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The wife of the chief rabbi of Odessa: 20 years ago we simply wanted for Jews to come to the synagogue

Chaya Wolf discusses the move to southern Palmira, the development of the local community, bringing up children, and macaroni with boiled eggs

It’s always interesting to talk to a rabbi. And it’s even more interesting to talk to a rabbi’s wife!

So a journalist from JewishNews.com.ua went to visit Rebbetzin Chaya Wolf, the wife of the chief rabbi of Odessa and South Ukraine Avroom Volf.

Chaya, please tell us what it means to be a Rebbetzin. What do you do?

In Yiddish, “Rebbetzin” means the wife of a rabbi. In Hebrew, the word is “Rabbanit”. The rabbi is the face of the community. He takes care of everything: he must invite people to the community, build the synagogue, create conditions so that there is a Torah and prayer books at the synagogue, electricity and water, heating and air-conditioning, so that everything is clean and comfortable. Additionally, if we raise children in the Jewish way, the community must have kindergartens, a school and university. As a couple, we do everything together, but we divide responsibilities, of course. For example, the rabbi raises money, and I spend it.

Like in a family…

Yes. The rabbi is in charge of the community, everyone comes to him with questions about Jewish tradition and laws. I am more involved in women’s issues. You could say that our job includes a number of professions – we are organizers, educators, psychologists and matchmakers. We carry out many functions in Odessa, although in Israel this is all divided. There is a ravvinat there responsible for chuppah, divorces and religious issues. And there is an education ministry responsible for issues of education. In Odessa we are responsible for everything that concerns the community.

How long does your working day last?

24 hours a day. Usually I am at the office from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, and after that I’m at home.

But in the evening, when you’re with your family, can you finally turn off your phone and relax?

There are things that are decided in the evening – for example, issues of mikvah. In the evening, birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs are held, in which we try to take part, and evening lessons.

You were born in Israel, weren’t you?

Yes, but 21 years ago, three months after I got married, my husband and I moved to Ukraine. First we lived in Kherson, and in 1998 my husband became the head of the Odessa Jewish community.

You arrived in a city of former Jewish glory and collapsed infrastructure. What was the first thing you did?

We began to study the synagogue building at 21 Osipova Street, and examined the basement – we were interested to find out whether there was a mikvah there. We repaired the synagogue. And the local specialist Alexander Rozenboim (unfortunately he passed away recently) found archive documents and discovered amazing things. It turned out that my great grandfather Zushi Firdman was the chief rabbi in this synagogue. My grandfather also worked there.

How did your parents react to the news that you became the Rebbetzin of the synagogue where your great-grandfather and grandfather worked?

My grandfather Aaron Khazan cried, when we showed him a video of bringing the Torah scroll to the synagogue. My mother said she had never seen him cry like that in her life. Even when people tried to take his children from him.

What happened?

In the 1950s, our family moved to Moscow – they thought it would be easier to leave for Israel from there. My grandfather didn’t let his children go to school on Shabbat, and the headmaster and teachers insisted that they study on Saturday. Once the children put a bandage on their arm – they said they had a fracture, so they couldn’t write on Saturday. Another time they said they were ill. But this didn’t work for long, the teachers understood the real reason for this behavior. They organized a commission, they summoned the parents to take the children from the family because of the “incorrect” upbringing. They spoke and condemned him, but at the end of the meeting my grandfather took the floor. He spoke frankly, with all his heart, and even ashamed the members of the commission. And a miracle occurred – the headmaster postponed the decision until a later date. And in 1966 the family was allowed to move to Israel.

Was it a large family?

Yes, 14 children, a total of 50 people.

Was the fact that the family was allowed to leave also a miracle?

At that period, tourists came to Moscow, and the authorities wanted to show them the synagogue without children. And without children, mikvahs, schools etc. are not needed. And once, when foreign tourists gathered at the synagogue, my grandfather specially came there with his small children. They spoke in Yiddish and prayed. The authorities didn’t arrest him – perhaps he was too much of a public figure. So they decided to get rid of the family by another way – they let them go to Israel.

When were your relatives killed?

