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High Holiday Feature Battle over Synagogue in Ukraine Threatens Annual Jewish Pilgrimage

September 23, 2005
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A dispute over a Ukranian synagogue that welcomes thousands of Chasidic pilgrims from around the world each year may impede the traditional High Holidays pilgrimage to the site. The synagogue in Uman, where Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav is buried, was temporarily closed by court order last week because of an ongoing dispute between a private contractor and a Chasidic group.

The synagogue was reopened the next day after the local governor and a Kiev rabbi intervened, but many issues related to the annual pilgrimage to Uman remain unresolved, those familiar with the situation said.

A city of almost 100,000 people some 120 miles south of Kiev, Uman receives 8,000 to 12,000 Jewish pilgrims every year at Rosh Hashanah and Purim. All come to visit Nahman’s tomb and the adjacent synagogue and mikvah, or ritual basin, and all need a place to stay.

According to the Rabbi Nahman Foundation, 10,697 Chasidim from 19 countries made the pilgrimage last year. A kosher hotel has opened in the city, and local residents rent out their homes to the pilgrims.

But the synagogue and the pilgrimage appear to have gotten caught up in the corruption plaguing post-communist Ukrainian society.

Dedicated in 1998, the synagogue in Uman, a city that is home to only a few hundred Jews, can hold up to 5,000 worshipers and is regarded as the largest Jewish prayer house in Europe.

About two years ago, a Bratslaver foundation that oversees community facilities in Uman contracted the Chance company to reconstruct the shul. Managers of Chance say they locked the synagogue Aug. 4 because the Bratslaver group did not pay for work already completed.

“The construction is not finished yet,” Stanislav Mazurak, Chance’s general manager, told JTA. “We did our part of the project but the Rabbi Nahman Foundation did not pay us.”

During an encounter near the synagogue, Mazurak was less diplomatic.

“You should solve problems in your Israel. Here you should live by Ukrainian laws,” he shouted at a Kiev rabbi and a group of Bratslavers who gathered near the shul last Friday.

Chance filed a complaint with the regional economic court last December, hoping to collect the sum it says his company is due. The court then ordered the Rabbi Nahman Foundation to pay about $3 million.

In June, following a number of appeals by the foundation, the court ruled that Chance was entitled to the rights to the shul and the Rabbi Nahman Pantheon in Uman, the main holy place for Bratslavers around the world, because of nonpayment.

Adding to the controversy is the fact that Chance may have received favorable treatment because it is controlled by Pyotr Kuzmenko, a businessman and member of Ukraine’s Parliament. Kuzmenko’s office did not respond to JTA calls for comment.

Jews said the court decision resulted from a flawed contract that Igor Lifshitz, a former representative of the Bratslaver group in Uman, signed with Chance. Lifshitz was later fired by the foundation.

A Bratslaver leader told JTA that the court should have invalidated the agreement with Chance because it contradicted the foundation’s basic interests by offering the property up as collateral.

“Mr. Lifshitz misused the power of attorney which was given to him and signed an agreement with a builder without our knowledge,” Rabbi Nasan Maimon of the Breslov World Center, told JTA. “Lawyers who looked through the contract said that nobody would ever agree to sign such an agreement with draconian conditions.”

The Jewish side claims Chance did not actually do any work on the property and only used the agreement to extort money from the Bratslavers.

“They didn’t submit any project or any technical documentation, and in six months since the beginning of the project no progress had been made by the firm,” said Artur Kazaryan, the representative of the Rabbi Nahman Foundation in Ukraine. “When the foundation started to think of an alternative contractor, Chance brought their suit to court.”

In the meantime, local authorities are trying to damper the conflict ahead of the annual pilgrimage, which is due to begin next month.

In a meeting last week with Chasidic leaders in Uman, Nikolay Ovcharenko, the deputy governor of Ukraine’s Cherkassy region, said the region was committed to letting the pilgrimage go ahead unimpeded.

At the same time, Ovcharenko said, he expected the Jewish group to satisfy Chance’s financial claims, which were reduced by the court to some $116,000 — the amount Chance’s owners said they actually spent on the synagogue reconstruction. The foundation now has 10 days to pay that amount, according to the court, and the synagogue may be closed again if payment is not made on time.

Some Jewish leaders say the conflict’s back story involves more than just money. The pilgrimage involves bribes paid to various city agencies, said a representative of the Bratslaver foundation who asked that his name not be published.

Tax authorities, fire and sanitation departments for years have used the mass pilgrimage to make a profit, said Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, Kiev’s chief rabbi.

“The pilgrimage to Uman is used by various groups to extort money from Jews,” he claimed.

If authorities don’t receive bribes, they may turn off water or electricity at Jewish facilities, Azman said.

City officials denied the accusations and said they’re concerned by the scandals that have plagued the pilgrimage for years.

In a meeting last week with Jewish leaders, Svetlana Lipinskaya, a councilor at the Uman mayor’s office, urged them to report any extortion attempts.

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