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Across the Former Soviet Union This Year, the Rabbi Lost Power: Yuschenko’s Win Weakens Jewish Leade

January 24, 2005
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Ukraine’s elections were widely seen as a triumph for democracy. But the ascension of President Viktor Yuschenko — who officially took the post Sunday — leaves the man widely characterized as the most powerful Jew in Ukraine outside the circles of influence. Still, few observers believe Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky, spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk and one of the most influential political operators on the Ukrainian Jewish scene, will be in the political wilderness for long.

The Israeli-born and Brooklyn-bred Kaminetzky, 39, is a Chabad wunderkind who was dispatched in 1990 by the Lubavitcher rebbe as an emissary to the rebbe’s hometown of Dnepropetrovsk, a heavily industrial city of about 1.5 million in what was once the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union.

Kaminetzky quickly set about building what many consider to be the most united and smoothest-functioning Jewish community in the former Soviet Union.

In a region where Jewish infighting is intense, most agree that Kaminetzky has been an effective bridge-builder.

Largely thanks to Kaminetzky’s efforts, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community all “work together here without the turf wars that are common in cities throughout the FSU,” said Sophia Morovina, associate director at the Jewish Agency’s local office.

The community boasts state-of-the-art facilities including a home for the aged, a teacher-training institute, a day school serving 600 students and extensive programs for orphans and children with disabilities.

It also offers a variety of services to both Jews and non-Jews in Dnepropetrovsk, including a network of soup kitchens and a gynecological clinic that tests women for cervical cancer.

Due in part to his political acumen and networking ability, and due also to the support he enjoys among a loyal set of new millionaires and “oligarchs” serving on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Community of Dnepropetrovsk, Kaminetzky gained access to top Ukrainian government officials that was unmatched among the country’s leading Jews.

Affording Kaminetzky direct access to the then-president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, was the most powerful member of the Jewish community and the country’s largest media mogul, Viktor Pinchuk. In the late 1990s, Pinchuk married Kuchma’s daughter, Olena.

Kaminetzky frequently jetted to Israel with top Ukrainian government leaders, and his praise for Kuchma’s successful efforts to prevent anti-Semitic violence in this traditionally anti-Semitic country helped Kuchma in his interactions with the United States and other Western countries.

But Kuchma’s reign ended this January with the ascension of Yuschenko, who defeated Viktor Yanukovich in a third-round election after weeks of street protests in Kiev. Results of an earlier round in which Yanukovich claimed victory were thrown out after the country’s Supreme Court ruled there had been massive fraud.

Pinchuk backed Yanukovich in both rounds of the election — meaning that Pinchuk’s ally, Kaminetzky, now finds himself out of favor.

“I won’t have the privilege anymore of going to Kiev for a cup of tea” with the president, Kaminetzky said a little wistfully. “The party is over for me. It was a nice friendship while it lasted.”

But Kaminetzky, who lives in Dnepropetrovsk with his wife and seven children, is putting the best possible twist on the election results.

“Everyone is very happy and excited and hoping for change,” he said in a recent telephone interview with JTA. “People in our city are now looking forward to the prospect of someday getting E.U. passports. We also are more hopeful that the ecological situation, which is very bad in Dnepropetrovsk, will begin to get better.”

Kaminetzky acknowledged that the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk, which is located in a mainly Russian-speaking part of the country, voted for Yanukovich by a margin of about 60 percent to 40 percent.

An estimated 40,000 Jews live in the city, with about 20,000 more in the outlying region.

Many Ukrainian Jews voted for Yanukovich out of fear that there may be anti-Semites in Yuschenko’s camp. But Kaminetzky believes Yuschenko has done everything he can to make the country’s Jews feel comfortable, including appearing at a Kiev synagogue during Chanukah.

“Yuschenko’s movement does have a Ukrainian nationalist perspective, but that seems to me a case of feeling positive about being Ukrainian, rather than being against another people,” Kaminetzky said.

In building the city’s Jewish community, Kaminetzky has shown a talent for working with people whose level of Jewish observance is far less than his own, including a powerful community lay leadership headed by many of Dnepropetrovsk’s leading industrial barons. An estimated 70 percent of the heavy industry in the region, including large steel mills and other giant plants, are Jewish-owned.

In addition, a range of international and Israel-based organizations, including the Jewish Agency and the JDC, have worked fruitfully together under Kaminetzky’s aegis, providing a wide range of social services.

The Dnepropetrovsk community also has a longstanding relationship with the Jewish community of Boston, a politically liberal bastion that does not at first glance appear to be a logical fit for a community headed by a Chasidic rabbi.

Together the two communities have collaborated on several social service projects, including the home for the aged and the gynecological clinic.

According to Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, “What Rabbi Kaminetzky has accomplished has been amazing. Our connection to Dnepropetrovsk has given hundreds of our people a chance to see and take part in a miracle — the rebirth of Jewish life out of nothing.”

Shrage acknowledged that the two communities were unlikely allies.

“Yes, we disagree on some issues, but we have been able to join forces for the good of the Jewish people. This isn’t about politics but about serving people in need,” he said.

Among the businessmen active in the Dnepropetrovsk community is Yevgeny Zeldis, who was born there in 1955 and today runs a construction company.

Zeldis, who first got involved in Jewish life in the 1990s when he decided to send his two children to the Jewish community day school, says his growing involvement with the community leadership has changed him.

“I am no more of a believer in God than I was a decade ago, but I am certainly more informed and educated as a Jew,” he said.

Businessman Edward Sartan said Kaminetzky plays another sensitive but necessary role — reconciling clashing business interests that otherwise might settle their differences in a less civilized fashion.

“We have had situations where our Jewish businessmen are fighting each other over a factory and they come to Reb Shmuel, who is friends to both of them, and he works out an agreement to reconcile them,” Sartan said, referring to Kaminetzky. “There is no Beit Din; he is the one who decides in such cases.”

But not everyone in the community is pleased. Some say there is a certain Soviet-style feeling to Chabad’s dominance of Jewish life here, with a photo of the late Lubavitcher rebbe in almost every room of community-run institutions.

Vladimir Levy, a leader of the Reform movement in the nearby city of Zaparozhe, said efforts several years ago to create a Reform congregation in Dnepropetrovsk failed because Kaminetzky used his influence with top officials, including the then-governor of Dnepropetrovsk province, to make sure the Reform group didn’t receive required authorizations.

Kaminetzky acknowledges that he wasn’t happy about the prospect of the Reform group operating in his city but denies interceding with the authorities. The Reform group may have given up after realizing that the city’s secular Jews, their natural constituency, preferred a united community to a fractious one, he said.

Kaminetzky dismisses the contention that Chabad plays an outsized role today not only in Dnepropetrovsk but throughout the Jewish communities of Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

“Look, it should be clear that Chabad has no hidden agenda to dominate Jewish life or to take over anything,” he said. “But we do get offended when people look at us as some kind of cult. Chabad is the Jewish people and works on behalf of the Jewish people. It’s as simple as that.”

This article was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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