For Zelig Brez, who was educated under Communist rule and had no inkling of what his religious background meant, the Dnepropetrovsk of today – with its network of Chabad-Lubavitch educational institutions and social service centers – is a far cry from the one-time Soviet industrial center that clamped down on Jewish life. Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, only society’s negative attitude to Brez’ identity reminded him of it: “We just realized our Jewishness from the anti-Semitism,” he says.

In 1990, when the Ukraine city opened to foreigners, the first English speakers that Brez met were non-Jewish missionaries from New Mexico.

“For me,” he explains, “this was a unique opportunity to practice English. I started to translate their evangelical missionary paraphernalia, because I was also interested in learning about my Jewish identity and the Torah. I developed a friendly relationship with them.”

When Passover approached, they took him to the synagogue to purchase matzah.

“I was shy, because I didn’t know Hebrew,” he recalls, “though the elderly people in the synagogue did.”

Around that time, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Shmuel and Chana Kaminezki arrived in Dnepropetrovsk to rekindle the Jewish flame that once burned in the city.

“Rabbi Kaminezki was a young guy then,” says Brez. “He asked me if I was Jewish, and then invited me to his house for a Shabbat meal.

“I was totally overwhelmed, because in our culture you don’t invite strangers,” he adds. “I said goodbye to the [missionaries] and went with the rabbi to his home.”

Locals celebrate a bar mitzvah in Dnepropetrovsk.
Locals celebrate a bar mitzvah in Dnepropetrovsk.

A City With History

Formerly named Yekatrinoslav, Dnepropetrovsk has a special place in Lubavitch history. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, father of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, served as the city’s chief rabbi for 30 years until his arrest by the KGB for his stubborn persistence in strengthening Jewish observance. After more than a year of torture and interrogations, he was exiled to the interior of the Soviet Union, where he passed away in 1944.

“We grew up with the heroism,” says Shmuel Kaminezki, who serves as the city’s chief rabbi. “We grew up with the self-sacrifice the Rebbe’s father and mother had for the Jewish community. The Rebbe [often] talked about them on the anniversaries of their passing.

“People knew [Rabbi Schneerson]. They showed us the cell where he was kept, the files from all the investigations,” continues Kaminezki. “For us, it was unbelievable to see that this was not just history, this was something that people remembered.”

For the Kaminezkis, coming to Dnepropetrovsk represented a return to a part of the world where their parents and grandparents, and those of their friends and acquaintances, were leaders and operatives in the clandestine network of Lubavitch schools and Jewish institutions that stretched across the Soviet Union.

“I really wanted to see my roots,” says Chana Kaminezki, “to see where we came from. If someone would have offered me a paid ticket to Russia, I would have gone. However, as a young girl of 20, in my right mind, I never thought about moving to Russia.”

With the blessing of the Rebbe, the Kaminezkis took the challenge with the apprehensive assent of their families. Their operation began primitively at best, with the couple building on the small existing community comprised primarily of pensioners.

The rabbi’s first office was located in the only synagogue kept open during Communist rule.

“In order to exhibit their religious tolerance, the Communists left one synagogue open in Dnepropetrovsk,” Kaminezki explains. “The KGB controlled which members came and which members went, and never let the synagogue be too successful. But it always existed.”

The new arrivals began offering classes in the synagogue, delivering all of their lessons through the help of translators as they hadn’t yet learned the language.

“It was amazing,” Brez says about his first Shabbat at the young Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries’ home. “This was the first time that I saw the Shabbat candles, a kiddush and challah.

“I felt inside that this was the precious heritage of my grandparents that the Communists had stolen from me,” he adds. “I started coming to classes in the synagogue.”

Brez even met his wife in the old synagogue, and the couple got married beneath a wedding canopy – known in Hebrew as a chupah – in a traditional Jewish ceremony outside.

“We had a chupah because we were very proud,” says Brez. “We didn’t make [it] in the backyard of the synagogue, but on the embankment of the Dnieper River, for everyone to see. This was probably the first Jewish party they saw since the Revolution.”

