Every weekend, the Jewish population in the eastern industrial city of Makeyevka, Ukraine, swells. Thanks to a guest house opened in 2008, each and every Sabbath at the home of Chief Rabbi Eliyahu and Dassi Kramer features the new faces of those drawn by the promise of a spiritually-uplifting experience, free food and even free transportation.

Many, such as frequent guest Naum Dmietriev, leave hungry for more.

Dmietriev is chairman of the Jewish community of Konstantinovka, but he comes to Makeyevka almost every week to celebrate the Sabbath and learn more about Judaism under the caring tutelage of the Kramers, who are Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.

“I go because I want to know more about Judaism and its traditions,” said the 55-year-old. “One of the main traditions in Judaism is to greet the Sabbath. It’s a mitzvah!”

Makeyevka’s Jewish community mirrors those of the towns and cities surrounding it. Thousands of Jews call the city and other towns in the region home, but a high rate of assimilation has left many in the dark about their Jewish identities.

Much of the Kramers’ work involves reigniting a flame snuffed out by Communism. Two of their regulars include brothers, both in their 80s, who commute three hours each way just to spend the Sabbath in Makeyevka. One time, one of the brothers wasn’t feeling well and one of his friends asked him why he insisted on travelling so far.

“For such a thing,” the brother answered, “I won’t stop.”

In some cases, such as that of a septuagenarian who had never been circumcised, just one visit to Makeyevka prompts guests to make a life change.

“After that Shabbat, he saw what it means to be Jewish,” said Eliyahu Kramer, and he decided to undergo a ritual circumcision.

Rabbi Eliyahu and Dassi Kramer’s guest house welcomes people from around their region every weekend.
Rabbi Eliyahu and Dassi Kramer’s guest house welcomes people from around their region every weekend.

Beyond their Sabbath programming, the Kramers take care of whatever else local and not-so-local Jews need. The couple visit elderly community members at home, brings them medicine, affix the special cases of parchment known as mezuzahs to doorframes, and assists Jewish men in donning the prayer boxes known as tefillin. They also encourage families to send their children to the nearest Jewish day school and summer camp in nearby Donetsk.

Dassi Kramer, who runs the local Jewish women’s organization in addition to home-schooling their children, cooks everything for the Sabbath in a kitchen smaller than 37 square feet.

“We have a small kitchen, but I try to make good food and make every meal different,” she said.

She added that many of their guests bring containers and collect food for the whole week. Not only doesn’t she mind, she encourages the practice as a way to strengthen the observance of Judaism’s kosher dietary laws.

Few, But Proud

The Kramers came to Makeyevka in 2005 to set up the city’s first Chabad House and synagogue, following up on the work of rabbinical students who, thanks to a grant from the philanthropic Rohr Family, visited the area each year to organize Passover and High Holiday services and meals.

Because the city began as a Cossack settlement, it doesn’t have a long Jewish history. According to the rabbi, it was only during the Communist era that Jews had an opportunity to reside there.

“We saw right away that the Jewish population was pretty spread out,” he explained.

The Kramer’s first year there, the Jews of Makeyevka openly celebrated Chanukah and Purim for the first time as a community. And the weekly Sabbath celebrations quickly grew in popularity.

But some things are still not so easy to arrange in Ukraine.

One of the Kramers’ children helps a Jewish man don tefillin.
One of the Kramers’ children helps a Jewish man don tefillin.

Because authorities tend to view organized marches through the streets as political demonstrations, programs like the Jewish children’s parades organized by Chabad Houses around the world for Lag B’Omer face an uphill battle in obtaining the necessary permits.

This year, the Kramers tried to get the local government to approve such a parade for Lag B’Omer, which fell out on a Sunday. But two days before the event, they were called in for an urgent meeting at city hall and told that their application was denied.

Devastated, the couple contacted people who might be able to help, but to no avail. They sent a letter to the Cambria Heights, N.Y., resting place of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, requesting a blessing.

Then, just before the city hall’s offices closed for the weekend, officials informed the Kramers that they could have the parade, but would not be afforded police protection.

Finally, on the day of the parade, a friendly policeman offered to provide full protection on whatever streets the Kramers wanted. They chose Makeyevka’s main thoroughfare in order to trumpet the pride of the city’s few, but courageous Jews.

“In a place where just around 20 years ago people were afraid to mention anything connected to Judaism, now they marched,” said Kramer, “on a main street, no less, proudly and happily displaying their Jewish pride, carrying large posters with pictures about the Sabbath, tefillin and keeping kosher.

“It was a happy day for everyone,” he continued, “a day of celebration which also left people with an everlasting impression and feeling of pride in being Jewish and living Jewish.”