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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukrainian Synagogue Reopens; Celebrated As Symbol of Community

March 10, 2003
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The Ukrainian Jewish community is enjoying architectural evidence of the community’s accomplishments in the more than 10 years since the fall of communism.

Following a multimillion-dollar renovation project, the Great Choral Synagogue of Kiev — a symbol of Jewish life in Ukraine — officially reopened last week.

Some 300 dignitaries and other guests from across Ukraine, Russia, the United States, Canada and Israel attended the March 4 event at the century-old red-brick synagogue in Kiev’s Podol district.

In his opening address at the ceremony, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Ya’akov Dov Bleich, compared the story of the Choral Synagogue with King David’s speech in Psalm 30 in which he gives thanks to God for being able to overcome his enemies, trials and tribulations.

“The walls of our synagogue sing the same psalm,” Bleich said. “From the bureaucratic opposition of the 1890s through the Bolshevik repression of the 1920s, from the fascist devastation of the 1940s to the stagnation of the postwar years, the walls of the synagogue have been singing this psalm.”

Opened in 1894, the Choral Synagogue was the first permanent house of worship for the Jewish community of Kiev.

Following the 1917 Russian Revolution it — like most synagogues across Ukraine — attracted the unwelcome attention of Soviet authorities, who took control of the building in 1929.

The synagogue suffered further under the occupying forces of the German army during World War II, serving, among other functions, as a horse stable. While most synagogues remained closed after the war, the Jewish community managed to reclaim the Choral Synagogue.

“Our synagogue is unique, and not only for its architectural beauty,” Bleich said. “First of all for being a significant source of vitality for the Jews of Ukraine and for being the only operating synagogue in the capital during 50 postwar years.”

Guests, representing a cross-section of Jewish and Ukrainian society, filled the pews of the main hall of the synagogue as well as the balcony. Sponsors of the renovation and government officials, including Ukraine’s deputy vice prime minister, Dmitry Tabachnik, sat to the right side of the altar and religious leaders, including the chief rabbi of Kiev, Moshe-Reuven Azman, sat on the left.

For many of the guests, the gala was their first opportunity to see the synagogue following the extensive reconstruction under the direction of chief architect Vladimir Khromchenkov.

Features include rich, dark wood pews, tile floors of yellow marble, stained-glass windows and a brown-and-gold ark with wrought-iron latticework.

“The main goal of the project was to try to remain as faithful as possible to the spirit of the original,” said the synagogue’s executive director, Yevgeny Ziskind.

Guests commented on the remarkable transformation.

“It’s a celebration for everyone who’s seen the synagogue beforehand,” said Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Anna Azari. “And it’s also some kind of graduation or growth of the Jewish community,” Azari said, noting the participation of local Jews in funding the project.

Edward Shifrin, a businessman and co-president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, served as principal sponsor of the 18-month project.

“This is a big holiday for all Jews in Ukraine, since the synagogue is a symbol of Jewish life for both religious and secular Jews,” said Hillel director Osik Akselrud.

Mentioning the large percentage of American Jews who have roots in Ukraine, Akselrud added that “the Podol synagogue was the center of Jewish life for their families, and we have to continue it.”

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