After many years, the Jewish community of Kherson, Ukraine, is receiving a spiritual home befitting of its modern revival. Taking part in the project is Pavel Miripolsky, a native-born designer who moved to Israel in 1991.

"When I left Kherson," says Miripolsky, who received a degree in design from Kherson's university, "there was almost nothing as far as Judaism is concerned. I had heard that they got back the synagogue around the time that I left, but I remember Judaism there was very primitive.

Speaking for the Black Sea port's Jewish residents, Rabbi Avraham Wolff, who served as a longtime rabbi of the community before becoming the chief rabbi of nearby Odessa, says the renovation to the city's central synagogue is about time.

His first interaction with the community was as a rabbinical student in the summer of 1992, when he and Rabbi Dovid Mondshine – today, the director of the Moscow-based network of more than 110 Or Avner Chabad Day Schools and 89 kindergartens throughout the former Soviet Union – landed as part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Roving Rabbis program. Their base of operations was a small room in what used to be Kherson's main synagogue.

"I remember the first week," relates Wolff in Hebrew. "Wednesday came, and we starting thinking about the approaching Shabbat. I told Mondshine, 'It looks it's me, you and our one Jewish connection in the city for Shabbat prayers. We need to do something.' "

The next day, the pair went to the city's marketplace to scope out the local fish store. They assumed that they could find some Jews shopping for that day's catch to make the Shabbat delicacy of gefilte fish.

In broken English, Wolff asked random people, "Are you Jew?" After many tries without success, he and Mondshine then demonstrated to people how to put on tefillin and light Shabbat candles in the hope that somebody would recognize what they were doing. That approach seemed to work.

That Friday night, they settled in their 10-by-22 room lit by one flickering bulb and waited for people to arrive. A handful showed up, and brought more with them the following week.

Such was the beginning of Kherson's Jewish rehabilitation, says Wolff.

A Long History

An artist’s rendition of Kherson, Ukraine’s new synagogue.
An artist’s rendition of Kherson, Ukraine’s new synagogue.
Built in 1895, the old Kherson synagogue whose tiny auxiliary room hosted Wolff's and Mondshine's first Shabbat service was shuttered by Soviet authorities in 1930. World War II saw the building thoroughly damaged, and in the 1950s the local government turned the location into a rehabilitation home for alcoholics, complete with rows of small rooms. The property was finally returned to the Jewish community in 1991.

After Wolff and Mondshine arrived, more and more of the building returned to Jewish ritual use. Wolff's brother, Rabbi Yosef Wolff, who back then came to help out but today serves as the city's chief rabbi, recounts that the early days were one continual pattern of growth.

"As the needs of the synagogue grew," says the brother, "we slowly broke down the walls of the rooms, until it was one big room."

In 1997, after it became clear that Kherson's Jewish Community Center was quickly outgrowing its own space, the community embarked on a building campaign to renovate the central synagogue. Work commenced in 2000, necessitating the move of services to the local Or Avner Chabad Day School.

Although the synagogue's interior is not yet complete, services recently resumed in the historic space.

"This year, there certainly are more people coming than last year at this time," says resident Ruth Sinvar. "Everyone waited for this moment with such great anticipation that they are all helping in any capacity they can."

A Native Touch

Avraham Fried, owner of the Artist Studio, holds up a sketch of the new ark to be built in Kherson, Ukraine. (Photo: Shlomo Neimark)
Avraham Fried, owner of the Artist Studio, holds up a sketch of the new ark to be built in Kherson, Ukraine. (Photo: Shlomo Neimark)
One of the last remaining touches to be installed is a grand ark being built in Israel that will house the synagogue's Torah scroll. The large piece is being designed by Kherson native Pavel Miripolsky.

At Miripolsky's workspace at the Artist Studio in Kiryat Gat – from where handcrafted furniture is shipped to Spain, Switzerland and the United States – a chorus of hammers provides the accompaniment to the craftsman's etching of a delicate design.

"Here, we only make furniture for holy endeavors," says studio owner Avraham Fried.

It's a sentiment echoed by Miripolsky, but with a heavy helping of nostalgia.

"G‑d from heaven is giving me the opportunity to give back to Kherson," exclaims the artist, bedecked in a beret and sporting a smile, tears of excitement welling up in his eyes.

"The situation there is much different," he continues, noting that his niece now learns in the school there. "Judaism is coming back."

Zalman Ruderman contributed to this story from Israel