In 1938. They were arrested as rabbis, and they disappeared. Now we’ve found documents that show that the brothers were shot three months after the arrest. But the family wasn’t told anything, they continued to send them parcels. You know, before the revolution in Odessa there were 83 synagogues and in each one there was a rabbi. All the synagogues were closed, and the rabbis were beaten, tortured and killed. My great-grandfather Zushi Fridman held a mourning ceremony for each synagogue that was destroyed. And then his heart couldn’t take it , and in 1936 he died.

Chaya, did your grandfather tell you anything about Odessa?

Grandfather Khazan recalled that 75 years ago, when my mother was three years old, two out of every three Odessans were Jews.

Chaya, you came to Ukraine 21 years ago. What was post-Soviet life like in this country? What amazed you most of all?

Strange things. Do you remember the 1990s? In Israel I was used to having a washing machine. But here you couldn’t even buy it for money. A child was born, and you needed pampers, there weren’t any. A lot of things were lacking.

How did you cope, as a young woman?

Not having a washing machine was a shock. I said that I couldn’t wash by hand and that I needed help. We didn’t have kosher dairy and meat products. For eight months we didn’t eat meat, chicken or milk, or dairy products in general. And do you remember what the vegetables were like 21 years ago? Tomatoes and cucumbers – for two months in the year. The rest of the time was potatoes, cabbage, turnips and carrots. That’s how we started. I began to learn Russian, we opened a school where I taught Hebrew. I taught with my fingers, with photographs, using gestures and pictures, and the children taught me Russian. These were very good lessons. After a year I could already speak Russian quite well.

Chaya, what tasks did you set yourself 20 years ago, and what are your tasks today?

20 years ago we simply wanted Jews to come to the synagogue, so that people realized they needed Jewish life. For them to take pride in being Jews, so they didn’t hide from this, so that they simply became familiar with the 613 commandments. I’m not saying they had to fulfill them, just learn about them. Many ;people say: “I don’t believe in God,” They don’t even know what God is. We were happy when people began to come to Shabbat, to holidays, then to send their children to kindergartens and schools. And we were very happy about the first weddings. Today this is no longer enough. It’s not enough for children to sing “Hava Nagila”, we want them to understand and carry out the commandments, so that weddings are celebrated according to all the laws. We have lessons of Torah, Talmud, Tanya, Chassidut, and 20 years ago we didn’t even dream that we would teach these books. We didn’t think that we would have to open a kollel and cheder. This seemed fantastic. Now people come and ask us, and we do this. Then they demanded kosher meat and kosher milk. I can say to myself: “There isn’t and there won’t be.” But people who start to fulfill and observe kashrut, I can’t say: “don’t feed your child non-kosher milk.” Although as you see my elder sons Mendel and Leivik have grown up to be healthy and strong.

It’s hard to fight the urge to eat well.

I remember guests visited us and brought sweets from Israel, but the children didn’t eat them. They were surprised: “Don’t your children want them?” I explained that the children simply didn’t know what they were. Give them macaroni and boiled eggs. That’s food!

Chaya, what family principles do you nurture in your children?

We should live for the sake of others. We should think about our neighbors, and the child sitting at the same desk as us. If she or he doesn’t know something, then we should teach and explain. At the same time, you should understand that a child may have a different way of thinking. You must take a person the way they are. Today many people put their “I” in the center. And we say – no, I’m not in the center. When there are many children in the family, egoism doesn’t come. This is what I was given in my family. I saw that my parents always thought about others.

And last of all, I can’t resist asking a tricky question. Chaya, who is the most important person in a Jewish family?

According to the Torah, the question “who’s most important” doesn’t arise. In a Jewish family, everyone carries out their own function – as the Almighty created us equal. My husband is responsible for the spiritual path of the family, the wife for the atmosphere in the home. The husband does what he promised according to the chuppah: to feed and take care of his wife. The wife gives birth to the children and brings them up, she is responsible for the next generation. We see that all over the world most teachers in schools are women, and leaders and ministers are men. We are different, we must value what we have, understand what our goals are, and move towards them carefully and properly – to build a strong, eternal Jewish house together.