A letter from the Ukraine

a pilgrimage to jabotinsky's Odessa reveals it is now built on a Chabad foundation.

Boxer 298 (photo credit: )
Boxer 298
(photo credit: )
In the warm air of an early summer evening, Arcadia - a tree-lined seaside promenade in Odessa - appears like a strangely magical theme-park filled with garish allusions to the city's cosmopolitan roots. Walking down the dark boardwalk lined with nightclubs, we stop at the entrance to Ithaca, a massive Greek temple whose pediment is illuminated by blinking neon lights. Schneur Wigler, the young Chabad rabbi who greeted me at the airport less than an hour earlier, seems to remember that the club's owner is a local Jew who has affixed a mezuza to its doorway. He goes over to the entrance to inquire. The bouncers look him up and down and grin knowingly at one another, pointing to another nightclub next door. A 14-year-old student at the Ohr Avner School, the Chabad day school Wigler teaches at, passes by on his way to one of the discotheques down the road. When he spots his teacher, he comes over to say hello. "Did you put on tefillin today?" Wigler asks affectionately, slapping his student on the shoulder as they part. We walk over to a nearby concession stand. Politely refusing the non-kosher glass, Wigler sits down at a plastic table and says a blessing over his can of coke. "There's room for holiness in Arcadia, too," he says, smiling, as he sips the soft drink straight out of the can. For Ze'ev Jabotinsky, writing in the 1930s about turn-of-the-century Odessa, the entire city was an Arcadia of sorts, which harbored within the seeds of its own demise. In his achingly beautiful novel, The Five, the father of revisionist Zionism offered an elegiac account of Jewish life in his native city. Told through the prism of one Bohemian Jewish family, the Milgroms, the novel narrates the brief rise and ultimate fall of an assimilated Jewish milieu in the decade and a half before the Russian Revolution. In a wistful tone, it evokes a vibrant, cosmopolitan world that is gone by the time the novel ends. It was the world of Jabotinsky's The Five, rather than that of Schneur Zalman's Chabad school, that initially sparked my interest in Odessa. Yet despite the strangely enchanted atmosphere of Odessa's nightlife district, there was little point in pretending I was visiting the same city inhabited by Jabotinsky's protagonists - a city of raucous nighttime adventures, literary debates and moonlit boat rides. I had come looking for an enchanted fin-de-si cle European city. Instead, I was wandering through a post-Soviet resort town in the company of a fellow Israeli traveler and a bearded young rabbi from Jerusalem. Even the opera house where the novel's protagonist first falls in love with the bewitching Marusya, the oldest of the Milgrom children, was closed for renovation, as I discovered the following day. Accompanied by an entourage of Chabad emissaries, I spent the day visiting newly-built schools and community centers, renovated synagogues and orphanages. LOCATED ON the shore of the Black Sea in southern Ukraine, Odessa was a regional center of active Jewish life for approximately two hundred years. Before World War II, half a million Jews lived in the city, which boasted dozens of synagogues and active Jewish cultural centers. With the rise of Communism, this golden age of Ukrainian Jewry waned. By the end of WWII, thousands of local Jews had been killed by the Nazis, thousands more fled the city and Jewish communal life was completely silenced. Historically, Odessa was home to the least religious, most liberal Jewish community in czarist Russia. A Yiddish saying, pronounced disapprovingly by Orthodox Jews, decreed that "The flames of hell begin flickering 50 kilometers outside of Odessa." Jabotinsky was a man with a sense of both history and humor. If he could visit Odessa today, he would no doubt be struck and saddened by the total destruction of the world whose disappearance he already mourned some 70 years ago. Yet he would also probably appreciate the ironic workings of history, which has determined that the revival of Jewish life in his native city be largely the work of Orthodox Jews sent from Israel at the behest of a Brooklyn-based Hassidic rabbi. Today, the Jewish community in Odessa numbers some 80,000 members. Like elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the rebirth of Jewish activities, institutions and religious services in the city has been largely the work of Chabad. Over the past decade, the movement has expanded throughout the FSU, becoming the leading force in the Federation of Jewish Communities there and emerging as the mainstream Jewish denomination in the FSU. The rebirth of a Chabad-based Jewish community in the city