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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukraine Gets a New Chief Rabbi Even Though It Already Has One

September 15, 2003
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When Rabbi Azrael Haikin of Brussels was elected earlier this month to be Ukraine’s new chief rabbi, many saw it as a positive sign of Jewish renewal in a former Soviet republic.

“This decision, without doubt, represents a milestone in the history of the rebirth of Jewish life in Ukraine,” said a statement by the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, after a meeting billed as the Second Congress of Ukrainian Rabbis.

The only problem was that Ukraine already had a chief rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich. Bleich has been widely recognized as the chief rabbi of both Kiev and Ukraine since 1992, and he has no intention of giving up his posts.

So on Sept. 8, when Haikin was formally presented to an assembly of Chasidic Jewish leaders and guests at Kiev’s President Hotel, the event that a week earlier had been billed as the appointment of a new chief rabbi for Ukraine took on a decidedly different tone.

No mention of a new “chief” rabbi was made, and the ceremony focused instead on Haikin’s leadership of the country’s Chabad-Lubavitch movement and the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest Jewish communal group in the former Soviet Union.

The situation is similar to what happened in Russia in the spring of 2000, when a group of rabbis elected Berel Lazar to be that country’s chief rabbi, although Adolf Shayevich already held that title.

Haikin, 73, will be the first spiritual leader of the Chabad movement in Ukraine to provide central leadership within Chabad’s federation. The Soviet-born rabbi was educated in New York and has served as an educator and leader in the United States, Canada, Morocco, Denmark and Belgium, where he was knighted in 1990.

“I was chosen by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine to organize a central rabbinate; they all have their local rabbinates but what they need now is a central place which will function like an umbrella organization from a rabbinical standpoint,” Haikin said after the presentation, which Bleich attended.

But questions remain over Haikin’s presumed role in the rebirth of Jewish life in Ukraine.

At issue is the leadership of not only the Chabad movement — to which Haikin and the vast majority of the more than 100 rabbis in Ukraine belong — but also representation of the Ukrainian Jewish community as a whole.

Bleich is a member of the Karlin-Stolin branch of Chasidism. Chabad rabbis numerically dominate Jewish religious leadership in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

In these countries, the post of chief rabbi is significant not only to Jews, but also to the nations’ governments, who often look to the chief rabbi as the representative and chief liaison of their country’s Jewish community.

Mark Levin, the Washington-based executive director of the NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia, said, “In the United States, the concept of chief rabbi is alien, and you have religious leaders of the different movements and influential rabbis who are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Chabad.”

“In many countries, ‘chief rabbi’ is a more symbolic title, but in the FSU — because of the void that existed for so many decades — it represents both a title and a role.”

Likely because of the confusion surrounding the new rabbinical appointment in Ukraine, a planned meeting between Haikin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma was postponed.

Speaking in his office in the Choral Synagogue in Podil on the day after the Sept. 8 ceremony, Bleich said it is clear Chabad was reconciling itself to the fact that he will remain chief rabbi — a position to which he said he was appointed by “all the communities and all the rabbis in Ukraine” in 1992, for an indefinite term.

Referring to an address at the ceremony by Lev Levayev, the Uzbek-born diamond tycoon who has supported the growth of the Chabad movement across the former Soviet Union, Bleich said, “I think Levayev bent over backwards to make sure not to call Rabbi Haikin chief rabbi.

“He backed off from that, and I think Chabad understood it’s not for the good of the community — and they’re trying to help the community. That’s the most important thing,” he said.

For his part, Haikin said he wants to work with Bleich and the new appointment does not represent a challenge to his authority.

“We’re not trying to take something away from anyone,” Haikin said.

The chief rabbi post is particularly important in former Soviet republics because of the vacuum of Jewish leadership that existed following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Most Ukrainian rabbis are foreign born, and there has been some competition among them and their religious denominations for governmental recognition, support from the country’s Jews — whose numbers run anywhere from 250,000 upward — reclamation of lost property and international funding.

In a 2001 report titled “Jewish Life in Ukraine at the Dawn of the 21st Century,” Betsy Gidwitz reported that “the Chabad movement, at the behest of Lev Levayev, and Rabbi Bleich appear to be engaged in a turf battle, each attempting to place rabbis in Jewish population centers that earlier had been deemed too small.”

Some Ukrainian rabbis from non-Orthodox movements say the controversy surrounding Haikin’s appointment is insignificant to them. Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, who said he is the elected chief Reform rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, said that, as before, he will not recognize the authority of any Orthodox chief rabbi of Ukraine who attempts to speak for the Reform movement.

Dukhovny said the Haikin controversy mirrors the similar stir in Russia three years ago.

But Bleich said the situation in Ukraine is different.

“In Russia there were two communities fighting for power. The framework here is absolutely different: We respect each other and will continue to work together,” Bleich said.

He said he sees Haikin’s role as assuming the leadership of the country’s Chabad movement as well as a Chabad- founded rabbinical court, which Bleich said can serve the whole Jewish community of Ukraine.

But questions remain whether Haikin ultimately will serve as chief rabbi of the country’s Chabad movement or, simply, chief rabbi of Ukraine.

“Rabbi Bleich is a very good man,” said Chabad’s rabbi in Donetsk, Pinchas Vishetsky. “But Rabbi Haikin brings a different level of experience — as a senior rabbi of 70 years — to Ukrainian Jewry and to the position of chief rabbi of Ukraine.”

He said that Haikin’s “knowledge of the Torah and great experience will be of benefit to everyone — Chabad and non-Chabad alike.”

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