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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukrainian City Gets a Shul, but Infighting Tempers the Joy

September 22, 2005
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Government officials and Jewish leaders here held out hope until the last minute that Viktor Yuschenko would show up for the grand reopening of the city’s historic synagogue. After all, Sumy, an industrial city of 300,000 residents in northeastern Ukraine, is Yuschenko’s hometown. It would have been quite a coup for the city’s 1,000-strong Jewish community to have Ukraine’s president at its Sept. 12 ribbon-cutting.

With the recent dissolution of his entire government, however, Yuschenko was too busy in Kiev to make the four-hour journey.

Still, a delegation of more than 100 Jewish and Ukrainian officials came from Kiev for the ceremony as Sumy’s synagogue and new Jewish community center opened after a year-long construction and renovation.

The ceremony itself was a mixed blessing: While it marked a watershed in efforts by Sumy Jews to rebuild Jewish life, it also was marred by infighting among competing Jewish interests that has hampered the community renaissance.

Sumy lies just outside the former Pale of Settlement — the area in the Russian Empire where Jews were confined during the 19th century — so its Jewish history is quite recent. Until World War I, most of the Jewish community was limited to artisans, doctors and other professionals needed by the czarist government.

The synagogue was built in 1914 and closed in 1927 by the Soviet regime. It was used for various purposes over the next five decades, most recently as a pharmaceutical factory, until its return to the Jewish community in 1997.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee funded renovations to the synagogue. A second, newer half of the building, which will house all the city’s Jewish organizations, is being built with funding from the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, headed by Kiev businessman Vadim Rabinovich.

But Rabinovich’s money came at a price: Though Sumy already has a Chabad rabbi, sent through the Chabad-controlled Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union, Rabinovich told local Jewish leaders that he was sending his own Chabad rabbi from Kiev to “make sure things go right,” one local said.

That’s led to an awkward situation, with two Chabad rabbis for one very small Jewish community.

“From one side I understand his logic, but from the other viewpoint there’s already a rabbi here who is respected and loved by us,” says Alexander Goron, head of the city’s Jewish community. “This problem should be solved between the rabbis themselves.”

The second rabbi — who arrived from Kiev in August and hasn’t yet received rabbinic ordination — is by many accounts trying to make waves. He could not be reached for comment.

“I have had a chance to speak with him and he claims that he has not come to be a rabbi; he’s here to make sure that the shul is built,” says Rabbi Yechiel Levitansky, the city’s official Chabad emissary, who arrived with his wife last fall from Santa Monica, Calif.

At the last minute, Levitansky was not invited to speak at the synagogue opening. He says Rabinovich invited him “as a member of the community,” but Levitansky felt that if he were not to speak as the rabbi, it would be counterproductive to show up at all.

Levitansky will preside over a second opening ceremony at Rosh Hashanah.

The dispute escalated a few days after the Sumy opening, when a majority of Ukrainian rabbis blasted the election of a new chief rabbi — the country’s third — as illegitimate. More than 30 Chabad rabbis affiliated with the federation issued a statement Sept. 15 saying that the election of another Chabad rabbi, Moshe Reuven Azman of Kiev, to serve as Ukraine’s chief rabbi was “illegitimate” and “insulting to the feelings of every believer.”

A chief rabbi “can be elected only by rabbis working in Jewish communities of that country,” the statement said, referring to the fact that Azman’s election Sept. 11 was endorsed by a group of secular Jewish leaders but not by any rabbinical authority.

The vast majority of rabbis permanently working in Ukraine these days are Chabad rabbis affiliated with the federation. Unlike other Orthodox rabbis working in Ukraine, Azman, who is Russian-born, is not affiliated with the federation and for years has received support from Rabinovich, who initiated the election for chief rabbi.

Goron, for his part, says he and the rest of Sumy’s Jewish leaders aren’t interested in the kind of power struggle that has plagued Jewish communities in larger Ukrainian and Russian cities.

“I and the members of the community didn’t know about the conflict between Rabinovich and the federation, and we don’t want to know,” he says. “We exist thanks to the JDC and the Federation of Jewish Communities, and we’re also a member of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. Sumy is a small Jewish community and we just want peace.”

They’ve already been through enough uproar. In 1997, as part of government restitution efforts, the Sumy Regional Council handed the city’s historic synagogue to a businessman who presented himself as head of the Jewish community. The fellow ended up using the ruined building as a warehouse instead of restoring it for communal use, and — according to local Jewish leaders — he managed to obtain $3,000 and a Torah scroll from a well-intentioned Chicago congregation before the regional council demanded the building back.

In 2000 the council gave the synagogue to a second Jewish community, this one headed by Goron, which had raised money to restore it.

Today, despite all the troubles, the synagogue restoration project is coming along well. Levitansky expects to hold services there by Rosh Hashanah.

Goron notes that though most of the funding came from the JDC and Rabinovich, local seniors also gave money from their meager pensions, showing how much people want this building, he says.

The Jewish community has a powerful political friend in Mark Berfman, the former governor of Sumy province and now head of the regional council, the only Jew in Ukraine to hold such a position. He’s also a construction engineer, and is overseeing the renovation project.

Until they move into the new building, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Chabad rabbi, the Hesed welfare society and the Jewish community’s cultural and social organizations all continue to work out of the same cramped, rented office space.

Still, says Berfman, they’ve made Sumy’s Jewish community “the most active” of the city’s national minority organizations.

Indeed, things were bustling during one recent visit this summer. In one closet-sized room, Levitansky was explaining the mystical aspects of laying tefillin to a dozen elderly men. Next door, 14 teenage girls, members of the Jewish community’s youth club and singing troupe, were belting out a pitch-perfect rendition of “Go Down, Moses.” Tamara Korennaya, who directs the girls’ chorus, also doubles as the city’s Jewish Agency representative.

At a time when the Jewish Agency is closing many of its offices in smaller Ukrainian towns, including most of the rest of Sumy province, the Sumy municipal branch is still teaching Hebrew to potential immigrants and sending local teens to Israel on Sela and Na’aleh programs.

Korennaya estimates that she has sent 500 Sumy Jews to Israel since 2001, most of them on teen programs.

One of her singing troupe’s soloists is Anna Shybayeva, 23. She returned to Sumy after three years in Israel and now studies English and German at the city’s pedagogical university.

Many of her childhood friends from Sumy are still in Israel, as are her parents. Goron’s two sons also live in Israel, one married and one still in the army.

But Shybayeva, Goron and other local Jews interviewed for this article feel upbeat about Sumy’s future.

“The future of Ukraine and of its Jewish community are one and the same,” Berfman says. He feels confident that the country has “the natural and human potential” to overcome its present economic crisis, and that will bode well for all national minorities, including Jews.

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