Kyiv Had a Thriving Jewish Community. Then Came Putin's War

Only eight men from Kyiv’s Great Choral Synagogue remain in the Ukrainian capital, but local leaders are optimistic that the Ukrainian Jewish community will rebound once the fighting ends

Sam Sokol
Maksym Ptashnyk
Kyiv, Ukraine
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A woman in Kyiv places a candle in a symbolic synagogue which commemorates the victims of the Babyn Yar massacre.
A woman in Kyiv places a candle in a symbolic synagogue which commemorates the victims of the Babyn Yar massacre.Credit: VALENTYN OGIRENKO/ REUTERS
Sam Sokol
Maksym Ptashnyk
Kyiv, Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine – Sitting alone in the empty study hall of the yeshiva adjacent to Kyiv’s Great Choral Synagogue on Friday morning, Meir lamented that he was one of the only remaining members of his community in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood.

Somewhat like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Podil was home to an eclectic mix of hipsters and Orthodox Jews, many of whom left when Russian troops appeared poised to take the city.

An infantry combat vehicle that was sent ahead of the main contingent of Russian troops clashed with Ukrainian forces just a block from Meir’s apartment. “And then there was one moment when we heard an explosion and saw two rockets passing right over the synagogue,” he recalled.

Now, more than half a year into the war, only eight men from the Great Choral Synagogue’s original congregation remain. “There are some others from other communities that are inactive that have joined our community,” he added, referring to the nearby Kedem synagogue that had been established by refugees from eastern Ukraine several years ago. Most of them fled in early March – having been displaced by Russia for a second time in less than a decade.

(Checking in at the Podil Inn, a kosher hotel located next to the synagogue, Haaretz’s visiting reporter was told that he was the only guest currently staying there.)

On Saturday morning, only about 20 worshippers were present at prayer services in the synagogue’s cavernous sanctuary, far fewer than the “50 to 60 or more” who Meir said had been attending Shabbat services prior to February’s invasion. Most of those who have stayed have sent their families abroad and are living alone, another congregant told Haaretz at a communal meal following services.

Among those who evacuated their families is Rabbi Reuven Stamov, the leader of the city’s Masorti congregation, who is currently splitting his time between Ukraine and Israel. He told Haaretz that only 40 people attended this year’s Rosh Hashanah services at his synagogue, compared to around 150 during normal times.

“It’s the situation of all the communities, I’m sure,” he said, noting sadly that he had “built a new synagogue at the end of January, but we didn’t manage even to have one prayer service at this new location.”

Rabbi Moshe Azman, one of two rabbis in Ukraine claiming to be the country’s chief rabbi, seemed to indicate that his congregation at Kyiv’s downtown Brodsky synagogue has fared better than others, even if attendance has dropped significantly over the past half year.

“Before the war, there was no space. There were hundreds in the synagogue,” he recalled, as he described how this year, only 150 people showed up for Rosh Hashanah prayers.

“At the beginning of the war, there were very few people here, but now some people have returned,” he noted, adding however, that returning to Ukraine at this time – amid reports that Russian troops in Belarus might once again attempt to take Kyiv – was a bad idea.

Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Azman (right) takes part in a commemoration prayer at Babyn Yar last week.Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY - AFP

Roughly 60 people are currently living in the Anatevka refugee compound that Azman established in 2016 outside of the city. The site has been used as a staging point for the evacuation of the local Jewish community, but he said he intends to remain with what’s left of his congregation.

In the meantime, there are hundreds of people requiring assistance in Kyiv. Azman, an avowed Ukrainian patriot who recently presented Ukraine’s army chief, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, with a shofar and is involved in discussions regarding the appointment of the military’s first Jewish chaplain, intends to stay with them.

“I’ll go to Israel with the Messiah,” he quipped.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch, there are still thousands of Jews left in Kyiv, a significant portion of them refugees from the fighting further east. Like Azman, he is affiliated with the Chabad Hasidic movement. He runs a number of schools and other institutions around the Ukrainian capital and has been involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid that is said to be given to 2,000 families every month.

In a tour of a synagogue that he is currently renovating, Markovitch showed Haaretz several storerooms filled with food and other supplies. While he has repeatedly heard people assert that the invasion of Ukraine spells the end of the country’s Jewish community, he said he doesn’t think that’s true.

“Today we see that there are thousands of Jewish families and thousands of Jews who want to get closer to the community, and until now we hadn’t known them,” he said.

Speaking by phone from Israel, Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the spiritual leader of Kyiv’s Reform community, told Haaretz that while his congregation had also scattered due to the war, he remained optimistic about the future of Jewish life there.

“Of course, it will recover fully after we win over evil,” he declared.

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