KIEV, Ukraine Once a relatively obscure rabbi, Moishe-Leyb Kolesnik is now a budding celebrity throughout Ukraine.
“I saw you on national television quite often I hear this on the street,” said Kolesnik, a Chabad Lubavitch rabbi in his native town of Ivano-Frankovsk in western Ukraine.
The rabbi owes his sudden wave of fame to several appearances on “613,” a Jewish-themed show that is broadcast biweekly on UT-1, the main state-run channel in Ukraine. According to Kolesnik, most of those who recognize him on the street are non-Jews, as are the majority of the show’s audience.
The 30-minute program, which takes its name from the ancient rabbinic view that the Torah contains 613 commandments, is one of two biweekly Jewish shows that have been alternating each week on UT-1 since last year.
Both programs, “613″ and “Mazel Tov,” are produced by Jewish organizations, but their producers and Jewish activists in Ukraine are well aware that the influence of the shows extends to the entire nation which is a good thing, since Jews make up only about 100,000 to 250,000 of the country’s 47 million people.
[photo tvshowukraine align=left]“Having Jewish shows on the airwaves of the main state TV channel is a positive thing and a good sign of democratic development of Ukraine,” said Zhanna Burgina, the chairwoman of the Reform Jewish congregation in Kiev. “The shows help promote Jewish culture and Judaism both for Jews and non-Jews.”
Jews are the only religious minority that have shows on Ukranian national television. The only other religion-themed program on UT-1 is the Orthodox Christian program “Blagovestnik,” which is broadcast on weekends and enjoys a larger audience than either of the two Jewish shows, which appear Thursdays in the early afternnons.
“613″ is produced by journalists affiliated with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization and a leading Jewish organization in Ukraine. The show, which celebrated its first anniversary in June, covers an array of Jewish topics from holidays and Jewish tradition to the past and present of Jewish communities in Ukraine. Much of its coverage is devoted to topics related to Chabad, which has a long history in Ukraine.
Reflecting the divides in the Ukrainian Jewish community, “613″ is often seen as rivaling “Mazel Tov.”
“Mazel Tov,” which has been on for six years, is produced by AITI, a company affiliated with Vadim Rabinovich, a business tycoon and leader of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. The congress is seen as a major rival to the Chabad-run federation.
In addition to the two shows, which can be seen by viewers across Ukraine, the former Soviet republic offers a dozen weekly Jewish shows on local and regional TV. Also available for the Jewish community are some 50 Jewish newspapers, mostly monthlies, and several radio programs, most of them operated by the Chabad-linked organization.
Despite his show’s connection to Chabad, Rostovtzev says his team targets the widest possible audience, with the goal of educating Jews about Judaism and non-Jews about Jews.
“We strive to acquaint Ukrainian viewers, regardless of their ethnicity and faith, with the phenomenal world of Jewish tradition and culture,” Rostovtzev said.
Recent “613″ telecasts featured stories about the Jewish history of the city Nikolayev, where the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was born in 1902; Jews in the Crimean Peninsula;, and the festival of Shavuot and its traditions and cuisine. The show’s modest budget of $8,000 a month is provided by the Chabad-linked federation and, like “Mazel Tov,” receives free airtime from UT-1.
Yulia Paliy, a non-Jewish student in the Kiev-based Institute of Cultural Studies, told JTA that she likes to watch the Jewish shows because they help her “better understand Jewish holidays and culture. And I like what I see.”
Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, one of Ukraine s chief rabbis and the main Chabad religious authority in the country, believes that “613″ primarily helps to “advance tolerance and strengthen interethnic accord in Ukraine.”
Whereas few other former Soviet republics have one regular Jewish-themed TV show, Ukraine with its two shows this year celebrates 15 years of Jewish television.
“Mazel Tov” in 2001 replaced “Yachad,” the first Jewish TV product in the former Soviet Union that continuously ran on Ukrainian state television for nine years, since 1992.
Community activists and others have criticized Ukrainian Jewish shows from the beginning for their narrow focus and sometimes poor production quality, but even the critics agree that the shows have benefited the Jewish community in a country where anti-Semitism has a long history.