City of Kharkov, in Celebration, Returns Shul to Jewish Community

The municipality of Kharkov, a city in the Soviet Ukraine, returned a synagogue to the Jewish community there last week with fanfare and good wishes.

Present at the Aug. 21 ceremony were Soviet officials, at least one Israeli and two American Jews: Sidney Kwestel, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and New York City Councilman Noach Dear.

The ceremony, televised in the Soviet Union and announced in local newspapers, included fluttering Israeli flags.

“Glasnost has given us the ability and the opportunity to help our Jewish brethren in the Soviet Union,” said Dear, who was involved in efforts to get the synagogue back.

Ivan Kaglov, vice president of the Ukraine, promised the assemblage that the republic was changing. “One vital part of that change is to forever bury the horrid past that has characterized Ukrainian-Jewish relations over the past centuries,” he said.

Kharkov, a center of the Zionist movement before the Holocaust, has been the scene of numerous official anti-Jewish activities over the years, including numerous arrest of worshipers, the closure of a matzah-baking factory by police in 1960 and the plowing over of a Jewish cemetery in 1967 to make a public park.

Charles Levine, an Israeli public relations agent who attended the ceremony, said, “A very different mood is prevalent, at least for now, as a changing Ukraine seeks overseas Jewish support for its rapidly evolving policies.”

The Orthodox Union intends to bring the Kharkov shul under its wings, said Kwestel.

Kwestel and Dear, who represents a committee to preserve Jewish places of worship in the Soviet Union, are the latest of several American Jewish activists to take interest in helping the Kharkov Jewish community, numbering some 70,000, retrieve the shul, which was taken away from the Jewish community in the 1920s.

CINCINNATI FEDERATION INVOLVED

The quest to take back the shul has been a special project of the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, which sent a delegation to Kharkov in May.

The Cincinnati federation adopted Kharkov as a twin city and offered to help the city’s Jews, several of whom asked American Jews for help in renovating the synagogue, which had been used as a health club and a sports center.

Rabbi Zev Scharfstein, a member of the Chabad movement who is a leader of the Cincinnati Vaad Hoier, or community religious council said the Kharkov municipality had offered return the synagogue to the Jewish community to a replacement for its sports center would be provided.

Scharfstein said the Cincinnati federation was trying to raise funds to buy a prefabricated building, manufactured in Sweden, to replace the sports club.

A number of Jews in Kharkov, among the members of the Chabad Lubavitch movement continued holding quiet minyanim at home during all the vicissitudes of Communist rule.

(JTA correspondent Gil Sedan in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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