Krivoy Rog: 15 unique differences of the Jewish community
What do you know about Krivoy Rog? Wikipedia informs us that it is the second largest city in the Dnepropetrovsk Oblast. Google provides news reports about the major enterprise Krivorozhstal (the issue of its privatization caused numerous scandals at state level). Jewishnews.com.ua will introduce you to a different Krivoy Rog – absolutely unique and Jewish!
“I don’t know another community like it…” you feel like paraphrasing the words of the Soviet song, when you learn about the history of the revival of the Jewish life and community in this city. Today there is a Jewish school, kindergarten and synagogue here.. You can encounter people walking around in kippahs and even order kosher groceries on a local online shop. Incidentally, only a few big cities in Ukraine can offer this.
None of this existed 15 years ago. The chief rabbi of Krivoy Rog Liron Ederi told us how the community was revived. With his arrival in 2002, integral attributes of Jewish life began to appear in the city, and a common Jewish community began to form. We selected 15 distinguishing features from his interview, which are only characteristic for this community.
Counting the Jewish population is prohibited by Ukrainian law [and by Jewish law]
How many Jews there are in Ukraine, and in Krivoy Rog, is the most mysterious question. Everyone counts us, but no one knows for sure how many of us there really are in the country. No one has made a precise calculation. One and a half years after my arrival in Krivoy Rog, the results of a sociological survey of the population were published in newspapers. It was calculated that 736,000 people lived in Krivoy Rog and environs. 1.1% of called themselves Jews. By that time it was prohibited to write the nationality in the passport. So those were the people who replied “Yes” to the question “Are you in Jew?” In Krivoy Rog and the district, 8,600 people called themselves Jews. I believe that at that time there were at least 10-11,000 of us.
A single community (before my arrival) did not exist
The first thing I saw in Krivoy Rog was enormous potential and hundreds of Jews, some of whom were in different Jewish organizations. “Chesed” and “Sokhnut” had done a lot of work in this area, but they also hindered me. For the goal of Chesed is to help the needy, socially vulnerable groups of the Jewish population of the city, and the goal of “Sokhnut” is repatriation. There was no community as such, a single one which united all groups of the population [in the city.[ Ordinary, family people with a stable income (not necessarily rich by any means) are the group of the population which was left outside the Jewish life of the city. They are always the foundation of any community. My first goal was to help these Jews understand that the community needed them, and they needed the community. This was the two-way feeling and connection that had to be established.
I didn’t start working from scratch
I must give the proper respect to the organizations which worked actively in the city before my arrival. Thanks to their work, thousands of Jews were already around the community. The majority were badly off. I started establishing relations with them and separately drawing in people who were outside these organizations. I organized various events, invited people to my home or to some venues. Our first celebration was Hanukah. 100 people turned up – and that was already a great achievement! And all of the guests without exception were quite well off [family people with a stable income, or even wealthy people].
The community gradually grew, people started coming to us, families with children. The issue arose of creating a Jewish school and kindergarten. We rented a building from the city, opened a school and started working with children. The first person to help us was Rabbi Kaminetsky [Chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk and Oblast – L.L.’s note], you could say he “took me by the hand”, helped to organize a system of Jewish education in the city, receive permissions etc. [the school was without its own building for almost five years, and rented the premises – L.L.]
A few months after my arrival in Krivoy Rog a miracle took place!
It really was the will of G-d! Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky arrived and said that a major charitable organization from Great Britain, WJR, was looking for a community to raise the level of education in it to European standard. They came to us, had a look around, and a little while later they decided to invest in building a school and kindergarten. They reached an agreement with another three local sponsors on joint investment. They bought, thank G-d, an old kindergarten in the city center, in a prestigious district, with a school territory adjacent to it. So the first building was built which is now the Jewish school of Krivoy Rog.
The parents of the first school pupils had the association that Jewish organizations were just about receiving aid
As a result of the many years of work by Chesed and Sokhnut, the weak groups of the population were attached to the community, who [by intuition] went to Jewishness rather for aid than because they had an inner feeling of being Jews. I stress, I am not blaming them, not at all! These were the goals of their organizations, and they achieved them. At the time life in Ukraine was quite hard. So most parents brought children to our school not because of a self-awareness of their own Jewishness, but because the Jewish school provided free transport, free food, and quite a high quality of education. The socially vulnerable, of course, chose the Jewish school for their children. More cultured or better-off groups of the population, I recall today, initially rejected us – their children did not come to us to study. And not because the parents did not acknowledge their Jewishness, but because they believed that a Jewish school would not be able to provide their children with a high level of education.
