On a day spanning two flights and three timezones,  faculty, staff and students of the Brandeis Hornstein second-year cohort touched down on the icy grounds of Kyiv (Kiev), and immediately began to immerse in the Jewish life, both past and present, that breathes in this city. Dasha, our fantastically knowledgeable tour-guide energized us on the bus ride into town, by providing geographical and historical details about Ukraine’s capital city. We then enjoyed a special dinner at the Brodsky Synagogue, which was built in 1897 but heavily damaged in World War II. In 2000, the site underwent reconstruction under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, one of three Chief Rabbis of Ukraine, who manages the space, as well as a number of other Jewish initiatives, including a soup kitchen, mikvah, cafe, yeshivah, and a day school. He joined us on the upper level of the pristine Synagogue and shared his experiences and concerns about the Jewish community. His sanctuary is a central hub of Jewish life, functioning much like a JCC does in the United States, and because of its central location in the city, it attracts community leaders and tourists. Interestingly, he cited intermarriage as the single greatest challenge facing the Jewish community in Kyiv. Dasha, however, disagreed, arguing instead that the lack of exposure is preventing this community from growing and including the marginally affiliated or unaffiliated Jews.

A thoughtful debriefing session followed Rabbi Asman’s visit. As we reflected on our encounter, we discussed the strategies of the Jewish world that have manifested themselves here. One important dialectic is that between the JDC and JAFI. The first, for the most part, aims to strengthen communities where they are, by providing direct services and supporting infrastructure. JAFI, meanwhile, also offers programs but with the long-term aim of eventually bringing members of the community to move to Israel. The result is therefore, on its most basic level, a push and pull between building roots and making new ones. It will be interesting to see how significant these funders and these opinions are in our upcoming interactions with the city and its leadership.

One question to keep in mind as we continue concerns the implications for a community that has so many leaders competing for the top. What does it mean to have three Chief Rabbis? Rabbi Asman is a Chabad Rabbi, but he isn’t affiliated with nor is he recognized by the Chabad movement, and he doesn’t receive financial backing from Chabad’s national umbrella funding organization (FJC). We will meet another Chief Rabbi, this one representing URJ, on Tuesday.

Before we departed from the Brodsky Synagogue, I was fortunate enough to make a connection with a former colleague of mine. Jeremy Borovitz painted bomb shelters with me in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel following the Second War with Lebanon on a Hillel service trip in 2006. He has since spent three years in Ukraine encouraging villages to compile histories of their towns, as many were once shtetls. His goal is to change the way Jews think about Ukrainians and vice versa. As a JDC Service Corps Fellow, he has a unique and daunting task of restoring lost histories, but his story was deeply inspiring and relevant to us as young leaders.

We concluded our first day in Kyiv gathered at a large social area called the Arena Center. The space once included the house of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem. While it was only a brief moment of reflection, as we passed by a statue of the literary icon, it provided a snapshot of the city. Unlike many other places I’m familiar with, the underground here carries a modern flavor, with shopping malls and crosswalks. But as Dasha explained, these subterranean paths were built to preserve what lies above the surface; a rich and multi-textured landscape, that combines the stories of our ancestors and an emerging affinity that Jeremy identifies as the “Jewish awakening” of Ukraine. It’s only been a few hours, but I can see that we have only scratched the surface.


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