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Judaism and Organized Jewish Movements in the USSR/CIS after World War II: The Ukrainian Case

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 11:1-2 (Spring 1999)


After the decades of discrimination against organized Jewish life in the Soviet Union, the present period shows creation and rapid development of Jewish national organizations and institutional infrastructure of Jewish communities in most of the post-Soviet states, including Ukraine. At the same time, there is an evident contradiction between an intensive “Jewish politics” within the community and wide representation of Jews among the local elite, on one hand, and a very poor representation of the Jewish population as an institutionalized ethnic group in the state political arena. The reason for this is found in the history of Jewish life in Soviet Ukraine after World War II, including the experience of the creation and existence of legal (state-sponsored), illegal (underground national and human rights organizations), and quasi-legal (religious communities) Jewish social institutions in a hostile social and political environment.

The breakdown of the USSR and the process of liberalization in Eastern Europe, which opened the gates for emigration, made a dramatic impact on the destiny of Soviet Jewry. Since then, the life of Eastern European Jewish communities has been dominated by two principal trends: mass emigration to Israel, the U.S.A., or countries of Europe, and attempts towards the revival and preservation of Jewish national?communal life in the successor states.

One of the results of both trends was the creation and rapid development of an impressive number of Jewish national organizations, institutions and structures. This was particularly surprising after the decades of almost total suppression of organized Jewish life and means of Jewish identification in the Soviet Union.

These organizations had to meet the challenge of new conditions of Jewish life in post?communist countries which included a demand for services normally provided by a Jewish community (education, welfare, synagogues, cultural activities, etc.) and a need for an adequate institutional framework which reflected local Jewish identity (whether ethnic nationalism, or cultural/religious affiliation). Finally, there was the need to present an adequate display of Jewish interests in the communal and national public square. These are just a few of the points needed to understand both East European “Jewish politics”1 and the character of post?Soviet Jewry which, until now, have never been properly discussed by researchers.


The Jewish Movement and the Public Square in Contemporary Ukraine

In spite of a decrease in contemporary Ukrainian Jewry (since the end of the 1980s, by 300,000 people – 78.6 percent due to emigration and 62,000 or 23.2 percent due to depopulation), the country is still the home of the fifth largest Jewish community in the world. At the same time, Jews are the third (after Ukrainians and Russians) largest ethnic group in Ukraine. At the moment, the “enlarged Jewish population” of Ukraine, that is, those who have the right to make aliya to Israel according to the Israeli Law of Return, is estimated at between 520,000 and 685,000 persons.2

In 1992, shortly after Ukrainian independence was declared in December 1991, there were more then 100 Jewish organizations. In 1993, Ukrainian Jews had about 150 organizations, while by the summer of 1994 there were more then 200. Currently, an incomplete list of Jewish organizations, establishments, and institutions in Ukraine includes 365 structures of different types. Jewish municipal communities (11 at the beginning of 1993, 16 by the middle of 1995, and 20 by the summer of 1997) are, of course, the most important.

Within the communities there are many types of Jewish entities and structures. Among them are various educational institutions, cultural societies, and clubs; humanitarian institutions (charitable societies, welfare foundations, and others); synagogues and religious communities (mainly Orthodox, but also Conservative and Reform); memorial societies and associations of ghetto and concentration camp survivors; youth, women’s, and sports associations; Jewish media associations (Jewish newspapers and other periodicals, as well as TV and radio programs); centers for promotion of aliya, Hebrew clubs, and Zionist groups, and many others. These structures are united into four “umbrella” organizations: the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (AJOCU), the Jewish Council of Ukraine (JCU), the Association of Jewish Religious Communities (AJRCU), and the All?Ukrainian Jewish Congress (AUJC).

Together with the trend toward cooperation between these organizations, it should be noted that the Jewish movement in contemporary Ukraine has many conflicts. These conflicts deal with such aspects of Ukrainian Jewish life as the construction of national communal institutions; the structure, character, and content of Jewish education; charity and social welfare issues; forms and priorities of redemption of the national culture; approaches to aliya, Israel, and the diaspora communities; representation of Jewish interests; rights for restitution of former Jewish properties; and many other issues. However, it is also true that the active institutionalization of the Jewish community and the intensive politics within it are evidently disproportional to the extremely modest influence of the organized Jewish movement on the national Ukrainian public arena. From this point of view, one should pay attention to a number of factors.

