Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki – Rashi – the greatest Jewish biblical commentator of all
time, wrote a fascinating gloss to the word vayehen, which appears in Exodus
19:2: “vayehen-sham yisrael neged hahar,” “And the people of Israel encamped
before the mountain.” Prior to receiving the law on Mount Sinai, all the six
hundred thousand people of Israel who had departed from Egypt were commanded to
stand as one person opposite the mountain. Only thus would the Torah be for the
whole people. Therefore the word “vayehen” – encamped – appears in the
singular form, but the people in the plural form.
That was precisely my
feeling when I took part in the dedication ceremony in the Ukrainian city of
Dnepropetrovsk of the complex known as the Menorah Center. This
extraordinary edifice is not only the largest Chabad center but also the largest
Jewish center in the world.
The complex is made up of seven buildings
covering 54,000 sq.m., with an amphitheater, dining room and a wedding hall,
each able to accommodate 1,000 people; the largest Holocaust Museum in the
Former Soviet Union, a vast study hall (Beit Midrash) a five-star hotel and
During my lifetime I have visited hundreds of Jewish sites
throughout the world and in the FSU in particular, but I have never seen such an
extraordinary complex of buildings and I doubt if I will ever do so again. I am
still overwhelmed by what I saw. From the air, the building takes the shape of a
seven-branched candelabrum; one of the buildings is 20 stories tall.
the dedication ceremony, all the Jewish institutions of Dnipropetrovsk,
including Hillel, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee and other Jewish institutions from the length and breadth of the FSU
entered as “one people.” This evident miracle is to the credit of the local
Chabad rabbi, Shmuel Kaminetzky, who succeeded in bringing all the institutions
together under one roof in the city where the late Lubavitch rabbi, Menachem
Mendel Schneerson, was born.
Among the guests were the Sephardi chief
rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein,
philanthropists Gennady Bogolyubov and Igor Kolomoyskyi, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky,
the chief of the 4,300 Lubavitch movement emissaries (“shluchim”) world-wide,
the governor of the province and the mayor of the city, Israel’s ambassador to
Ukraine, Reuven Din-El and hundreds of members of the Ukrainian Jewish
The extraordinary thing is that the 35,000 members of the
Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk, out of the 100,000 in all Ukraine, managed
to accomplish such an outstanding and ambitious undertaking.
knowledge of Russian-speaking Jews, dating from the 1990s when I headed the
first Jewish Agency delegation to the FSU, and even before that, I am not
surprised. The strength of this community is magnificent by any standard
and the Menorah Center has no parallel, not in Israel, not in the USA, nor
There are those, including Rabbi Kaminetzky, who maintain
that under Israel’s Law of Return there might be as many as one million Jews in
Ukraine, and that Dnipropetrovsk has taken over the Jewish hegemony from Kiev
the capital of Ukraine and possibly even from Moscow.
Anyone who sees the
complex just from the outside will not be able to comprehend the beauty of the
interior, which left all of us in a state of astonishment.
ceremonial cutting of the ribbon, the first people to enter the building were
Rabbi Amar with Rabbi Kotlarsky, Lev Leviev, chairman of the Or Avner
Foundation, Minister Edelstein, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the
Western Wall, together with the governor and the mayor.
them, we saw the astonishment on their faces which was soon matched by our own.
The interiors are spectacular, and the most moving of all to my mind is a museum
to the memory of the Ukrainian Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
an Israeli Jew, felt enormous satisfaction in witnessing the way the local
Jewish community has gathered its forces together to construct a living and
breathing witness to the strength and revival of Jewish religion and culture in
a land in which Judaism had been all but wiped out. Indeed one of the seven
wonders of the Jewish world.
The author is the founder of Limmud in the
former Soviet Union.