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Around the Jewish World North American Jews in Ukraine Find Spirituality While They Sweat

August 27, 2002
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At first glance, there’s nothing inspiring about removing truckloads of debris from a synagogue courtyard or helping to put a fence around the building.

But for a group of college students from North America and Israel who recently visited Ukraine, the work not only made them sweat; it fed them spiritually.

“Physical labor is not just physical labor,” said Jeremy Gordon, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “To feel that we play a part in a resurgent Jewish community is a very powerful experience.”

Gordon was a group leader for 30 young adults who recently traveled to Ukraine as part of the International Jewish College Corps, a program of the American Jewish World Service.

This year, the AJWS brought two groups to help local grass-roots organizations build a portable water system in Honduras and construct an elementary school in Ghana.

After five weeks in Central America and Africa, the groups met in Simferopol, one of Ukraine’s regional capitals, to help the local Jewish community renovate its only synagogue.

Ukraine was not on the group’s original itinerary.

The AJWS program usually concludes with a two-week Israel experience focused on exploring Jewish texts in relation to social justice and performing volunteer service projects in the Jewish state.

But this year, many families were feeling uncomfortable about sending their kids to Israel because of the violence there, said Amy Schrager, director of the International Jewish College Corps.

So the students were brought to this city of 350,000 in the Crimea, which is home to between 8,000 and 10,000 Jews.

The Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine, part of the AJWS, has funded community projects in the former Soviet Union for almost 10 years. The choice of Ukraine fitted well with the group’s philosophy of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

“We came to Ukraine because of the desire to celebrate klal Yisrael,” or the community of Israel, “to work with Jews who are not as rich as in America,” Gordon said.

A 130-year-old synagogue, Ner Tamid is the only one of eight synagogues that functioned in Simferopol before the 1917 Russian Revolution.

It was taken over in 1930, and all Jewish symbols were removed. It was used for offices and storage until it was returned to the Jewish community a few years ago in terrible condition, according to Anatoly Gendin, the head of the Jewish community in Simferopol.

With help from overseas and local funding, parts of the interior were renovated and the synagogue now houses a Reform congregation and the offices of the city’s Jewish community.

The Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism almost brought to an end the centuries-long history of Jews in this Black Sea region that over the centuries has seen Greeks and Romans, Khazars, Ottoman Turks, Russian czars and Soviet rulers.

Like elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the Jewish revival here began in the late 1980s. Since then, Jewish communities have been rebuilt in a dozen Crimean towns.

Though increasingly successful at raising local money, the Jewish community relies heavily on help from abroad that includes funds channeled through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Community Development Fund.

Overseas funds are used to support religious activities, a Jewish day school, summer camps, youth programs and charitable projects for the elderly.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the reality of Jewish life here,” said Andy Shugerman, a Brandeis University graduate and one of the volunteers. “I only wish the more affluent Jewish communities in the West put more of their resources to tap the potential for Jewish renaissance in these fledgling communities.”

With the arrival of the volunteers, the synagogue in Simferopol received a luxury it had not had in decades: a daily minyan, the minimum of 10 Jews required for public prayer. Local Jews, mostly elderly, joined their guests for morning prayers led by members of the group.

On one such morning, Gordon helped Eduard Kunitsyn, a 66-year-old local artist, lay tefillin for the first time in his life.

“I was raised in a totally different tradition,” Kunitsyn said after the prayer service, referring to his Soviet-era upbringing. “But I really enjoy seeing these young Americans doing Jewish things.”

Shugerman said, “I hope we are opening doors for this community to see the world anew with Jewish eyes, to further explore what Jewishness means. We are showing them that Judaism can be cool, can be fun.”

The Jewish revival in Ukraine is in its second decade, but the void after years of a virtual ban on Jewish tradition is still evident.

Rachel Birenbaum, another volunteer, felt the group had so much Jewish knowledge they could share with the locals.

“The leader of the community doesn’t know the blessings for the reading of the Torah,” said Birenbaum, a McGill University graduate who works as a Hebrew teacher in Toronto. “It’s frustrating that we don’t have enough time to teach them.”

On one afternoon, the volunteers met with a group of 15 local Jews, mostly in their 70s, to hear their life stories.

Like many elderly Jews, they had at least some Jewish memories of their parents or grandparents keeping some Jewish symbols at home, eating matzah during Passover or going to synagogue.

Loyal members of the general society, they avoided religion and tradition in pursuit of social acceptance and better careers. Now forced to survive on measly pensions equivalent to $15 to $25 a month, they feel abandoned by the state.

One of the volunteers said hearing such stories was exceptionally meaningful.

“My grandfather was from Ukraine, and it was very symbolic and meaningful to me to see these people,” said Ilana Aisen, who just graduated from York University in Toronto with a degree in education. The leader of the Simferopol Jewish community said he wanted the relations between local Jews and the volunteers to continue.

“As these young men and women move on with their lives and careers, they will remember the few weeks they once spent here,” community leader Gendin said. “Tomorrow they will become leaders, professionals, decision-makers in their fields. We could have ongoing relations that would benefit us both.”

Shugerman agreed.

“This program has cultivated an intense sense of connectedness with far-flung communities, Jewish and non-Jewish,” he said. “It’s going to have an enduring presence in our lives.”

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