In the state political arena, the Jewish population, as an institutionalized ethnic group, is very poorly represented. It should be noted that the ethnic factor, which plays an important role in post?Soviet politics, transformed the many national?cultural organizations into political parties and movements. This statement is true both with regard to ethnic minorities and to dominant ethnic groups. For example, such widely?supported associations as the “Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society” or the “Society of Russian Language and Culture,” which were founded in Ukraine during perestroika, were later transformed into national liberal or radical organizations. There is, for instance, a Ukrainian Muslim party – an ethnic party of Crimean Tatars, created on the basis of an ethnic cultural movement.3

However, none of the Jewish organizations ever became a political party in order to gain official representation in the government. An analysis of the factors affecting the contemporary Ukrainian Jewish movement shows that a “niche” for the creation of party?type organizations does not exist in that country, which is the case in other post?Soviet states as well. This situation is mirrored by public opinion. Our census of the Jewish population of eastern Ukraine, conducted in the summer of 1993, showed that only 21 percent of the respondents supported the establishment of Jewish political parties. Thus, Jewish political organizations captured only last (tenth) place in the suggested list of organizations that would be “helpful and necessary to create,” and, at the same time, were at the top of the list of those whose existence “would be harmful to the Jewish community.”

It is evident that an appeal to Zionist tradition never brought about a revival of political institutionalization. The Zionist Federation of Ukraine was created in 1992, but was lacking in real mass support and organizational infrastructure, and represented the low level of legitimization of such institutions. The same could be said about Ukrainian branches of Israeli political organizations which work in the country mainly through their youth movements. Despite the fact that such movements as Kedma, Betar, Bnei Akiva, Ezra, and others are representative of the political spectrum in Israel, they consciously avoid party connotations in their activities, limiting their work to cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel in the field of national education and promotion of aliya.

This political objectivity is crucial for the political position of Ukrainian Jewish community leaders. Joseph Zissels, head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine – AJOCU, the largest Jewish organization in Ukraine, declared that “in principle, the registration of our own [Jewish] political party is not a problem, technically-speaking, and if needed, such a party will be created. However, at the moment the party is unlikely to bring any help to the community, since it does not correspond with social and political reality.”4

Vadim Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, answered the question of the “political position of Ukrainian Jewry” and ways of AUJC cooperation with electoral groups by saying that “every [Ukrainian] citizen of Jewish nationality…has the right to vote according to his or her choice. As far as our organization is concerned, it is our decision not to participate in supporting any specific party or movement. Nevertheless (and this should be taken as an official declaration of the Congress), we reserve the right to take a more active political position against the forces pushing us into the slough of anti-Semitism.”5

There was the case of Felix Milstein, then a popular chairman of the Odessa Jewish community, who ran in the municipal elections of 1994. Not only was he unable to garner the non-Jewish vote, but also a significant number of Jews did not vote for him, and so he lost.

This by no means reflects a disengagement of Jews from the center of power in the country. On the contrary, Jews are widely represented among city mayors, ministers, and deputy ministers, and in governing organs of the different parties, as well as among the business elite of Ukraine. To a larger extent, Jewish politicians and businessmen are involved in more informal elite groups. For instance, Vadim Rabinovich, who in addition to being AUJC president is also a multi-millionaire, like other businessmen of his caliber has personal political connections at the highest levels of power in the country. (Until recently, he was close to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and made major donations to Kuchma’s presidential reelection campaign.) At the same time, Rabinovich is also believed to have donated large amounts to the election campaign of former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, Kuchma’s leading rival. In addition, Rabinovich, and professional experts in his pay, played a key role in the impressive success of the Green Party of Ukraine in the 1998 parliamentary elections.6