You couldn’t say that they [the community members] were unfamiliar with Shabbat
Our children took part in Chesed and Sokhnut programs, which were operating before my arrival: they went to camps, to shabbatons. Of course, the lack of a rabbi in the city meant there was a lack of more profound knowledge of the Laws of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. I remember how they prepared fro the first celebration of Rosh Hashanah after my arrival: the community sincerely tried, they prepared a concert, a performance by children with musical instruments. I carefully explained that they could not do this on Jewish holidays, it wasn’t a carnival, there were certain rules and prohibitions. There was no anger, people listened to the rabbi with great respect. They were practically unaware of the laws of Yom Tov [holidays]. Shabat, for example, wasn’t so nerve-wracking, but holidays were more complex.
The history of the Krivoy Rog synagogue differs from other synagogues of Ukraine
Let’s start with the history of the city itself. For example, Dnepropetrovsk is a relatively young Ukrainian city, it turns 239 this year. And Krivoy Rog is just one year older! Nevertheless, in the Second World War Dnepropetrovsk was considered to be one of the Jewish cities of Ukraine. Before the war it was even 50% Jewish. Nikolaev, another neighbor of ours, was always a Jewish city. It is much older than Dnepropetrovsk. It was up to 80% Jewish. As Krivoy Rog was a workers’ city (there were mines and factories there), it was not very attractive for the Jewish population. Before the war, according to data I saw, the population was about 25% Jewish, 45-50,000 people. I would say that in Nikolaev and Dnepropetrovsk there were hundreds of thousands of Jews. And nevertheless in Krivoy Rog there were 8 or 9 synagogues, and in Dnepropetrovsk and Nikolaev there were up to 100.
The only new synagogue built since Ukraine became independent is here, in Krivoy Rog!
It is the only synagogue in all Ukraine which was built from the foundations to the roof in an absolutely new place. In Krivoy Rog the circumstances were such that there was nothing to restore and rebuild. The battle on the territory of Krivoy Rog in the Second World War was very serious because of the minerals, so the city was almost completely destroyed. All the synagogues were destroyed [several photos have been preserved of the last, one of the most beautiful in Ukraine at the time]. We couldn’t lay claim to any old building. We thought of a long time about where to build the synagogue. The city stretches over 120 km, and if a person comes to us 45 km from the other end, we shouldn’t complicate his life further: to collect the children from school, and then to the synagogue afterwards…
We decided to proceed from the practical point of view, so the synagogue was next to the school. We bought three private houses, demolished them and started thinking about how to build the synagogue. Help was offered by Vadim [Natan] Shulman, a very well-known person [the future philanthropist was born, grew up and earned his first capital in Krivoy Rog – L.L.]. He was in Rabbi Kaminetsky’s office on the third year after my arrival here, and they called me. Mr. Shulman asked: “What have you got?” I explained that we were building a school, and I was thinking about how to build the synagogue. He asked: “What budget do you propose?” I replied that it was about $800,000 at that time. In the end he set a condition – he wanted to sponsor the building of the synagogue independently: he would find architects, hire builders… My wishes about the synagogue were included in the plan. The synagogue was built. Of course, the budget was much higher, around $4 million. The synagogue turned out to be large and very beautiful, I didn’t even dream of something like this!
Recently we built a new building on the school territory: a kindergarten and sports complex
[The Krivoy Rog Jewish school may rightly be considered the best technically equipped, modern and diverse both among schools in the city, and nationwide – L.L.]
The total area of the school is 2,650 sq.m. It has one of the finest media libraries in Ukraine, a modern computer complex, spacious classrooms, for 16-18 pupils, so each child gets the maximum attention. There is a boarding school for orphans and children from problem or single-parent families. There is a kindergarten and sports complex next to it. The philanthropist for the construction of the kindergarten was Gennady Korban [ex-deputy governor of the Dnepropetrovsk Oblast and businessman]. And Alexander Vilkul helped us to build the sports complex. He doesn’t have any connection with Jewishenss, but as the governor of the Dnepropetrovsk Oblast at the time and one of the leading politicians in Ukraine today, he believes that support of minorities in the Oblast is important for the national well-being of the country. There are three groups in the kindergarten today, which are attended by 52 children. There are around 150 people at the school. A very important role in the existence and development of the Jewish community of Krivoy Rog was played by Vladimir Nemirovsky, who also holds the position of chairman of the community, and was the governor of the Odessa Oblast for some time. And also Alexander Livshits, who put his soul and a great deal of money into ensuring that these projects became a reality.
