Rabbi Aaron Bisno will never forget that apartment in Kiev.
It was cold and drafty with water stains on the walls and ceilings. A mother and daughter called it home, but the girl was home alone at nights while the mother worked.
Not an easy existence.
American Jews don’t fully appreciate how difficult the lives of Jews in Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet Union can be, Bisno lamented.
“I don’t think we understand that at all,” he said. “We can little imagine until we’ve been in one of those apartments.”
That’s one reason why the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of North America led an eight-day trip to Kiev and Israel, to show more than 30 rabbis who came along the work JFNA and its overseas partners, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel, are doing to support Ukrainian Jews in Ukraine and Israel (for those who make aliya).
Bisno was one of three Pittsburgh rabbis on the trip. The other two were Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation and Chuck Diamond, its current spiritual leader.
“To identify as Jewish [in Kiev] and know people on the other side of the world care about you because of that, it’s a story we don’t all appreciate,” Bisno said.
That mother and daughter in the drafty Kiev apartment are beneficiaries of global Jewish support. The girl gets weekly dance classes, and the family gets extra food to sustain itself.
While Bisno noted some of the struggles Ukrainian Jewry face, Diamond shared another side to the Ukrainian Jewry story.
“I experienced what I believe is a miracle,” he said. “After all the history of Jews in the former Soviet Union in that part of the world, attempts by Hitler to eradicate the Jews, the community was wonderful; there was a revival of the Jewish community in Ukraine and Kiev, and by young and old a thirst for all things Jewish.”
Anti-Semitism still exists in Ukraine, Diamond acknowledged, but it hasn’t stopped the growth of Jewish life in Kiev.
“I got the impression of a vibrant Jewish community,” he said. “We ate in kosher restaurants; we visited people of all ages — from preschool to senior citizens — and it was very inspiring, I have to tell. In a few places, I was able to get some singing and dancing going. It was wonderful.”
He said he was “a better rabbi” for making the trip.
The size of the Ukrainian Jewish community is hard to gauge. Various reports put the number between 84,000 and 112,000, consisting primarily of elderly who survived the Holocaust and communism, and young people just now discovering their Jewish roots.
Bisno called quantifying the community “a demographer’s nightmare.”
Berkun, whose family came from Kiev, and was making his second trip to the Ukrainian capital in six months (the first was to install the first Conservative rabbi there), touted the JDC’s efforts to connect on a human level with the city’s elderly Jews.
He particularly noted two programs: “Warm Houses,” which matches elderly Jews every Wednesday in one’s apartment for refreshments and fellowship, and the “chesed centers,” which provide hot meals, food packages and access to caseworkers.
“It’s amazing to see the work they’re doing,” said Berkun, who made this most recent trip with his son, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun of Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, Aventura, Fla. “They’re keeping Jewish life alive; they’re helping people to recognize their Jewish ideas. We met so many Jews who didn’t know they were Jews until their teenage years.”
While in Kiev, the Berkuns met with a cousin. She recently made aliya to Israel, but returned to Ukraine when the chief rabbinate refused to convert her husband, despite years of yeshiva study, due lack of proper documentation of his heritage.
“They felt they could live more freely as Jews in Kiev than they could if they stayed in Israel,” Berkun lamented. He noted that some 300,000 Ukrainian immigrants to the Jewish state face the same issue.
Diamond described how another Ukrainian woman they met in Beer Sheva broke into tears as she described the trials of her conversion experience.
On another issue, Diamond noted that two female rabbis in the group were briefly detained on the last day of the trip when they chose to pray with Women of the Wall at the Kotel (Western Wall), while the rest of the group was meeting with Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and Ron Dermer, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has tasked Sharansky with mediating an agreement between Women at the Wall, who sing, wear tallit and read Torah when they worship at the Kotel and ultra-Orthodox worshippers, who consider such manner of worship by women an abomination.
That the rabbis were meeting with Sharansky and Dermer while some of their own were being detained, Diamond said, was “clearly ironic.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)