However, Jews who are members of official and non-official political structures in both the national and regional arenas should not be regarded as representatives of the Jewish community. For example, the percentage of Jewish deputies in the Supreme Rada (parliament) of Ukraine is five times larger than the percentage of Jews in the general population. However, as noted by David Beinish, cultural attache at the Israeli embassy in Kiev, they “have little impact on the Ukrainian Jewish population.” According to him, since no politically representative Jewish community exists in Ukraine, “any impact on Jews will be very individual.”7

As far as most businessmen-turned-politicians are concerned, they are in politics in order to achieve personal, business, and political goals. This does not exclude the possibility of simultaneously effectively lobbying for Jewish community interests.8 However, Jewish Ukrainian politicians are less than interested in ethnic issues, and often have to take into account the realities of Ukrainian political culture which causes Jews in public and political positions to distance themselves from the organized Jewish movement.

Take, for example, the widely-publicized declaration of the head of the Odessa city administration, C. Gurvitz. Shortly after being elected to that position, Gurvitz openly stated that he sees himself as “mayor of all the citizens of Odessa and not only of the Jews.”9 Another example was the very publicized baptism of Demitry Tabachnic, a Jew who headed the office of the Ukrainian president. Tabachnic’s conversion, however, did not prevent his dismissal from that position shortly thereafter. In 1994, Efim Zvyagilsky, then acting prime minister of Ukraine, declared that “a Jew cannot be prime minister in a state with 52 million non-Jews. That would be a tragic mistake.”10

Not only has Ukrainian democracy not yet reached the level where the ethnic origin of a politician is a private matter, it is also a fact that Ukrainian society has very strict and traditional norms of legitimate ethnicity in the public square. After a short period of relaxation in 1990-1991, there are new signs of societal anti-Semitism. Together with the growing number of anti-Semitic articles, mainly in about ten right-wing newspapers (predominantly published in western Ukraine), observers have noted acts of vandalism in Jewish cemeteries, anti-Semitic slogans by some political parties in the course of their electoral campaigns, and the existence of some political groups and parties with an openly anti-Semitic platform. At the same time, public opinion is quite neutral to the establishment of Jewish structures in Ukraine.11 For example, a survey of the Ukrainian population carried out by Kiev researchers N. Panina and E. Golovaha showed that the number of those who would not oppose the existence of Jewish political parties was 1.5 times higher among Ukrainian Slavs than among Jews.12 Some Jewish institutions, such as schools, are even popular among the non-Jewish population.13

The new Ukrainian “establishment” is more ambivalent to the political institutionalization of the local Jewish community, and the situation in provincial towns is more problematic. In the majority of these places, the power still belongs to representatives of the traditional post-communist elite (though a bit reoriented to Ukrainian nationalist rhetoric), who still have their traditional attitudes toward the “Jewish question.” Panina and Golovaha, who interviewed 450 heads of local government organs in Ukraine regarding their views on Jewish communal institutions, got an impression that “local officials in the strongest positions are less tolerant [toward Jewish institutions].” However, upon analyzing the whole range of factors, the same researchers came to the conclusion that the opposition of local Ukrainian bureaucrats to the establishment of Jewish institutions should not be overestimated.14 As far as central power structures are concerned, their attitude to the Jewish movement and its institutions could be regarded as “careful but positive indifference.”15

Thus, the point is not the fact that the number of Jews in the local population (less than 1 percent) is small, which under other circumstances would not allow them to demand a visible role in national politics. The answer is not in the lack of intellectual, economic, or organizational resources in the community itself, and not in the lack of legitimacy of local and international Jewish communal and political institutions in the eyes of the government or of public opinion. The reason for the situation can be learned from historical experience and the specific features of the identity of Ukrainian Jewry, which influence their political behavior and legitimatize the means of their ethnic national identification.

It is well known that the overwhelming majority of local Jewish social, cultural, educational, and political structures, including religious communities and the strong Zionist movement, were destroyed by the end of the 1920s. The catastrophe of Ukrainian Jewry from the 1930s to the 1950s included the Hitlerian genocide of the Jewish population during World War II and the Stalinist terror in the pre- and post-war decades which delivered an enormous blow to the local Jewish community from which it was unable to recover. As a consequence, most of Ukrainian Jewry, as well as Soviet Jews in general, had to realize their adaptive potential, reconciling themselves to the negative affect of the environment, including administrative, political, and societal anti-Semitism.

