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Praying in Kharkov

Praying in Kharkov

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I lived in Kharkov, Ukraine for one year when I was twenty years old. I was one of four young Rabbinical students from a Brooklyn Yeshiva who spent a year in modern USSR. We weren't worried. After all, what was there to worry about? Communism was over, and I had winter gloves.


The old choral synagogue in Kharkov is located on 12 Pushkinskaya Street. In the 1940's she stood watching as the Nazis came and left, her prayers went unanswered. After the war she became a sports center, the holy walls could only cry.

Recently, in 1992, the shul was given back to her people. True, the sanctuary was destroyed in the name of construction, but she was ours again. That Friday night the locals came to pray in the dark, the faithful danced in the cold. It was ours again.

Today, 12 Pushkinskaya Street is a functioning shul. On Shabbat the shul is full with men and women, song and prayer. Children in white shirts and little ties run to kiss the Torah. But 12 Pushkinskaya Street is no ordinary shul. My friends had told me about it. I saw it once, twice, I saw it every week.

I'm sitting up front near the old man in the brown hat. The prayers are done and the rabbi makes Kiddush. Everyone waiting gets a plate of food and a small challah. The man near me first licks the bottom of the challah roll and slips it into his pocket, now breathing a little heavier he starts eating.

Is it for later? Or for his wife and kids? I dare not ask.

Three rows behind me a woman takes a clean empty jar out of her bag. She's not embarrassed, she's not alone. The entire room goes silent, bags open and jars close.


One day an elderly man walked into the shul.

His one hand held a wooden cane, the other somehow was suddenly on my shoulder.

"Can you davven?" he whispered.

"Yes." I answered.

"Can I watch?"

I prayed in Hebrew and he stood listening to every word.

I finished one chapter and he begged for more. Then he asked me, "Was that one for me?"

The chief Rabbi of Levov was killed in World War I.

His son Nochum was only eight.

Nochum started telling me the Aleph Bet he remembered.

Only a few Holy letters and sacred memories would outlive communism.

Years later, in the old shul in Kharkov, Nochum thanks me in tears. He finally saw his father pray again.

From Chicken Kiev, by Shmuel Marcus (to purchase the book click here)
Drawing by Chassidic artist Hendel Lieberman.
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Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY December 27, 2009

The Biggest Miracle of All The Jews of Ukraine.
Still here.
Stalin is gone. Communism is gone.
Hitler is gone. Nazism is gone.
Judaism, and the Jews, are still here.
In every generation, they rise up to destroy us.
But the Holy Obe, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.

Am Yisroel Chai. Reply

Yisroela San Francisco, CA June 23, 2008

My grandfather was the Rabbi after WWII Dear Friends, you may not be aware that it was my gradfather, Yaakov Yisroel Khory, that led Kharkov's Jewish community after WWII, and that raised the money to restore this shul upon the return from the evacuation in 1945-46. Only after it was restored and regained a congregation, that it was confoscated and became a swimming pool "Dinamo"

Today, all of Yaakov Yosroel's descendants live in the US. If you wish to know more, you are welcome to contact me directly Reply

Sholom Ber Don Los Angeles, CA December 24, 2006

I just wanted to make a slight correction, I was one of the Baal Tshuvos at Kharkov shul, but it was in 1989, not in 1992; the year our shul reopened. I immigrated to the US in 1992. I am a good friend with Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz. By the way, I followed his footsepts and graduated from Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, LA, Califorina. Reply

Ken Jackson, Michigan June 17, 2006

Praying in Kharkov A beautiful story of enduring faith! Reply

Anonymous January 20, 2005

I had the privilage to be involved in an outreach project in Kharkov recently, I remeber the shul as being a vibrant place filled with learning and davening, it is a beacon of light in a world that is getting increasingly darker for the Jews of Ukraine. Reply

ELI MINZ monsey, ny May 16, 2004

alef beth I had z'chus to be in lvov in 1989 the first chazan since the 2nd w/war
I told the story of the farmer who only knew how to say the alef beth,
I asked the many hundreds of yiden to say the alef beth with me
a yid comes over to me and tells me, Chazan chazan i also want to say the alef beth but i can't, because i dont know how to say it,
SO WE ALL SAID THE ALEFH BETH TOGETHER. This was the greatest davening i ever had. since then when i daven with yiden who dont know how to daven we say the alef beth together.
MAY HASHEM LISTEN TO OUR PRAYERS AMEN Reply

Shmuel Marcus December 28, 2006

Author's Response: To Rivkah: Yes, I remember you well. I have other stories from Kharkov in my book Chicken Kiev, perhaps, I can get you a copy. Reply

Rivka Kharkov, Ukraine May 16, 2004

I live in Kharkov Ukraine and I am a shlucha and I remember how it used to be.
Everything is true, but now thing changed alot.
The shul is very big. The meals are already made in the dining room (downstairs).
We don't daven in the coridor anymore, but in the zal (main hall).
It is very nice.
I learn in the machon that is in the shul. We have 50 girls.
everything is very good here. We even have a kosher store, dormitory, yeshiva, kindergarden...
Every shabbos we have many guests in our house. Its very good seeing people smiling and people really apreciate what we do. Reply

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