The Jewish community has held public events not only for its “own” people
Although the issue of inter-ethnic hostility has never arisen in Krivoy Rog, the Jewish community, on the initiative of chairman Vladimir Nemirovsky, decided to organize “Creative evenings”. Firstly, it was very important for him to have the process of nurturing tolerance in young people towards any ethnic group, and secondly, their self-development. The simplest path to anti-Semitism and racism is to blame people of other ethnic groups for your own failings: whether he’s Jewish or Russian, it doesn’t matter, as long as it isn’t me! To avoid this, we opened the program with the name “Creative evenings”.
The goal is to introduce young people to a culture that is unfamiliar to them, Jewish culture. We held exhibitions on Jewish topics, quests etc. 350 people came to the meeting, maybe even more, but in Krivoy Rog the largest hall has 350 seats. The program was very popular! But at the end of 2013, Maidan started, and a certain depression and disappointment set in, and everything died down very quickly. We invited a new famous person to every evening (and not necessarily a Jew) who had achieved something in life. They told us the story of their success. We had Mochalov, Podkopaeva and eight more people. The host was Denis Mandzhosov (at that time he had already left the “95th block” team).
People are already talking about Judaism in the city, they are bringing it up and discussing it – that’s real progress!
I want to answer honestly, without painting a rosy picture of my work. Yes, there are people who have become closer to Judaism or have partially started to observe it. But there are some families who have become completely religious, some of them left for Israel or larger cities. Two of these families have stayed, and consciously decided that they should live in Krivoy Rog (with all its economic difficulties). Thank G-d, I have these people!
It’s not hard to gather a minyan. On Saturday we have around 70-80 people. On holidays, 300-500 people come. There is progress. But as soon as progress is more than minimal, we increasingly encounter people wishing to move to big cities. An so we constantly lose out to Dnepropetrovsk, Kiev and Odessa, all the young people go there.
If people used to rarely wear kippahs on the street in Krivoy Rog, as it was awkward (although anti-Semitism does not exist here, that’s true!), now Jews wear it quite comfortably, they don’t take it off or hide it in their pockets, and feel at ease. Many people now come to daily prayer with more awareness.
You have a real and online store with kosher products
Yom-Tov Shufotinsky worked on this. I really appreciate his work! Undoubtedly, the store exists and earns money, there are customers. Most of them are non-observers: they buy things in order to eat something symbolically, or try to observe something. I know a story of a rabbi from South America, whom the Lubavitch Rebbe told how important it was to persuade Jews to eat kosher meat. The rabbi was surprised: What’s the difference if the chicken is ritually slaughtered, if they mix milk and meat at home, or use non-kosher products?” The Rebbe replied that part of the psychological barrier in observing kashrut is the mistaken opinion that the taste of kosher meat is not right. And as soon as a person starts to try eating kosher meat, they will start to try something else, and gradually start to observe kashrut. This is what the Rebbe said, and we try to persuade people to eat kosher meat.
Krivoy Rog is the only city in Ukraine which allocated a budget to a Jewish school
Krivoy Rog is the only city in Ukraine that made the decision to turn a private school into a state school. Why do I say that it’s the only city? In Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov and other cities with a budget, Jewish schools were initially city schools, but in the 1990s they were transferred to communities to turn an ordinary state school into a Jewish school. We initially had a private school, a private building. As the Jewish children at our school have Ukrainian citizenship, the city decided that it would if possible also allocate the budget to the Jewish school. We can say thank you very much to the city that took this decision.
In small towns Jewish communities may disappear completely
Unless the state starts to take care of the future of small and medium towns in Ukraine, they will completely lose out to big cities, and become impoverished – without a future. Some towns have already turned into this! As the Jewish diaspora is an integral part of city life, we see today that the number of Jews is dropping in small towns especially young people [they migrate – L.L.]
So I believe that in small cities, with a population of less than half a million, in the near future Jewish communities may disappear completely. And in medium-size cities, where the population is from half a million to one million, the communities will exist depending on the financial capability of maintaining a family, receiving a decent education and a decent life. But this isn’t surprising, as today all over Europe and even in the American Jewish diaspora communities in small cities are disappearing, and becoming consolidated in large cities.
Our community practically feeds itself. That’s unique!
It’s a unique case among the communities of Ukraine, with the exception of big cities, where the population is better off than in Krivoy Rog. We are still one community, which supports itself. Although we don’t have as many well-off people in the city, as in Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov and Odessa, we have practically no money from abroad, and sponsors. The budget lies on the shoulders of 4-5 local sponsors.
In Krivoy Rog, families earn 8-9,000 hryvnia with their joint efforts, today this is not even $500. But despite their income, many of them understand the value of Tzedakah.
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