In fact, the basic problem of Jewish life in post-war Ukraine was that of physical and ethnic survival. The choice of a solution to the problem also determined, in essence, the social behavior of Ukrainian Jewry. Orientation toward a model of physical survival meant that the individual, while retaining a certain Jewish consciousness, consented to the authorities’ exclusive right to determine the framework of identification. It also meant that the choice of assimilation was the sole legitimate form of integration into local society. Choosing the priorities of ethno-national survival meant an active search for means of expressing Jewish identity, and participation in the activities of national-cultural institutions and in the struggle for their existence. Under official state anti-Semitism, the latter was not very compatible with such aspects of physical survival as career, health, and a tranquil life. In addition, any attempt to combine both physical and ethnic survival sooner or later raised the question of emigration.

The political culture of Ukrainian Jews was created under the impact of their place in the social structure of Ukrainian society in general. The Jews belonged to the intelligentsia; they were a more urbanized, modern, and educated group in comparison with other ethno-social communities of Soviet Ukraine in the 1960s-1980s.16 The majority of Jews, like representatives of ethnic groups of a similar socio-economic status (and especially their intelligentsia), were among the segment of society which “traditionally was politically passive and indifferent to official ideology although it carried out the formal rituals of loyalty to the regime.”17Our research shows that the same value orientations existed in the 1990s.18

As a result, the former rich political tradition of Eastern European Jewry which had existed in Ukraine was almost totally lost.19 It is evident that if a trend toward the re-creation of such a tradition does exist, its practical realization is directed more toward emigration rather than toward local Jewish structures.20 A strong Zionist tradition, which existed in Ukraine in the first decades of this century, although never disappearing completely, went through a process of considerable transformation. Even during periods of growth of national consciousness (i.e., in the post-World War II period), the Zionism of even the most nationally oriented Ukrainian Jews was not so much an implanted ideology as something elemental or “earthy,” based on a feeling of an inner, emotional tie with Israel.21

Consequently, Jewish life in 1940s-1970s Ukraine not only did not develop beyond the traditional forms of Jewish self-organization, it was also unable to preserve those elements of traditional Jewish political culture that would be able to become a factor in establishing modern Jewish political parties in Ukraine, or to re-create those that existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Jewish Institutions in Post-War Ukraine:
Political Experience and Contemporary Implications

The political culture of Ukrainian Jewry and its social consciousness are within the political norms and standards of Jewish life which were formed during the critical post-World War II years. The local Jewish movement of that period is traditionally regarded as the sum manifestation of Jewish nationalism, including Zionist activity, Habad and other Jewish religious movements, and institutionalized forms of secular (i.e., Yiddish) nationalism.22 At the same time, official state anti-Semitism promoted excessive reaction by the Soviet establishment to any manifestation – be it political, social, professional, or cultural – of anything Jewish. Such manifestations consequently acquired a certain political connotation. For this reason, the post-World War II Eastern European Jewish movement may be understood as a political expression of the dynamics of the behavior of Jews as a social group deriving from the specific features of their ethno-cultural, legal, and socio-economic status.

It should be noted that Jewish life in Ukraine (as well as in Eastern Europe in general) preserved, in a specific form, the models of Jewish political leadership and the Jewish political tradition as a whole. These models are usually conceptualized as “three domains” – of civil rule, Torah, and priesthood.23 The legal, illegal, and quasi-legal Jewish social institutions, which existed at the time, also corresponded to these three models.