started some 13 years ago in Kherson, a provincial town some 220 kilometers southeast of Odessa on the coast of the black sea. In 1993, Rabbi Avraham Wolf, today the rabbi of Odessa and of southern Ukraine, and his brother Yosef-Yitzhak, today the rabbi of Kherson, were two young, unmarried Chabad emissaries who arrived in the town with the Lubavitcher Rebbe's blessing. In the fashion typical of Chabad shelihim the world over, their first stop was the place where they felt they were most likely to find local Jews. "We figured that anyone buying fish on a Friday morning was probably Jewish," Avraham Wolf remembered over lunch at Odessa's only kosher restaurant, which he recently encouraged a local Jew to open. Frequented by Jews and non-Jews alike, it offers an eclectic combination of "Jewish" food ranging from tri-color bagels to me'urav yerushalmi, a Jerusalem street food described on the menu as an exotic concoction "of the Arabian desert." "And so we headed for the local fish market," Wolf continued. "We were two young guys who spoke no Russian, walking up to people we thought might be Jewish and gesturing at our beards and at them, trying to explain that we were Jewish and to ask whether they were Jewish, too." When Avraham and his wife Chaya moved to Odessa seven years ago, the couple immediately advertised that a Jewish school would open at the beginning of the new school year, which was a mere three months away. With no building or staff to speak of, they began registering students. "We had hardly slept in three months. At a certain point, we began to wonder out loud whether we were making a mistake," he recalled. Shortly before the school year opened, with 61 pupils already registered, the Wolfs found a building, a principal and an initial teaching staff. Today, the Ohr Avner Chabad Educational Complex is a broad Jewish educational network that offers a tuition-free, rigorous general and Jewish education and two meals a day to hundreds of children. Over the past seven years, the school has launched several new branches, opened Jewish kindergartens and developed a teaching methodology and programs for in-depth Jewish studies. Kherson now boasts a newly reactivated vast Soviet-era shipyard, a thriving matchmaking business for foreigners looking for Ukrainian brides and - most recently - the city's first Jewish mayor, Vladimir Saldo. EVEN AFTER knowing him for the past 13 years, however, locals still stop to stare when Rabbi Yossi Wolf - a corpulent, jovial redhead in his early 30s - walks with his sons to the local synagogue dressed in his Sabbath gabardine. Yossi, his wife Chaya and their six children live in a dilapidated Soviet-era building, in a crowded apartment that consists of three small bedrooms and a room dominated by a vast dining room table and a photograph of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Like other young Chabad emissaries, they left Israel after their wedding with a one-way ticket to the Ukraine, where they plan to remain indefinitely. "My mission is to give every Jew who lives here and who wants to live as a Jew the maximum, including advice about where to settle in Israel," Wolf said as we drove up to the lawn of the local Ohr Avner school, where a group of 20-something local Jews was getting ready for a barbecue late one afternoon. "It may have seemed at one point like we were competing with the Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency, but without the Jewish education we give, Israel would simply be a stop on the way of many immigrants to the West," he reasoned. "Today, the agency supports Chabad schools, and we have positions subsidized by the Israeli Education Ministry. They have come to understand the idea of investing in the local community. When a Jew here sees me, he knows I'm not here for two years. I've tied my fate to this place." Like their relatives in Odessa, the Wolfs in Kherson run a network of religious, social and educational services, which in many ways are centered upon the local Ohr Avner School. As in Chabad schools throughout the FSU, the majority of the children come from secular homes, more often than not homes where only one parent is Jewish. "We have to accept that there are mixed marriages, because virtually all the children come from such families," Yossi Wolf said. "What do you want me to do with a kid who gets presents under the Christmas tree? Tell him not to talk to his father?" Yet despite the movement's so-called "philosophy of inclusion," in order to qualify for entrance to the schools, the children must have a Jewish mother. This is, indeed, one of the criticisms most often leveled against Chabad - not least by Jewish fathers whose families suffered and struggle to practice their Judaism despite widespread