«Jewish Observer»
May 2002
5762 Iyar

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After 70 years of desolation and ruins the Central Synagogue of Vinnitsa functions again. It has become our Community House today.

Let's have a look at the history. The Vinnitsa merchant Yakov-Mendel Livshits and his wife Haya founded the synagogue in 1904. One of the eminent architects of the time Nikolai Artynov designed its building with wonderful domes, elegant window apertures - true works of art. It looks majestic on the photo in the magazine "Bezbozhnik" of 1929 - the mouthpiece of militant atheists, though the photo depicts a meeting of the "Jewish working people" demanding to close down the temple.

Namely the Vinnitsa central synagogue fell prey to a mighty march of the Soviet power against religion in late 1920s. The synagogue was closed down in accordance with the decision by the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee (AUCEC) from March 14, 1929. It should be noted that all 13 synagogues in Vinnitsa were closed down at this very period. Since that day the Soviet power owned the building. The building served the interests of the alternating city leadership. The former synagogue was to become a cultural center, philharmonic society puppet theatre.

Under the German occupation an evil fate made the synagogue's cellar a warehouse, where the fascists used to bring clothes and belongings of the Jews shot dead. After the war a religious Jewish life went "underground", being periodically attacked by the authorities. A widely planned blow of the Soviet power at religious communities came in 1953, right after Stalin's death. The Vinnitsa residents well remember a noisy trial over the "anti-Soviet group of Jewish clericals".

As a result, the oldest members of the Jewish religious community were arrested. The literature, religious objects with the Jewish symbolism available in their houses - this was considered anti - Soviet activity and Zionism against which the Soviet power was waging an ardent struggle. Fate smiled at us only after Ukraine became independent. In 1992 the President of Ukraine signed the Decree that envisages transferring synagogues into the ownership of religious communities. Though, the community became the synagogue's owner only in 1996. I happened to look to the return of the synagogue to our Jewish community. We succeeded in that because, probably, I headed the city council deputy commission on glasnost and legality. I won't dwell much on all hardships on the way to the return of the synagogue to our community. I will only mention that the city executive committee considered this question eight times !!! In 1995 the city Jews did me an honor and elected the head of the Jewish community.

We started reviving a totally devastated and semi-ruined building. Rabbi Leibl Surkis and the "Joint" helped us at this stage having rendered a financial support.

Finally, in 1997 on Rosh a-Shana our synagogue opened its doors, and a prayer gratifying God and people for its revival reached the high dome. We faced the choice: either to take an exclusively religious way, or the synagogue will also fulfil the role of an cultural educational center, will become our Community house. We decided on the latter and created a model of reviving religious and social cultural life of the Jews in Vinnitsa through the Central Synagogue - our Community house.

Lots of people attend the synagogue every Sabbath. The chapel has everything necessary for religious rites. The Torah roll handed over to the synagogue from a small settlement of Chernevtsy is over 100 years. Boris Shaperstein holds sermons because Rabbi Leibl Surkis seldom arrives from a far America. That's why the main question we try to solve with Yaakov Dov Bleich is a Rabbi permanently residing in Vinnitsa.

Easter Seders have gathered this year many people. What is remarkable- not only the elderly gathered at table, but the young as well. The religious organization "Esh a-Torah" managed to bring them to the synagogue. Our library has 10 thousand volumes of books, 40 magazines, rich video and audio materials, collections of ancient records. Many religious books can be found there. We are proud of our club "Yiddishkite" where people learn religious foundations and traditions of our people, return to the Jewish life.

Every Sunday people attend lectures. Their themes are diverse. Igor Desner does press reviews, professor Balitsky delivers lectures on the international situation, which gather many listeners and end up in discussions. The audience is always looking forward to the lectures by Faina Vinokurova, the deputy director of the Vinnitsa regional archives. History and traditions of the Jews in Podolia, the Holocaust in the Vinnitsa region - these are only a few of her interesting reports. On the recommendation of our community she participated in a number of conferences on Holocaust, the last of which took place in Oxford where she made a report "Holocaust in the Vinnitsa region".

Our community house is home to a dance group "Mikol Halev". The group performs Hasid, Israeli, ancient Jewish dances. We also have our own theater. It stages plays by Sholom - Allechem, Mendel Moiher Sforim, Perets Markish. Our theater is the only national theater in the region with the people's title, which testifies to its professional level.

Foe already almost a year our Community house hosts a klezmer ensemble "Pereplyot" ("Binding") which performs musical works and melodies of different peoples. Last June this collective became the winner of the regional festival "We all are your children, Ukraine". Though, not everything is so nice and bright. Problems do exist.

Vinnitsa is home to three and a half thousand Jews, which is less than 1% of the total population. Nonetheless, beside the Central Synagogue and Community House in the Sobornaya street 62, there is also a hesed, city community, cultural organization "Mishpaha" financed by the "Joint" and 5(!) religious communities. Our Central Synagogue functions at the expense of voluntary donations not so easy to find. Tsdaki of the parishioners and Yaakov Dov Bleich's support is not enough for active work. Whereas the "Joint" renders us no assistance despite the fact our synagogue is attended by the hesed patients among whom there are quite a few prisoners of ghettos and death camps, war and labor veterans.

We do not know the reason but this is unlikely a policy of such respected organization as the "Joint". We, most surely, have here personal likings and disliking of separate functionaries - a typical thing in "Judaic wars". God bless, we live in the country which is on the road of democratic developments, where people are not prosecuted for their beliefs. Jewish organizations, including religious communities, grow like mushrooms. It is good when communities and synagogues are created and opened out of true religious feelings. It is very bad, and there are quite a few of such facts, when this is done to receive sponsors' money, which then is pocketed by separate leaders. But despite all these upheavals of the Jewish life, the Vinnitsa Judaic religious community is open for cooperation with everybody who really aspires to bring good and peace to people.


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© 2002 Jewish Confederation of Ukraine - www.jewukr.org