in Ukraine. In the beginning of the 20th century, Odessa was the biggest Ukrainian city, and it had its own special independent jurisdiction. The city is a major seaport and transportation hub located on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea. Odessa is also a regional administrative center and a major cultural center of its multiethnic populations.
Jewish communities have existed in the Ukraine region for more than 1,000 years, and it was the birthplace of chassidism. While Jewish communities flourished at times, at other times they faced periods of persecution and anti-Semitic policies. Before World War II, Jews represented almost one-third of Ukraine’s urban population and were the largest national minority in Ukraine. During the times of Yaroslav the Wise (978–1054), grand prince and ruler of Kiev, one of the three gated entrances to Kiev was called the Zhydovski (Jewish) Gate.
Odessa became the home of a large Jewish community during the 19th century, and by 1897, Jews were estimated at 37% of the population. At the start of the 20th century, anti-Jewish pogroms continued to occur in cities and towns across the Russian Empire, including Kiev (1911). In 1905, a series of pogroms erupted at the same time as the 1905 revolution against the government of Nicholas II. From 1911 to 1913, the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the period was characterized by a number of blood-libel cases, the most famous of which was the two-year trial of Mendel Beilis, z’l (1874–1934). The trial was masterminded by authorities infused with anti-Semitism. The acquittal verdict exonerated Beilis, but the charge of blood libel against all Jews was not extinguished.
Jews were overrepresented in the Russian revolutionary’s leadership; most of them were hostile to religion and were loyal to the atheism of the Communist Party. Nicholas II (1868–1917), the last Czar of Russia, claimed that 90% of the revolutionaries were Jews. Both Communists and counter-revolutionary groups were virulently anti-Semitic and participated in frequent atrocities against Jews. More than 500 Jews were murdered in a single day in Odessa.
Starting in 1919, the Communist Party outlawed organized Judaism, abolishing organizations, shuls, yeshivas, etc. At the start of World War II, Russia allowed more than 750,000 Polish Jews fleeing from the Nazi onslaught to settle in the USSR, most of whom survived the war. Menachem Begin, as prime minister of the State of Israel, expressed gratitude to the USSR for allowing hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews fleeing German occupation after September 1939 to enter the USSR. After 1941, tens of thousands more fled the advancing German armies. The Red Army troops in most cases were the ones that liberated the death camps.
In 1989, right before the fall of the Iron Curtain, a Soviet census counted 487,000 Jews living in the Ukraine. Officially, discrimination by the state all but halted after Ukrainian independence in 1991; nevertheless, Jews were still discriminated against in Ukraine during the 1990s, as Jews were not allowed to attend some educational institutions. In November 2007, an estimated 700 Torah scrolls, previously confiscated from Jewish communities during the Soviet Union’s Communist rule, were returned by Ukrainian authorities.
During the 1990s, 266,300 Ukrainian Jews emigrated to Israel. The 2001 Ukrainian census indicated 106,600 Jews living in Ukraine. According to the Diaspora Affairs Minister of Israel, in early 2012 there were 250,000 Jews in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Jewish Committee was established in 2008 in Kiev with the aim of concentrating the efforts of Jewish leaders toward resolving the community’s strategic problems and addressing socially significant issues. The committee declared its intention to become “the most important and powerful structure protecting human rights in Ukraine” today. Violence and the threat of violence against Jews are still a problem in Ukraine.
On Sunday, February 23, of this year, in the midst of street demonstrations for and against the then government of Ukraine, a small group of Jews from foreign countries converged on Odessa. The first destination on their agenda was the Odessa kehillah’s orphanage, where religious outreach is centered and emanates. From there, as inconspicuously as possible, and with as much police protection as possible during the unrest, the visitors proceeded to the building that houses Odessa’s newest mikveh.
Unbelievably, thousands of Jews were gathered there, together with Rabbi Shlomo Bakst, Chief Rabbi of Odessa, in anticipation of the chanukas ha’bayis of the holy new addition to the kehillah of Odessa. The participants came to see each other, to be with each other, and to share in a moment of religious inspiration. Drinking l’chayim and wishing each other bountiful heavenly blessings, the joy was palpable. All of this under the careful protection of private security guards, while outside, massive demonstrations were taking place just blocks away.
Tehillim recital began with the first paragraph, read aloud by Yosef Hersh Weinstock, Torah activist from Williamsburg. The second paragraph was read by Raphael Krikal, Odessa kehillah activist. Then, the mezuzah placement ceremonial honor was given to Abraham Meir Schwartz, chairman of the Keren Mikvaos organization. As the mezuzah was affixed, the simmering joy exploded into singing and dancing. The freezing Ukrainian winter weather outside was transformed into a radiating fire. The men danced, forming circles within circles.
In order to continue with the program, the music was stopped, bringing the dancing to a halt. Everyone was invited and encouraged to view the mikveh. What they saw was a modern, spacious, luxurious mikveh. Odessa residents, already having seen the mikveh, saw it again wondrously through the eyes of the visitors. The intense work of the past year was now seen, now felt, as if the entire effort was a delight. The mikveh was sponsored in memory of Sholom Yitzchok Sher, a’h, of Williamsburg, who passed away in Nissan of 5773.
From there, under heavy guard, the entire assemblage proceeded to the main shul of Odessa, where a grand sumptuous dinner was prepared. Kosher supervisors that came from Israel to ensure the kashrus of all the food were surprised and gratified that the level of certification was superlative.
Raphael Krikal opened the dinner speaking in the Ukrainian language, giving thanks and praise to the Keren Mikvaos organization that enabled the building of a superb mikveh for Odessa. His speech was simultaneously translated for the benefit of the foreign guests. Chief Rabbi Bakst stressed the major contribution to religious life in Odessa. Avrohom Meir Schwartz spoke about the importance of a mikveh to religious life and expression. He spoke in Yiddish and his words were translated into Ukrainian by Hillel Cohen, Torah activist in Kiev. Between speeches, the assembled sang and danced. A new melody was introduced, marking the special event.
Though the event lasted late into the evening, though the security situation on the surrounding streets was precarious, no one left early. Everyone wanted to absorb the purifying air of this celebration of religious purity. The event will be remembered in Odessa forever. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.