The Dnepropetrovsk community boasts several preschools, day schools, high schools and institutions of higher education.
The Dnepropetrovsk community boasts several preschools, day schools, high schools and institutions of higher education.

Schools, Orphanages, and a Towering Project

In the almost 20 years since the Kaminezkis arrived, Dnepropetrovsk’s Jewish community has steadily grown. Today, it comprises a host of resources, and plans to open a third kindergarten in the coming year. The local Jewish day school, part of the Ohr Avner Chabad network of schools, boasts an enrollment of 600 students. Several high schools serve the community, and other institutions offer Jewish studies to retirees just beginning their Torah educations.

Dnepropetrovsk is also home to two orphanages, one for boys and one for girls, run by the Chabad-Lubavitch children’s organization, Tzivos Hashem, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.; the Beit Chaba Teachers Seminary, whose graduates now work throughout the former Soviet Union; a center that trains religious scribes how to write sacred objects and repair Torah scrolls; a kosher supervision agency; and a luxurious ritual bath known as a mikvah.

Kaminezki points out that the growth is all locally supported: Philanthropist Gennady Borisovich Bogolubov serves as president of the community’s board of directors, a group of 70 leaders who sponsor and help direct Jewish programs in the city.

The rabbi chalks up the success to the locals who extended him such a warm welcome in 1990. Back then, he explains, many people in Dnepropetrovsk still remembered the flourishing community that existed before the rise of Communism. In their later years, they were thirsty for a renewed expression of Judaism, and wanted to rebuild.

“The older people remembered how Jews were oppressed and kicked out, and killed by pogroms and the Nazis,” says Kaminezki. “We immediately found a group of people who were ideologically ready to build with us. These people were waiting for a rabbi. They were waiting for us.”

As time went on, the younger generation saw its elders reconnected to Jewish life, and decided that they, too, wanted to be a part of it.

Today, the community is constructing its most ambitious project, a seven-tower complex known as the Menorah Community Center that will house a massive synagogue, Holocaust museum, hotel, retail space, kosher restaurants, and a kosher supermarket. Bogolubov and his partner, United Jewish Community of Ukraine president Igor Kolomoysky, are funding the project.

Brez, who now serves as the community’s executive director, says that he’s amazed at the state of religious life and that his children can be proud of their heritage.

“They go about freely and proudly,” he points out, “with their skullcaps on their heads.”

Now he wants all of the city’s children to be proud of their Jewish identities. He just returned from spending a Shabbat at the community’s Jewish camp in the Crimea, where some 30 American counselors volunteered for three weeks to teach children who, like himself, have grown up with little knowledge about Judaism. While at the camp, Brez taught one of the classes.

“It’s not just [my] individual story,” he says. “I was amazed. These children come from homes that don’t have any Jewish meaning. They’ve been to camp once or twice, and now they know so much. And they like it and appreciate it. I see a light, a fire in their eyes. It’s unbelievable.”

Despite the size of the community’s operations, members say it hasn’t lost its personal touch. A quick glance at its newsletters shows personal birthday greetings, engagement announcements, and blubs about weddings, all with pictures.

Still, locals say there’s much more that needs to be done. There are no official statistics, but according to community leaders, out of an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Jews in Dnepropetrovsk, roughly 2,000 to 2,500 regularly attend classes and synagogue services.

The Kaminezkis are optimistic. And like her parents, the couple’s 19-year-old daughter, Yehudis, wants to spend her life in the Ukraine, despite her American citizenship.

“Just 500 meters from the cell where Rabbi Levi Yitzchak sat in jail,” sums up Shmuel Kaminezki, “we have a synagogue with a school called the Rabbi Levi Yitzchak School. On the street where he was arrested, we are building the largest community center in the world. Everywhere that there was suffering, there is now Jewish life.”

Dini Harris writes for Hamodia, where a version of this article originally appeared.