On the Jewish landscape, Zhitomir, Ukraine, was once a big city.
It had synagogues, Talmud Torahs, yeshivahs and the largest Jewish population in the heavily Jewish Volhynia region. From 1847-1862, Zhitomir’s Jewish printing press was one of only two allowed to remain open by the czarist government—the other being in Vilna—and thus the central source of Chassidic books printed in the Russian Empire. But that was all gone by the time Rabbi Shlomo and Esther Wilhelm arrived there in 1994 to establish Chabad-Lubavitch of Zhitomir. By then, following the Holocaust and three generations of Communism, Zhitomir was just a shtetl.
“I was scared,” recalls Esther Wilhelm of her initial reaction to permanently moving to a small town in Ukraine. “I wasn’t sure I could handle it.”
Some 23 years later, she and her husband have transformed the sleepy town into the Jewish capital of western Ukraine, home to a synagogue, the Or Avner Jewish day school and the impressive Alumim Educational Campus in nearby Zarichany, which houses the Alumim Children’s Home. Under their umbrella, eight Chabad centers have opened in cities throughout western Ukraine. At the same time, they continue to coordinate Jewish activities in dozens of other towns with smaller Jewish populations—places with iconic Jewish names like Skyvra (Skver), Ruzhyn (Ruzhin) and Brody (Brod).
Esther Wilhelm will speak at the Sunday-night banquet of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries. (Photo: Bassie Vorovitch/Kinus Hashluchos)
Wilhelm will serve as the keynote speaker at the Sunday-night banquet of the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries (Kinus Hashluchos), which takes place Feb. 16-19 in New York. She says she will be drawing on her own experiences in Ukraine to address the conference theme: “Permeating the World With Sanctity.”
“Zhitomir was a vibrant place of chassidus, and that potential is still there; it just needs to be revealed,” she says. “And every Jew, no matter how far he or she seems, has that same potential for good and holiness.”
Cradle of the Chassidic Movement
The region around Zhitomir was the cradle of the Chassidic movement, the land where Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov first began to preach his uplifting message to the demoralized Jewish masses—a population that had been devastated in body and spirit by the murderous pogroms of Ukrainian Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki.
Esther Wilhelm speaks at an educational seminar in Zhitomir.
Medzhybizh (Mezhibush), the town where the Baal Shem Tov settled after years of wandering and where he was buried after his passing in 1760, lies two-and-a-half hours away by car from Zhitomir. Berdichev, a name which in the Jewish imagination instantly recalls R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (and which today has a Chabad emissary of its own), is only 40 minutes away.
Zhitomir itself was a longtime stronghold of the Chernobyler Chassidic dynasty, and Chabad’s history in the city begins mostly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, with the movement’s organization and support of underground Jewish education. Under the auspices of the Committee of Rabbis of the USSR (Vaad Rabbonei USSR), which was founded and administered by the sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—Jewish life furtively continued. A 1928 report made by the committee on its work, which was primarily fulfilled by followers of the organization’s founder R. Yosef Yitzchak, notes 100 children studying at the cheder in Zhitomir. Another 40 yeshivah students studied in the city and 30 young men were listed as participating in Tiferes Bachurim, an evening Torah-study program for young men who worked during the day.
Esther Wilhelm, left, with some of her children and a woman outside of Zhitomir’s historic synagogue. It was one of the sites of Chabad’s underground Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim in the 1930s until it was shut down by authorities during an early-morning raid. The synagogue is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation.
The city was later home to a Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim, which was at last dispersed in the fall of 1937, when police raided the synagogue in which it was based at four in the morning. Some students managed to escape, but those who were caught had their papers confiscated and were told to report at the station the following day. Instead, they left town, heading 1,000 kilometers east to Voronezh, Russia, where they resumed their studies.
Many of Zhitomir’s 30,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, including 402 during a 1941 pogrom not long after the Nazi invasion; another 6,000 were shot on the outskirts of the city. Despite this, many Jews returned to Zhitomir after the war, where they began to rebuild their lives.
In 1990, the first permanent Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries arrived in the Soviet Union, settling in Moscow, Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk, followed in quick order by large cities like St. Petersburg, Russia; and Kiev and Odessa, Ukraine. Zhitomir was the first of the small cities to get shluchim of its own, yet what it lost in size it made up in Jewish fabric. Distant from the big Soviet centers of culture and education, the traditional Jewish nature of the town and the region had survived the ravages of communism, even if the Jews did not know precisely what being Jewish entailed.
In 1836, czarist authorities shut down Jewish printing presses in the Russian Empire, aside from the ones in Vilna and Zhitomir. The famed Shapira printing press of Slavuta reconstituted itself and reopened in Zhitomir in 1847, becoming one of the only sources of works of chassidus and Kabbalah. In 1848, it printed for the first time the second half of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi's Chassidic discourses under the name Likkutei Torah. Here, the title page of an 1866 edition.
