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Around the Jewish World They Aren’t What They Used to Be, but Shtetls Mark a Decade of Revival

November 4, 2003
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Judging by this little Ukrainian village, the death of the shtetl appears to be overstated.

Of course, shtetl life does not even begin to approach the heights it reached a century ago, when thousands of these little towns were the lifeblood of Jewish life in Russia, Ukraine and Poland.

But after a century of decline, the last decade has seen a revival in Ukraine of Jewish shtetls.

Three towns that are members of the Association of Jewish Communities of Small Towns of Ukraine, which has helped engineer a Jewish revival in dozens of smaller communities, have their own Sunday school.

Twelve of the communities support their own music and dance ensembles, and nine have libraries.

Some of the typical programs these communities run include Yiddish clubs, Jewish cooking circles, midrash learning groups, family and women’s clubs, and discussion groups.

“Through our work, the very psychology of the people has changed,” said Pyotr Rashkovsky, the president of the association. “Those who were afraid to even say the word ‘Jew’ aloud, now say it proudly for all to hear.”

The Association of Jewish Communities of Small Towns has some 5,000 members living in 40 communities in the Kiev and Cherkassy regions of central Ukraine. The group is believed to be the only such organization in the former Soviet Union that caters specifically to the needs of Jews in small communities.

The association was launched 10 years ago with help from the New-York-based Jewish Community Development Fund in Russia and Ukraine, a group affiliated with the American Jewish World Service.

Martin Horwitz, the fund’s chief executive, said the association was an attempt to subvert the typical view on Jewish revival that developed in the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Ten years ago, many people in both America and Israel thought that Jewish life would only develop here in large cities, while in smaller towns it would die away. Today’s celebration proves just the opposite. The association has brought Jewish life back to the smallest of towns.”

That revival was on display at a recent concert.

Under a banner hanging across a lavishly decorated stage that read, “We were not left behind here — we live here,” Jewish children and adults from Ukrainian shtetls spent four hours proving that there’s more to contemporary shtetl life than the nostalgia reflected in productions of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The concert included performances of Yiddish and Hebrew songs, Jewish dances, Yiddish poetry readings and mini-plays from the repertory of local Jewish theater companies.

Unlike their counterparts in larger cities, Jewish leaders in smaller communities often wear many hats.

At the concert, Violetta Karpenko, the chairwoman of the Reform Jewish congregation in Zvenigorodka, performed the Yiddish song “Shpilt a Freilakhs.”

Since it repaired and remodeled its own synagogue, her community has become one of the major spiritual centers of the region.

Elena Mironova, a Jewish community worker, was born in Zvenigorodka. She leads Shabbat and holiday services at several of the communities in her region, and also works as the teacher of Jewish tradition.

She said the small-town association is responsible for the growth of interest in Jewish tradition among those Jews who live in communities with no permanent Jewish facilities.

“Jews, who previously had no knowledge of Jewish religious life, are now coming to the Zvenigorodka synagogue, some from as far as 200 kilometers away. Our own community is quite small, so the very fact that every holiday brings together 100 to 150 Jews from as many as 10 nearby towns is a holiday in itself.”

As part of the celebration, an opening of a museum on Jewish shtetl history was held in Korsun-Shevchenkovskiy.

The exhibition, titled “We Were Born in Shtetls,” includes 450 exhibits from 28 small Ukrainian towns, representing both religious and secular aspects of life in Ukrainian shtetls.

A feature of small-town Jewish life is the large percentage of intermarried families, which doesn’t prevent Jews with mixed background from becoming active in community affairs.

“These people cooperate with the Jewish movement and share its ideals,” said Klavdia Kolesnikova, the editor of the association’s newspaper Nadezhda, or Hope, published monthly in Korsun-Shevchenkovskiy. “Where can we now find many halachic Jews?” she asks, using the word for Jewish law to indicate Jews born of Jewish mothers. “So, we keep our doors open to anyone who shares Jewish traditions and work with us.”

Despite the predominantly festive mood at the association’s anniversary celebration, some Jewish activists spoke openly about the problems their communities are facing. Most cited the aging of the communities and Jewish emigration as the most serious challenges.

David Turovsky, head of the Jewish community in the town of Brovary, said, “Young families with children are leaving for Germany and Israel. The youth leaves because it is difficult to find jobs in Brovary. Minyans cannot gather regularly. At the same time, we are trying to involve all those who stay to keep Jewish life going in our town.”

That could be difficult, given the predilection of the younger set to move away.

“I would prefer to live in a big city,” said Sasha Blinder, 11, of Zvenigorodka. “I would like to live abroad.”

His sentiments are similar to those expressed by young Jews a century ago.

Beginning in the latter part of the 19th century and then continuing into the 20th, hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Russian Empire left shtetls — some for larger towns and cities, others for England and North America.

During the Holocaust, shtetl Jews were easy prey for the Nazis. Most Jews who remained in them at the beginning of World War II were killed.

For his part, Horwitz doesn’t have any illusions about the future of shtetls, but he agrees with local leaders who say that as long as Jews live in these communities they should be given as many chances to develop their Jewish life as those living in large cities.

“In 10 or 15 years some of these towns may contain fewer Jews, in others more, but Jewish life will continue here,” he said.

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