It was 2 a.m., and the community Passover seder at the Menorah Center in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, had just ended. Wishing to grab some early-morning air, a portion of the seder's 1,000-plus participants spilled out of the Jewish community center and took a stroll on the wide boardwalk that runs alongside the city’s iconic Dnieper River.
“Jews have nothing to be afraid of here,” says Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the chief rabbi and Chabad emissary of the southeastern Ukrainian city. He and his wife, Chani, moved there in 1990, prior to the fall of communism. “My guests felt perfectly comfortable taking a walk in the middle of the night wearing kipahs and tzitzit; nobody bothered them.”
Since the recent political instability in Ukraine and subsequent Russian incursion in Crimea, some reports have purported a spike in anti-Semitism throughout Ukraine. But Kaminezki insists that contrary to this perception, Jewish life in Dnepropetrovsk continues to boom, including Jewish guests arriving from around the world to celebrate Passover in comfort at the newly constructed Menorah Center, reportedly the largest Jewish community center in the world.
“These were brave people who came here,” says Kaminezki about the community’s Passover visitors, “because they have been hearing all sorts of news about Jewish life in Ukraine. When they got here, what they saw was a proud and flourishing Jewish community.”
Kaminezki acknowledges the heightened sense of tension in the city—an atmosphere he says has caused an upswing of participation in Jewish activities there.
“People want to feel a part of a community, so there have been more people coming in to shul to put on tefillin, to daven. But what they are afraid of are the effects of a possible war,” he says. “Many of the older people—World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors—they are very afraid of war because they have seen it before. We are trying to keep them calm and have professionals on hand to help them through this time.”
“People want to feel a part of a community, so there have been more people coming in to shul to put on tefillin, to daven," says Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki. (Photo: Herzl Kosashvili/COL.org.il)
Abraham Chasovskykh, a native of Kharkov, Ukraine, who now lives in Dnepropetrovsk, adds that people are also troubled by the worsening economic climate since the crisis began.
“Nobody that I know is worried about anti-Semitism on the street or from the government in Kiev, but they are afraid of war with Russia and of the effect on the economy," he says. "Businesses are struggling here now because of the situation, and it’s become difficult to make money in these conditions.”
An Impressive Community
While Passover food conjures up images of boxed matzah and sweet, sticky kosher wine, recent years have seen major upgrades in the quality and range of kosher foods for the eight-day holiday. Everything from pizza and hot-dog buns to seven-layer cakes have become available—and that accessibility has encouraged Passover observance, making it easier than ever before.
These days, one option for Jewish families is to spend the entire holiday in what’s known as a “Passover hotel,” with a specially koshered kitchen and a full range of meals, prayers, lectures and entertainment for the duration of the holiday. While this trend has been popular for a while in the United States, this year an unlikely location joined the playing field: the new hotel located in the massive Menorah Center in Dnepropetrovsk.
The Menorah Center, which opened in October 2013, is a 22-floor, seven-tower gleaming facility that includes a hotel, banquet hall, lounges, offices and even a Jewish museum. (Photo: Herzl Kosashvili/COL.org.il)
The center opened in October 2013—a 22-floor, seven-tower gleaming facility that includes a hotel, banquet hall, lounges, offices, even a Jewish museum.
“We have beautiful facilities to host families for Pesach,” explains Rabbi Moshe Weber, a Chabad emissary who leads multiple projects in the city, including the Passover hotel and a yearly camp for the children of Chabad emissaries throughout the country. “When people come for Pesach specifically, it creates a buzz around the city. The community becomes excited. You see Jews from all over the world coming and celebrating the holiday together here in Dnepropetrovsk. It’s very powerful.”
There was room for more than the 150 people who took part in the Passover program, but Weber says many cancelled because of media reports, afraid they would be arriving in an anti-Semitic war zone.
“Some people were afraid because of what the news says,” notes Betzalel Sulay, a Dnepropetrovsk native who worked at the Passover hotel. “But everyone who came was laughing afterwards that they were ever afraid of coming. Everything ran calmly here.”
Weber says “those who came were shocked when they saw what an impressive Jewish community we have here. We have a synagogue, a first-rate hotel, kosher restaurants; whatever you want in a Jewish community, we have here.
The Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, served as Dnepropetrovsk’s chief rabbi (it was then known as Yekatrinoslav) until Soviet authorities arrested him in 1939 for his work in maintaining Judaism in the city. He was subsequently exiled to Kazakhstan, where he passed away and was buried in 1944. The Rebbe grew up in Dnepropetrovsk, often speaking fondly of it. His father’s synagogue on Mironova Street now houses an orphanage for Jewish boys, run under the auspices of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community.
The joyous communal spirit of the pre-Passover matzah-baking lasted through the holiday and beyond. (Photo: Herzl Kosashvili/COL.org.il)
Weber adds that guests who traveled to Ukraine for the holiday were led on organized trips to various places of Jewish interest throughout the country, including the burial place of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi—the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch—in Haditch, and that of his son, Rabbi Dov Ber Schneuri, in Niezhin.
In Dnepropetrovsk, the group paid its respects at a memorial for Rabbi Dov Ber Schneerson, the Rebbe’s younger brother, who was shot and killed by the Nazis in 1944, and buried in a mass grave. One group member noticed a swastika on the stone marker—the memorial is not in a location generally open to the public—and posted it on an Israeli blog. The story spread like wildfire and was soon picked up by the international media as an example of rising anti-Semitism in the country.
“This swastika was put there a year-and-a-half ago; it had nothing to do with the current situation,” affirms Weber, who says the marks were in the process of being removed. The press jumped on this and made it some kind of recent anti-Semitic incident. It was nothing of the kind,” he says.
The ‘Rebbe’s City’
As Dnepropetrovsk’s Jewish community gathered to celebrate the last day of Passover, they were joined by eight members of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by its chairman, Congressman Ed Royce of California, and ranking member, Congressman Eliot Engel of New York.
“They came into our synagogue as members of the delegation to see how the Jewish community is doing here under the new government,” says Kaminezki. “There were more than 1,000 people in the synagogue waving American and Ukrainian flags, and when the community began singing ‘Haveinu Shalom Aleichem,’ the congressmen burst out crying.”
“The ‘Rebbe’s City’ has become a symbol of the unity of Ukraine. There are 44 nationalities living in the Dnepropetrovsk region, and everyone gets along,” says Kaminezki. (Photo: Herzl Kosashvili/COL.org.il)
The members of the delegation were also presented with handmade shmurah matzah, freshly baked in Dnepropetrovsk’s own matzah bakery.
“Congressman Engel is actually of Ukrainian Jewish roots, from Kiev, Odessa and Vinnitsya, and he spoke about those roots,” says Kaminezki. “The delegation also met with our governor, Igor Kolomoyskyi, who is a member of the Jewish community here.”
Within the Jewish community, Dnepropetrovsk natives like to refer to their home as the “Rebbe’s City,” a nod to the many years that he lived there and the special affinity that he showed to the city of his youth. In the current turmoil, Kaminezki sees a special significance in this appellation, saying Dnepropetrovsk has become a poster child for harmony among citizens of Ukraine.
“The ‘Rebbe’s City’ has become a symbol of the unity of Ukraine. There are 44 nationalities living in the Dnepropetrovsk region, and everyone gets along,” says Kaminezki. “The governor is Jewish and has an extremely high approval rating. On Easter, many of the non-Jews in this city were openly praying for him.”
“Today, you can come to Dnepropetrovsk or Odessa and walk through the streets openly dressed as a Jew, with nothing to be afraid of.”