The first model was represented by the official Jewish structures created by the communist authorities. Their evolution followed the route from the Evsektsiia’s Communist Party committees of the 1920-1930s,24 and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (EAK) of the 1940s, to the complete parody of Jewish representation in the form of the Ukrainian anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public. (The latter was created in 1983 in Ukraine along the model of the Moscow structure.)25These structures were no more than surrogate Jewish national institutions. The minimal attempts of organizations, such as the EAK, to go beyond their assigned framework of controlled publicity were immediately and harshly suppressed.26

The CPU undertook its final attempt to create “pocket” Jewish structures in the form of societies for Jewish culture in the wake of perestroika. In many ways, this represented the communist establishment’s response, at a time when it was losing its power, to the need to change the regime’s image and, consequently, the priorities of its Jewish policy. In the late 1980s, Ukrainian communist leaders considered that such a policy “in the current difficult and contradictory situation…would deprive some independent movements of the aura of sole defenders, of both Jews and people of other nationalities living in Ukraine.”27 Not long before he was removed from the post of first secretary of the CC CPU in 1989, Vladimir Shcherbitskii reported to Mikhail Gorbachev on his “successes” in setting up Jewish and other national-cultural organizations.28

Together with these legal institutions, some illegal independent Jewish institutions also existed in post-war Ukraine and constituted a third group of Jewish structures. In that period, with an almost total absence of opportunities for political institutionalization (formal or informal), an independent Jewish movement in the republic was represented by a small number of underground groups of activists struggling for aliya, as well as for national and civil rights. Their leaders, mainly “prisoners of Zion,” were a kind of “prophetic” elite of the Jewish movement and provided a certain type of ideological leadership.

Attempts to create illegal Jewish structures were already being undertaken in the 1940s and 1950s. Material gathered by the NKGB (the People’s Commissariat of State Security) during the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1940s-1950s mentions the existence of organizations, youth groups, and Zionist circles such as the Zhmerinka group, the Lvov Union of Jewish Youth, and the Kiev group, Sun.29 Another group of activists, the Center for Repatriation, also operating in Lvov, was connected to the Lodz center of the United Zionist-Democratic party, Ihud, operating in Poland. A representative of this center, Joseph Miller, was among the activists who visited Ukraine and other Soviet republics many times with the aim of maintaining contacts with local Jews, including former activists of the Jewish movement, in order to help them leave the USSR.30

During the early 1950s, new groups and individual activists appeared who harbored no illusions regarding the authorities’ new course. Noticeable among them were the former activists of the national movement who had returned from imprisonment after the 20th Congress of the CPSU. Many of them tried to renew old ties and establish new ones and to find a way to receive reliable information about Israel and events abroad and to be heard by a worldwide audience.

A new stage in the organization of the informal Jewish movement in the country occurred in the late 1960s-1970s, largely under the influence of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. Informal Jewish organizations again were registered, such as the Zionist Club in Kharkov, and the Groups of Jewish Nationalist Zionists – organizers of the Movement for Jewish Emigration from the USSR, which was uncovered by the KGB in 1969 in Kiev, Kharkov, and Odessa.31 In the summer of 1970, an attempt was also made to hold a kind of congress of Jewish movement activists near the Odessa coast of the Black Sea. As part of the program, seminars were organized to study Hebrew, Jewish history, and Jewish tradition.32

Even though there were discussions between the so-called “culturalists,” who favored an emphasis on reviving Jewish culture in the USSR, and the “emigrationists,” who favored emigration as the only solution for the national problem of Soviet Jewry, the practical differences between these two streams were minimal.33 In the final analysis, all chapters of the national movement, which in almost all cases were headed by refuseniks, agreed on one point: the right of Jews to repatriation and emigration, and the opportunity to implement this right.34

Activists of the national movement used both legal and illegal methods in their struggle for emigration. Among the latter was the utilization of corruption in the security organs or in the Interior Ministry, as well as of disagreements between administrative and party structures.35 In addition, at various periods attempts were made to illegally coordinate actions and exchange information. Noting such underground activity by aliya activists in Chernovtsy, local KGB informers were forced to posit the existence of a highly conspiratorial Zionist organization in the town.

Beginning in the 1960s, legal methods were the basic ones employed. Thus, one of the most widespread forms of action was the writing of letters and appeals (including collective ones) to various bodies, as well as attempts to transmit material abroad for publication. In addition, there were acts of protest such as hunger strikes outside government buildings against bans on emigration, delays in reviewing cases, and bans on professions.36 Similarly, public demonstrations on lines at the OVIR (the Ministry of Interior – Department for Visas and Registration), and farewell parties for friends, were organized. An important aspect of the Ukrainian Jewish struggle were demonstrations against the authorities’ defamation of participants in the national movement.37 The aim of all these actions was to attain the maximal publicity and thus influence public opinion in order to make the authorities react.38 Such activity could end in arrest, but sometimes it ended in the desired expulsion abroad.

