Excitement is building in Jewish communities throughout Ukraine in anticipation of the first Blessing of the Sun since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

While people of other countries can remember the last time birkat hachama took place – in 1981 – for many of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish residents of the former Soviet Union, the April 8 ceremony will be a statement against the abuses of the past.

“Because of Communism, because of the prohibition of Jewish life in the Soviet Union, many of us didn’t even know about the blessing of the sun the last time,” said Zelig Brez, a 34-year-old native of Dnepropetrovsk, site of the one of the largest Jewish communities in Ukraine.

Throughout the former Soviet Union Wednesday morning, Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries will be presiding over communal celebrations on occasion of a once-in-28-years phenomenon, when the sun returns to the point in space it occupied on the same day of the week it was created. Centered around a blessing thanking G‑d for constantly renewing creation, the service involves the reciting of Psalms and a selection of rabbinic texts.

Brez will be one of thousands expected at a grand communal event in the courtyard of Dnepropetrovsk’s Ohr Avner Chabad Day School.

“This is a big shehechiyanu for us,” said Brez, the director of the local Jewish community, referring to a separate blessing made at special occasions. “Everyone is extremely excited.”

According to Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzki, the city’s chief rabbi, a locally-produced video explaining the ceremony will be shown on a big screen. The crowd will sing a selection of Chasidic melodies, and will join together in gazing at the sun as it rises over the skyline. After making the blessings and completing the service, attendees will then have the chance to participate in a festive meal traditionally held the day before Passover.

And in keeping with other pre-Passover observances, community members in Dnepropetrovsk will also be able to sell their leavened products, known as chametz, to Kaminetzki.

“All the kids are coming with their parents, as well as about 400 university students,” said Brez. “Everyone wants to come.”

A new booklet published by the Jewish community of Uzhgorod provides instructions and information about the Blessing of the Sun in Ukrainian.
A new booklet published by the Jewish community of Uzhgorod provides instructions and information about the Blessing of the Sun in Ukrainian.

Anticipating Redemption

Because this year’s blessing coincides with the eve of Passover – one of a handful of times in history – many are hoping for a miracle to occur before their eyes.

“They believe that something big will happen,” said Kaminetzki. “They are anticipating redemption.”

For Brez, the fact that his four children don’t have to think twice about gathering for the very public display of Judaism is itself miraculous.

“For us,” he said, pointing to his own generation, “15, 20 years ago, we didn’t know anything. Our children, though, are part of a completely new generation that’s proud to be Jewish.

“For them, this is normal,” he continued. “For us, it’s a miracle!”

Over in Kharkov, the country’s second largest city after Kiev, Jewish community member Alexander Kaganovskiy, 54, echoed Brez’s sentiments.

“I didn’t know about such things 28 years ago,” said Kaganovskiy. “No one could perform a mitzvah in public. Everything was underground.”

“There is such a great enthusiasm,” said Rabbi Moshe Moskovitz, director of Chabad of Kharkov, who expects about 500 men, women and children of all ages to attend the ceremony. “People are saying, ‘What if we don’t come? We’ll have to wait another 28 years!’ ”

Kadanovsky said he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“Especially at my age,” he stated, “I am very excited to make such a big and important commitment.”

Moscovitz, who when reached this week, was also in the midst of organizing four large community Passover Seders, said that local students are especially excited. They’ve been working out the calculations of the sun’s movement through the sky that Moskovitz has been explaining in recent classes.

“All these things are especially interesting to them,” said the Venezuelan-born rabbi. “They’re fascinated.”

Their computations have been aided by a new book in Ukrainian that the Jewish community of Uzhgorod published earlier this month. But beyond the math, Brez was grateful for the chance to join in such a rare celebration.

“The feeling is amazing,” hed said. “This will be a very joyful event.”