Across the Former Soviet Union in Southwestern Ukrainian City, Jewish Life Isn’t What It Used to Be

Once, local residents say, every street sweeper in Chernovtsy could speak five languages, including Yiddish.

This anecdote, whether true or not, illustrates the city’s cosmopolitan past.

A Jewish visitor also learns that the song “Hava Nagilah” apparently began in Czernowitz — as the city was once known in Yiddish — and is actually based on a local folk tune.

Today, Chernovtsy — or Chernivtsi in the modern Ukrainian spelling — is a provincial town in southwestern Ukraine. The city’s streets stay dark at nights — a sign of Ukraine’s continuing energy crisis.

But during the day, a visit through town sheds a lot of light on its past.

For nearly 150 years, Chernowitz — to use the German spelling — was the capital of Bukovina, the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For its many architectural gems and rich cultural life, this city earned itself the nickname “Little Vienna.”

About one-third of the local Jewish population of 50,000 survived the Holocaust because the Romanian forces that occupied the region did not seek to annihilate the entire Jewish population.

Since the emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel and the United States began in the 1970s — and especially as a result of the mass aliyah of the 1990s — the story of Chernovtsy Jewry is the tale of an ongoing demographic decline.

“I remember how walking along this street on a weekend evening would take me a couple hours — I saw Jewish friends on every corner,” says Bronislav Tutelman, 52, a local artist, standing on Kobylyanskaya Street, the city’s main drag.

Some would take a stroll for other reasons. Even in the 1970s, many Chernovtsy Jews already had relatives abroad. The weekend promenade was their fashion show, Tutelman recalls.

“People were showing off the clothes their relatives sent them from abroad,” he says.

Jews are still leaving Chernovtsy, though in more modest numbers.

“Some leave just to move elsewhere, doesn’t matter where. It’s mostly because of the bad economy,” says Noah Kofmansky, the town’s only resident rabbi and a native of Chernovtsy. “On a recent visit to Germany, I had a feeling I was in Chernovtsy — there are so many people that came from here.”

Kofmansky, 57, holds a degree in physics from Moscow State University. He defected from the Soviet Union 20 years ago while attending an academic event in the United States.

Seven years ago, when it became clear that not everyone would leave, he came back to his hometown with a rabbinic diploma.

Today, Chernovtsy has about 3,000 Jews out of a total population of 190,000.

The community is served by one active synagogue with a minyan of mostly elderly Jews.

Although three major Chasidic dynasties hail from the area Vizhnitser, Sadagorer and Boyaner — Chernovtsy’s Jewish history is primarily a secular one, led by German-speaking Reform Jews whose main synagogue, known as Tempel, was among the most magnificent buildings in town.

By the middle of the 19th century, Czernowitz was known as the community with the highest proportion of assimilated Jews among the major Eastern European communities.

Despite efforts to revive Judaism as a religion in post-Soviet Ukraine, the majority of Jews here remain secular.

Most of those who take part in Jewish life participate in social and cultural programs.

On a recent Sunday morning, two boys romped around the Chernovtsy Jewish center.

Zhenya Vasilenchuk, 5, says he and his 4-year-old cousin, Lesha Shmukler, come here every Sunday.

The boys are among the couple dozen preschoolers whom parents bring to the center once or twice a week to play, watch videos or celebrate Jewish holidays.

On weekdays mothers can drop their kids here for a few hours to go shopping or do household chores, says Tanya Kantemir, 27, who runs a kindergarten-type project called Mazel Tov.

There is also a full-time kindergarten, called Chaverim, at a separate location. Twenty-six children are currently enrolled in the program.

These projects are among many programs run by the Hesed Shushana welfare center, the leading Jewish organization in Chernovtsy.

The center, which operates on funds it receives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, opened few years ago with a primary goal of supplying the impoverished elderly Jews that constitute about one-third of the community with meals, medical care, home visits and library programs.

As the community matured, the Chernovtsy center — like many other similar centers throughout the former Soviet Union — developed a number of programs to encourage social ties among the largely secular and unaffiliated Jewish population.

“People can come with virtually all their needs,” says Vladimir Zatulovsky, director of community programs at Hesed Shushanah. “We try to build programs that speak to the entire family, like a family-type kindergarten or a family club.”

If many adults still do not always feel comfortable taking part in social programs, “the kids are adjusting easily and quickly,” Zatulovsky says.

But in fact, Jewish kids are becoming a rarity in Chernovtsy.

In that sense, the month of November was exceptional for the Jewish community — although few people are aware of that.

“One of our Jewish families just had a child,” says the director of Hesed Shushana, Leonid Fuks. “This is good news for us. That doesn’t happen too often lately.”

He added that his organization records four to five deaths among its elderly clients each month.

The Jewish community’s problems reflect the general demographic decline in this part of Ukraine.

The town, known as a rich and leisurely community in the past, has virtually no industry. Most of the industrial plants that were opened here under Communist rule have significantly downsized in post-Soviet years. Some were closed altogether.

Recent research by Gallup shows that Ukraine will need more than a decade and over $50 billion in investments to return to the economic level it had in 1990, its last year before independence.

“If we had a better economy, many young Jews would have stayed,” Rabbi Kofmansky says.

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