persecution, only to discover, when they wanted to bring their children closer to their religion, that the community's Jewish officials did not consider them to be Jews. Chabad emissaries are strikingly open and accepting of the levels of observance and assimilation that characterize the lives of Jews in their communities. Paradoxically, however, their strict adherence to Jewish law trumps their openness on this one crucial issue. "We are not here to foster more assimilation," Chaya Wolf said, putting an end to the conversation. THE INITIAL infrastructure for new Jewish communities throughout the FSU is subsidized by the Federation of Jewish Communities, which is presided over by the Israel-based business magnate Lev Levayev. After they settle down, Chabad emissaries are expected to gradually become financially self-sufficient, by charging for certain community services and creating a network of community-based donors. A native of Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, Levayev - in conjunction with other key members of the FJC - provides massive financial support to each Chabad-based Jewish community. In addition, he personally funds a large part of the infrastructure in the various communities, with a special emphasis on educational activities. The Ohr Avner schools are named after Levayev's father, a rabbi who risked his life to raise his son as a Jew during the communist era. Overall, his annual contribution is estimated at approximately $50 million. In 1990, Levayev flew to New York to ask for the Lubavitcher Rebbe's blessing for expanding his business empire to the FSU. "He changed the subject, and began talking about Jewish heritage," Levayev recalled several weeks ago in his offices at the Ramat Gan diamond exchange. "He told me to take upon myself the responsibility for Jewish education in the FSU, and assured me that my business there would also do well." For Levayev, the chief purpose of this community-building strategy in general, and of educational initiatives in particular, is to prevent further assimilation among Jews in the FSU, and to raise a generation that knows what it means to be Jewish and is proud of its heritage. "The investment in education is an investment in getting them to come to Israel," he said. "But above all, we want them to be proud Jews." If this is the measure of Chabad's success, it seems like they do indeed succeed in getting local Jews to experience a newfound sense of pride in their Jewish identity. THE YOUNG men and women assembled on the lawn at the Jewish school in Kherson come there weekly for a workshop about Jewish life, which is taught by Chaya Wolf. On that particular afternoon, they were listening to a lecture about Jerusalem Day, delivered by a newly observant local Jew whose wife is the only convert to Orthodox Judaism I met during my trip. That night, in fact, she was scheduled to leave for Kiev, where she would undergo the official conversion ceremony. (The following day, a short text message flashed across Yossi Wolf's cellular phone screen, stating: "We Welcome Rivka to the Jewish People.") Critics of Chabad view its emissaries as a breed of proselytizers, out to convert the rest of the Jewish world to their way of life. Yet perhaps the single most interesting thing about the group of young people chatting on the lawn was how untroubled they were by such an idea. Sasha Tolokevich, a mother of two who moved back to Kherson after immigrating to Israel in 2000 has been attending the weekly meetings, for which participants receive a monthly stipend, after meeting the Wolfs last year. "It was the first time I met religious Jews," said Tolokevich, who spent her time in Israel living in Kiryat Ata. "Since I've met them, I've begun celebrating the holidays. And I really like talking with Chaya, and asking question about Jewish life and history. My daughter just had a naming ceremony at the synagogue, and I will definitely send her to the Chabad school. I don't care that they're religious. I come here because it's interesting, and I want my daughter to get a Jewish education. Of course they want us to be more Jewish, but they accept us the way we are." Dasha Krasko, a 23-year-old who attended the Chabad school in junior high and high school, similarly said she had never felt constrained to be religious. "My lifestyle may not be Jewish, but my mentality is," she said. When I asked her whether she was bothered by the fact that the school only accepted the children of Jewish mothers, she looked at me in surprise. "That's perfectly normal, given that it's a Jewish school, isn't it?" she said. Eight months pregnant with her seventh child, Chaya Wolf bid her students farewell as evening fell. "We offer the goods," she said, "whoever wants them can take them."