“When we first came here, most of the Jews still spoke Yiddish, even those who were in their 40s,” recalls Wilhelm. “If they didn’t speak it, they at least understood it.”
Jewish foods were widely popular: gefilte fish, hamantaschen, and, of course, matzah. Wilhelm remembers one woman telling how her grandmother would send her to the market to buy a chicken. She instructed the granddaughter to bring the chicken to an old man who had a small stall in the marketplace, leave it with him and go off for some ice-cream. When she had finished it, she returned to pick up the chicken. The old man, the woman told Wilhelm in hindsight, was a shochet (kosher ritual slaughterer).
“The grandparents were absolutely afraid to teach their children and grandchildren anything Jewish,” says Wilhelm. “This woman’s grandmother kept kosher, and she didn’t know what kosher was.”
Chabad in Zhitomir had previously been established by Rabbi Shmuel Plotkin, a resident of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., who was an early Jewish activist in post-Soviet Jewry and who invited the Wilhelms to settle in Zhitomir for good. Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm made one scouting trip to find a suitable apartment—or as suitable as the times permitted—before moving there with his wife and newborn son. Like Jews throughout the former Soviet Union, the Jews of Zhitomir were also heading for the country’s doors in buses departing to Kiev’s Borispol airport on a weekly basis.
“When we came, we thought we’d be here for five years,” says Esther Wilhelm. “Our impression was that everyone was leaving for Israel, and that soon, no one would be left.”
At the city’s Or Avner Jewish day school
At a Chanukah event in Zhitomir
‘Start From Scratch’
Early on, the Wilhelms realized that their work would and could not focus solely on the Jews of Zhitomir, but that they’d have to travel throughout the countryside to meet, teach and inspire Jews living in the even smaller towns spread through western Ukraine. One year they arranged a Chanukah train—a mobile Jewish-music concert that night after night went from city to city by rail. Not long after they opened the Or Avner Jewish day school in Zhitomir, they realized that a regular school would not be able cater to children living in the towns.
“That’s how our children’s home was born,” says Wilhelm. “They had no Jewish school to go to, so we realized we had to do something.”
At a women’s event in Zhitomir
Wilhelm leads a women’s Torah class in more recent years.
At first, they rented apartments in Zhitomir, an effort that grew until in 2007, the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (the umbrella group for Jewish life in the former Soviet Union) purchased an expansive campus in a Zhitomir, where the Alumim Children’s Home and Social Rehabilitation Center is now located. The campus grounds host Camp Gan Israel in the summer, and during the height of the war in eastern Ukraine, in 2014, it was also the site of the first Jewish refugee camp for those fleeing war-torn Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol. At the time, Alumim had an influx of children, as parents registered them to keep them in a safe Jewish environment—a place far from the front lines of a war that still has no end in sight. Both the Or Avner school and Alumim Children’s Home are supported by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which was also instrumental in funding the refugee camp.
Wilhelm notes that the Jewish children and families they engage with today are different than those of the previous generation. Alcoholism, especially in villages, is rampant, and drug use is not unusual either; some of the Jewish children at Alumim draw from such backgrounds. Intermarriage has become the rule, not the exception, and assimilation has greatly accelerated.
“Twenty-three years ago, people here had a stronger Jewish identity. They didn’t know what it meant, but they knew they were Jewish,” she observes. “Today, many of the people we meet don’t even know that they’re Jewish at all. We need to start from scratch to give them their Jewish identity.”
At an end-of-the-year panel at the Or Avner Jewish day school. From left: a school official, Chana Rubin, Esther Wilhelm, Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm and Rabbi Nachson Rubin.
Over the years, the Wilhelms brought out Chabad couples to establish independent Jewish centers, placing Zhitomir at the crux of a network of Jewish life. Its location is also geographically convenient for Jewish tourists making pilgrimages to the resting places of tzaddikim in the area, many of whom stop in Zhitomir to take advantage of its kosher restaurant and wood-heated hotel along their journeys.
There was a time when the Wilhelm family went for months without either kosher meat or dairy products, living as pioneers in a frontier town. These days, there is plenty of both and the challenges have shifted, but the mission remains the same.
And that’s what Wilhelm will tell more than 3,000 of her fellow emissaries and their guests when she rises to address them at the upcoming conference.
“The Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] taught us that the way we ‘permeate the world with holiness’ is not necessarily through huge events or projects, but by connecting with each individual, person by person, mitzvah by mitzvah,” says Wilhelm. “It adds up to reveal their true inner Jewish self.”
A Lag BaOmer event winds its way through Zhitomir’s main streets.
A more recent Lag BaOmer parade. Despite its being a relatively small city, Zhitomir was historically home to a high percentage of Jewish residents.
The Alumim Children’s Home sits on an expansive educational campus in the nearby suburb of Zarichany. Here, some of the residents gather at the complex’s main entrance.
A celebration at the kosher restaurant, which opened in 2015, on the Zarichany campus
Rabbi Wilhelm, at right, in the front row at an event this past Chanukah in Zhitomir