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Ukraine & the Pale: Jewish Remnants and Renewal

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Rabbi Yitzhak, January/February 2014

As you may have heard, Shonna and I recently returned from a very special journey to Ukraine. Fortunately our travels there ended before the eruption of the huge demonstrations in Kiev and the political turmoil that has recently made the headlines.

Each day of the six days we spent in Ukraine had profound meaning and each was worthy of a chorus of Dayenu – “This would have been enough.”

Our first evening began with meeting the other participants for the dedication ceremony of the new Hatikvah Center for Progressive Judaism in Kiev. We met Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the truly extraordinary leader of that community, as well as

other members of the international delegation gathering for this momentous occasion. Representatives from The World Union of Progressive Judaism came from the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Israel and Great Britain to join in this celebration.

The following morning, Friday, we went together to the site of Babi Yar a place of horrible destruction of thousands upon thousands of Jews and other Ukrainians who were victims of the Nazi onslaught. That Friday happened to be the day of Ukraine’s annual national day of commemoration of the horrors of Babi Yar and the broader loss of lives during World War II. Ukraine has a terrible history of anti-Semitism and it was important to acknowledge the profound depth of that shadow even as we prepared for the kindling of new hope at the Hatikvah (The Hope) Center. After leaving Babi Yar, we were taken to a Jewish kindergarten where the beautiful faces of young Jewish children singing Hebrew songs lifted our spirits toward a hopeful future. The parents and grandparents of these children were denied any Jewish education under the period of Soviet rule. The phrase l’dor vador, “from generation to generation,” takes on new meaning in Ukraine. Tradition is passed from the youngest generation to their parents and grandparents rather than from parent to child.

Friday evening, with the onset of Shabbat, the community celebrated Simchat Torah, as the Torah scrolls were brought into the new sanctuary and placed in the Ark for the first time. I had the joyful honor of leading the community in singing “Am Yisrael Chai –The Jewish People Live,” a song written by my teacher Reb Shlomo Carlebach z’l, which was the encouraging anthem for Soviet Jews in decades past. Adding to the specialness was that it fell on Shabbat Bereishit, the “In the Beginning” Shabbat when the very first words of Torah are read. Perfect timing for a new beginning for the Kiev progressive Jewish community.

The remaining days were equally filled with meaning as we visited Berdichev and Medziboz, two very significant centers of Jewish learning in our history. The final day was spent on a journey to the small town of Snovsk (today Shchors), the birthplace and childhood home of my beloved father z’l.

I cannot do justice to the meaning of either of those two days in a short article. I hope to find ample opportunity to share about those transformative days in the future.

Shonna has created an exhibit of photos from the journey, which are on display in the TBI Gallery. I hope you will find time to have a look and consider the meaning of this journey – a journey that represents a glimpse into the unknown past that so many of us who have family history in that region share. Perhaps it will be a window into your past as well.