The Present Emerges from the Past: Lessons from Ukraine

Amy L. Sales, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Hornstein Program in Jewish Professional Leadership
Photo of Hornstein Student Group on Synagogue Steps

L-R Front: Hannah Gutterman, Julia Smirnova (BGI Fellow), Sami Stein, Dasha Privalko (guide); Middle: Jenny Kirsch, Monica Pevzner (BGI Fellow); Back: Rise Singer (staff), Matt Feinberg, Amy Sales (faculty), Mary Horrocks

During the February break, students in Brandeis University's Hornstein Program for Jewish Professional Leadership traveled to Kiev and Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine for a week-long seminar. The trip was jointly planned with Brandeis Genesis Institute and made possible by generous funding from the Genesis Philanthropy Group and support from Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. This was neither a tourist vacation nor a fundraising mission. Rather it was a professional development experience intended to broaden our students' perspective on world Jewry. The goal was to understand differences in how Jewish communities organize themselves and the role that history plays in creating these differences.

Next month, the seven participating students will graduate with a dual degree: a Master's in Jewish Professional Leadership and a Master's in Business Administration, Public Policy, or Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. Lessons from the Ukraine trip, including appreciation for the rich variety of Jewish life, will surely accompany them into the positions they will assume in the Jewish world.

Photo of Judaica shop, microloan recipient
Judaica Shop - Microloan Recipient

During our time in Ukraine, we met with community leaders and we visited social service, cultural, and educational programs. In Dnepropetrovsk, we learned about the Dnepropetrovsk Kehillah Project (DKP), funded by CJP and administered by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. This partnership, now celebrating its 20th year, has contributed to the renaissance of Jewish life in Ukraine and matches Boston Jewish agencies with programs in Dnepropetrovsk. For example, we went to a small Judaica shop in Dnepropetrovsk that exists only because of a microloan provided by the DKP in cooperation with Boston's Jewish Vocational Services.

In Dnepropetrovsk, we also saw the workshop of the seven sofrim who are scribing ketubot (wedding contracts) and the 1,400 scrolls for the mezuzahs that will be needed for the seven-tower, multi-function Menorah Center that will open there next fall. On Shabbat we were welcomed into the Golden Rose synagogue and into the home of its leader, Rabbi Kaminezki.

The forces of Communism, World War II and Nazism, and then the mass exodus to Israel after the 1991 revolution almost eradicated Jewish life in Ukraine. We certainly understood the devastation of history when we paid respects at the killing fields. We tried to comprehend the murder of 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar in September 1941 and that of another 10-12,000 Jews in Dnepropetrovsk that October. We met with scholars who are attempting to create a database of the thousands of Jewish cemeteries and killing fields in Ukraine, most of which we were told are in a state of disrepair. Cemeteries hold valuable clues to the history of the Jews in this region and cemetery fieldwork is used to stimulate the interest of students in this topic.

Within this historical context, we marveled at the miracle of the re-emergence of Jewish life in Ukraine. We were in century-old synagogues that during the Soviet years served as a storage space, a trade union hall, or a puppet theater. We met people who had gone to shows at this puppet theater as children but who now, as adults, are participants and leaders in the local Jewish community. We asked about those who had gone to Israel in the 1990's and learned that about 10% has returned to live in the Jewish communities of Ukraine.

Photo of Ukraine camping panel participants and student
Student Sami Stein with Kiev
Camping Panel Members

While history defines many of the differences between the North American and Ukrainian Jewish communities, the opportunities and challenges of contemporary organizational life define our similarities. Over dinner, leaders from Hillel and from Moishe House talked with us about fundraising, a clear common concern. During a group exercise with Jewish camp professionals in Kiev, we discovered that, despite significant differences in our camp programs, our enthusiasm for the power of a Jewish overnight camp experience was perfectly matched.

Much of our learning came through the personal stories of the people we met. We had tea with Rabbi Alex Dukhovny who told us about his mother, a Holocaust survivor; his father, a secular Jew; and his many years feeling ashamed of being Jewish. Like so many Russian Jews, he became an engineer but then, through a series of events, became a Jewish tour guide and a teacher in the synagogue school. He eventually went to rabbinical school, took on the pulpit in Kiev, and was elected Chief Rabbi of Progressive Judaism in Ukraine. He has been instrumental in growing the progressive movement to over 45 communities. At Beit Baruch, the Jewish community's assisted living facility in Dnepropetrovsk, we sat with a resident who recounted how he escaped from the ghetto during the war, lost his documents when the train he was on was bombed, was imprisoned, and somehow survived the impossible years of the war. Now widowed and 85 years old, he says the residence has prolonged his life and made him feel younger. He also confided that he has a 65 year old girlfriend there.

From such stories we learned of the resilience of individual Jews. We also learned of the capacity of the community to grow in richly diverse ways and to care for people throughout their lives. These were emotional lessons for us but also object lessons about the purpose of our own work.