Ukrainian government returns Torahs confiscated by Communists

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December 14, 2015 03:31

"This is a real miracle of Hanukka," says Brodsky Choral Synagogue’s Rabbi Moshe Azman.

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UKRAINIAN OFFICIALS return the Torah scrolls to the Brodsky Choral Synagogue in Kiev on Thursday.

UKRAINIAN OFFICIALS return the Torah scrolls to the Brodsky Choral Synagogue in Kiev on Thursday.. (photo credit:ROMAN VILENSKI)

They came dancing into the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, a giant Romanesque building in downtown Kiev, tallit-covered Torah scrolls in their arms. Some 80 years after the communist rulers of what was then a Soviet republic confiscated the holy books in a crackdown on religious freedom, senior administration officials and lawmakers brought them back.

Thursday’s delegation included Boris Lozhkin, the director-general of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine; Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko; Oleg Lyashko, leader of the Radical Party; and 70 parliamentarians.

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“I am proud to return these Torah scrolls to the Jewish community. They belong to you,” Petrenko told attendees, including community leaders and Israeli Ambassador Eliav Belotserkovsky.

Thursday’s ceremony comes only weeks before President Petro Poroshenko is expected to arrive in Jerusalem for a state visit, and marks the end of a multiyear legal saga that pitted the capital’s Jewish community against their government.

“The return of the Torah scrolls is a real miracle of Hanukka,” Moshe Azman, the rabbi of the synagogue and the head of one of Kiev’s two Chabad hassidic communities, told attendees. “We are witnessing an independent Ukraine overcome the totalitarian past and build a free future.”

After a wave of protests and street battles swept pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich from power in early 2014, Moscow has vociferously accused the post-revolutionary government of fascism and anti-Semitism.

While such claims have been forcefully disputed by both local Jewish leaders and the government, several moves – such as the appointment of a suspected neo-Nazi to a senior police position and the passage of a bill extending recognition to a nationalist militia that collaborated with the Nazis – have raised questions about Kiev’s commitment to combating racism.

Meanwhile, nearly a year after announcing that it would appoint a special envoy to monitor anti-Semitism, the Foreign Ministry still has not filled the position.

Asked if he believed that the return of the scrolls was motivated by a desire by Poroshenko to curry favor with the Israelis prior to his trip, Azman replied in the negative, telling The Jerusalem Post that “we have been working for a long time to get them back.”

“There is no connection. We pushed to get them back.”

He recalled having received 18 other scrolls from the Kiev Archive during the Yanukovich period, stating that recovering such artifacts is a “hard bureaucratic situation.”

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk only signed the order to release the scrolls the day before the ceremony, he said.

According to Israeli-Ukrainian journalist Shimon Briman, much of the credit for the return of the scrolls belongs to lawmaker Georgy Logvinsky, who used his close connections with the Justice Ministry to push for their return.

As for any political implications, he speculated that Yatsenyuk’s willingness to return the scrolls could be seen as the prime minister scoring political points against Poroshenko purposefully prior to the latter’s Israel trip.

Despite last week’s ceremony, however, further scrolls are still being held in government archives across the country, Briman added.

During the event, Lyashko called for streets named after communists to be renamed after former prime minister Golda Meir, who was born in Kiev, and Ukrainian Jewish Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Community leaders honored a Jewish soldier killed last year while fighting for Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk.

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