IVANO-FRANKOVSK, Ukraine (Jan. 30)
As an observant Jew, Moishe Leib Kolesnik admits he thinks about moving to Israel and the ease of living a religious lifestyle there rather than staying in this Western Ukraine city.
But Kolesnik just can’t leave his hometown, which he serves as spiritual leader and keeper of all things Jewish.
“Leaving the community for some time is very difficult for me,” he acknowledges.
Kolesnik, 50, is rare among the Orthodox spiritual leaders, mostly from Chabad-Lubavitch, serving in Ukraine. For one thing, he can speak the native tongue fluently.
In a country where Jewish tradition was nearly obliterated by the Holocaust and communist anti-religious persecution, reviving Jewish tradition today has relied almost entirely on foreigners, mainly Israelis or Americans.
Had it not been for Kolesnik’s interest in Judaism, Ivano-Frankovsk might not have any spiritual leadership.
More than 80 percent of its Jews emigrated when communism ended — only about 700 Jews remain, Kolesnik estimates, in a city of 200,000. In 1995 he had to close a small yeshiva, or religious school, that he opened due to a lack of students. Most of the remaining Jews are secular and rarely attend his services.
But Kolesnik nonetheless has become the ultimate source of information on Jewish matters. He has traveled the region in his efforts to preserve its rich Jewish history.
They call Kolesnik rabbi in Ivano-Frankovsk, though he has no formal ordination.
“When I need anything concerning Jews, our rabbi always has a response,” says Olga Markus, a local Jewish activist and director of the Magen Avot charitable group here. “He is the best archival database.”
Kolesnik has what he calls a “federation smicha,” the authority given to him by the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities — the largest Jewish group in the former Soviet Union — to perform rabbinical duties.
“Rabbi Moishe Kolesnik revives Jewish life successfully, and thanks to his knowledge hundreds of Galicia Jews became closer to their roots,” said Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, one of three chief rabbis of Ukraine. “Thanks to his energy, fluent Ukrainian and good knowledge of the mentality of Ukrainian society, he succeeded in resolving many issues.”
Kolesnik also has a blessing from his religious mentor, an elderly Holocaust survivor named Yehudah Goldscheid who had a rabbinical background from when the area was part of prewar Poland.
Reb Yidl, as Goldscheid’s followers affectionately called him, “taught me all concerning traditional Jewish life and Judaism,” Kolesnik says.
Although he was raised in a non-observant home, Kolesnik says he’s always had a strong Jewish identity, and Yiddish was often heard in his family. Still, he had prepared himself for a different career.
Kolesnik attended a university in his hometown, graduating with a degree in Russian philology. In the early 1980s he took a job as the language teacher at a secondary school in Kolomya, a small provincial town an hour’s drive from Ivano-Frankovsk.
Perhaps it was the spirit in Kolomya that led to the increased importance of Judaism in his life. Kolesnik notes proudly that the founder of Chasidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, used to pray there.
Kolesnik says he first encountered religious Jews in the early ’80s when he visited Kiev and Moscow. That’s when he became involved in underground religious activism: the learning and teaching of the Torah, underground prayer services and organizing funerals in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Before World War II, when Ivano-Frankovsk was called Stanislavov and was the center of a province in eastern Poland, the approximately 50,000 Jews there comprised half of its population. Most of them were killed in the Holocaust.
Although little today remains of Ivano-Frankovsk’ s prewar Jewish past, Kolesnik believes he has a mission to preserve as much of it as he can.
“I have traveled to towns and villages throughout the region, met with local Jews and people often showed old Jewish books and documents” still preserved in their homes, says Kolesnik, who is married.
Over the years he has built a rich collection of old books, mostly in Hebrew, a language few people in the region understand. Kolesnik says he was particularly fascinated by the handwritten notes found in many of the books he came across.
Today the library he collected from these trips includes more than 1,000 Hebrew books, as well as community records and photographs from dozens of towns across the region. He keeps these treasures in the town’s historic synagogue, an impressive two-story building that stands like a silent testimony to the past importance and prosperity of the local Jewish community.
Built in 1898 as one of some 60 Jewish houses of prayer in town at the time, the synagogue was confiscated by the communist authorities in 1941. It was returned to the community — mainly thorough Kolesnik’s efforts — after Ukrainian independence in the early ’90s.
In his travels, Kolesnik drew maps of many Jewish cemeteries, a priceless resource for foreign Jews who often come to this region searching for their roots.
But for local Jews their spiritual leader is a no less trusted authority.
“He was born here, and we speak the common language, both in direct and in figurative sense,” says Yankel Berezin, 72, a member of the local Jewish community.
In addition to the synagogue, there is a small Jewish day school in town run by the Chabad-led Ohr Avner Foundation that has 30 students, a Hebrew school for 20 children and a kindergarten with nine students. The synagogue also houses a mikvah, or ritual bath, a women’s club and an Israeli cultural center.
Aware of his vital role in the community, Kolesnik sees his mission as staying as long as possible. Asked about the community’s future, he prefers not to speculate.
“Making prognoses is a ludicrous business,” he says. “The main goal today is to preserve” what is left of the community.