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Tales from the Pale Odessa Synagogue Has Storied Past, but Its Building’s Foundation is Shaky

August 13, 2004
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The names of Odessa’s former Jewish residents read like a street directory for Tel Aviv: Jabotinsky, Dizengoff, Bialik, Trumpeldor, Pinsker, Sholem Aleichem and Ahad Ha’Am. Back in pre-World War I days, when 30 percent of the city’s population was Jewish, this Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea was a hotbed of Jewish intellectual activity and one of the birthplaces of the Zionist movement in the Russian Empire.

And right in the center of it all stands the Gothic-style, gray stone Brodsky Synagogue.

It was built in 1863 to replace a small wooden synagogue constructed 20 years earlier by a group of Austro-Hungarian Jews invited to settle in Odessa to bolster the economy of the czar’s new port city.

The Brodsky Synagogue, named after the city of Brody, was the first Reform temple in the Russian Empire.

It had a mixed-gender choir and a magnificent organ, the first in Eastern Europe, which was played during Shabb! at and holiday services. The city’s early Zionist leaders held meetings there. Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem “Shabbat Song” was written for it. Sholem Aleichem’s fictional character Menachem Mendel went there to plague God with unanswerable questions.

“Brilliant composers and musicians from all over Europe came here to perform,” says Anya Misyuk, a former dissident and a researcher with Odessa’s Literary Museum, who has spent almost 15 years uncovering the synagogue’s history using old KGB interrogation files. “Every Saturday evening there would be public concerts.”

Even Russian Orthodox priests and government officials came. The composers Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were influenced by the Jewish music they heard at the synagogue.

The writer and Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin, a non-Jew, said that during the terrible chaos of the Soviet Civil War, which ravaged the area from 1918-1921, the only place one could hear the voice of hope was in Brodsky.

In 1927, Odes! sa’s 78 synagogues, including Brodsky, were closed by the Bolshevik au thorities. Most were destroyed.

Today, just three remain: Brodsky, still boarded up, its main prayer hall now housing a four-story cement structure containing Odessa’s state archives; an 1897 synagogue now belonging to Odessa’s Chabad community; and the neo-Classical Great Synagogue, built in the 1860s by the city’s Galician Orthodox community.

Seven years ago, as part of a government program for the restitution of religious property, the Great Synagogue was handed over to Ohr Sameah, an Orthodox group. Three years ago it reopened for services, following renovations paid for by American Jewish supporters.

And in a festive state ceremony held earlier this year, the Brodsky Synagogue, Eastern Europe’s first Reform shul, was handed over to Chabad-Lubavitch.

Julia Grischenko, the “para-rabbinic” head of Odessa’s small Reform congregation, says she and her chairman gathered enough documentation three years ago to convince city authorities that the building belonged! to them. “They said to take it,” she says.

But the congregation didn’t have the money needed to renovate the interior and fix the cracked foundations without destroying the building’s exterior, which is a state architectural monument.

Chabad did — they were able to raise the $2 million for reconstruction.

Grischenko, however, doubts that Chabad, even with its vast fund-raising capabilities, will be able to remove the cement archive safe in the prayer hall.

Odessa’s chief Chabad rabbi, Avraham Wolff, concurs, saying he’s not sure what he’ll do with the building.

This article is one in a series of pieces on Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. This series was made possible, in part, by support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

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