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Ukrainian City’s Jewish Mayor is ‘an Ethnic Jew and an Atheist’

August 29, 2006
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It’s not surprising that Odessa, Ukraine, would have a Jewish mayor. After all, the Black Sea port city — long considered Ukraine’s “most Jewish” city — gave the world political and cultural Zionism, along with the stories of Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Babel.

But Odessa’s mayor, Edward Gurvitz, doesn’t wear his Jewish identity on his sleeve.

“To be a Jew is my nationality, not my profession,” he told JTA, sounding like most Ukrainian citizens born and raised under communism. “I’m an ethnic Jew and an atheist.”

Gurvitz, 58, was one of four Jews to win Ukrainian mayoral elections in March, despite what many describe as a steady increase in anti-Semitic attitudes in the country.

Born in the Ukrainian town of Mogilyov-Podolskiy, Gurvitz insists that he always felt Jewish. He remembers that his grandmother could speak and write both Yiddish and Hebrew, and his family celebrated Passover. But that personal history, not atypical for Jews of his generation, was pretty much the extent of his Jewish knowledge.

Still, he prides himself on never hiding his Jewish background to help his career. “All my life I was a Jew, and had ‘Jew’ stamped in my passport,” he said, referring to the notorious “fifth line” on Soviet passports that stated the bearer’s ethnic identity.

After studying construction engineering in Leningrad, Gurvitz arrived in Odessa at age 29. He became one of the city’s first private entrepreneurs in the late 1980s under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of economic freedoms.

In 1990, he went into politics and was elected head of an Odessa district. In 1994, he won a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament and was also elected mayor of Odessa. He was re-elected to both positions four years later, but due to what was widely reported as political pressure, his opponent in the mayoral election was declared the winner. The same thing happened in 2002, and it took court intervention to overturn those results. Gurvitz won re-election in March, and will serve as mayor until 2011.

“If a Jew reaches that high, he must have much energy and talent,” said Josef Zissels, leader of the Ukrainian Va’ad and a veteran leader of the Ukrainian Jewish community. “Gurvitz is a very business-like person, and his Jewish character and Jewish mentality help him to succeed.”

In addition to Gurvitz, Vladimir Saldo was re-elected as mayor of Kherson, and Mikhail Dobkin and Vladimir Groisman won in Kharkov and Vinnitsa respectively, all three cities with active Jewish communities.

None of these men is particularly active in Jewish life, although local Jewish leaders insist they help support the communities in other ways.

Ilya Grobman, the chairman of the Jewish community of Vinnitsa, says Groisman gives money to a local Jewish TV show, helped to return a synagogue building to Jewish ownership and goes to synagogue “on some Jewish holidays.”

In Kherson, Rabbi Josef Wolf insists that Saldo “actively supports the Jewish community at a high level,” but declined to be more specific.

In Kharkov, Dobkin’s involvement with the Jewish community appears negligible. Just this August, he declined to weigh in when the Jewish community protested plans to build a residential development at a Holocaust memorial site.

Gurvitz, on the other hand, although never a member of any Jewish organization, has stepped forward to help those that sought his aid, Jewish leaders say. Odessa’s chief rabbi, Avraham Wolff, credits him for giving the community a building for a Jewish orphanage. “He is not a religious person but he did what he can to help the community,” Wolff said.

Mikhail Frenkel, head of the Association of Jewish Media in Ukraine, says one shouldn’t make too much of these mayors’ ethnic backgrounds. “None of the ethnic Jews in the Ukrainian establishment did anything for the development of the Ukrainian Jewish community,” he said. “These mayors are just ethnic Jews, and they were elected as individuals,” not because they are Jewish.

Gurvitz acknowledged that he never wanted to take an active part in Jewish communal life but Jewish issues and Israel are important parts of his life. On his desk are several souvenirs he brought back from Israel, where his former wife and son have lived for 17 years. Stanislav, now 23, works at the Haifa port, while a daughter, Eugenia, lives in Kiev.

Gurvitz backed President Viktor Yuschenko during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and is a member of the leadership of Yuschenko’s Our Ukraine Party. Yet as mayor he tries to be as apolitical as possible, focusing on his city’s economic and social issues. He says his goal is to make Odessa a flourishing resort city and trade center. His co-workers describe him as a workaholic, and he rarely leaves his office before 10 p.m.

Although he still considers himself a Yuschenko supporter, he does not hang any pictures in his office of the president, whose time in office has fallen short of expectations. He has never displayed photos of any political leader, he says.

Instead, there is a portrait of Soviet nuclear physicist and human rights champion Andrei Sakharov, the same picture Gurvitz has carried with him from office to office throughout his political career, testimony, perhaps, to the universalism to which he aspires.

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