Since only a minority of Jews took part in such activities and the repression was so harsh, many underground organizations would die out and each new generation of Jewish activists had to start almost from nothing. The nucleus of this movement, an association of refuseniks, was unstable and highly fluid, according to its leading members.39 Attempts by groups of like-minded people, both in the republic and beyond its borders, to set up links were ineffective because of the authorities’ harassment and the fear of arrest. Links between the Jewish and Ukrainian national movements were also limited and were most likely to find expression in personal contacts between individual representatives of these movements. Most often such contacts occurred during imprisonment or after emigration.40

The events of this epoch persuaded Ukrainian Jews of the impossibility of institutionalized Jewish life in the USSR. Most Jews were forced, in one way or another, to accept their status as a class without full rights, to adapt to the anti-Semitic and assimilationist standards of the milieu, and to continue existing as a nationality which was gradually losing the basic forms of its national identification: language and traditions, as well as schools, synagogues, and cultural institutions. For instance, a standard response of Soviet officials and “official” Jewish religious leaders to the question of closure of Jewish communal institutions was that this was due to a lack of demand. A report in the 1950s by the chairman of the Kiev Jewish religious society, Bakhrakh, to the State Committee for Religious Cults, describing his discussion with the Israeli ambassador to the USSR, gives a characteristic example of such a case. “The Ambassador was interested in knowing why we [Ukrainian Jews – V.K.] do not have Jewish schools. I responded that we have no need because our old people do not need them, while our children live and work with all Soviet people and do not speak the Jewish language as well as they speak Russian and Ukrainian.”41 Although the situation was actually different, a report from September 14, 1983, by Leonid Kravchuk, then head of the Department of Agitation and Propaganda of the Central Committee of the CPU, insisted that “at the moment Jewish schools…would not be able to recruit even a minimal number of students.”42

Under these conditions, the hope of emigrating and the fight to achieve it became the major and, in some periods, the sole outward manifestation of Jewish identification. Traditional anti-Semitism by the authorities, including discrimination against Jews in social, educational, and professional spheres, strongly stimulated the emigration element of Jewish nationalism, both in the epoch of P.E. Shelesta’s “National-Bolshevik” experiments and later.43

An alternative to such a solution was the third group of Jewish structures, represented by “quasi-legal” institutions – the synagogues. Although these institutions were recognized by the authorities as exclusively religious, they were much more ethnic-national in character than were their counterparts in the Christian world. This is true not only in regard to officially recognized congregations such as the Russian Orthodox or some of the Protestant churches, but also with respect to the illegal anti-Soviet nationalist Ukrainian Independent Orthodox or Greek-Catholic churches. For instance, the Ukrainian communist authorities in the post-war period had many occasions to note a widespread “trend by the [Jewish] religious society toward a national and social undertone,” i.e., to transform the religious community into a sort of an ethnic national organization.44 As a result, in the post-war years, synagogues and religious communities in Ukraine, besides their religious functions, were also an important pillar of Jewish life in general. They became valuable centers for information, socializing, mutual support, ethnic culture, education, and informal business activities.

Among the social functions of the synagogues, the most crucial were the organizational ones. Already in the first post-World War II years, Jewish religious organizations in many locations tried to play the role of national communities. In the words of the state official for religious affairs, they turned into “purely social organizations.”45 This was the case in Lvov where the Jewish Community of Lvov tried to register as a voluntary association. The board of this organization regarded its tasks as:

  • the cultural and religious unification of the Jewish population of Lvov and [Lvov] province.
  • the raising of the political, national, and cultural consciousness of the Jewish population.


  • the implementation of different activities that aim to improve the economic and living conditions of the Jewish population of Lvov and the province.46


To this end, the community created different committees which followed the traditions of the Eastern European kahal. It is interesting to note that Lev Serebryannyi, who was elected chairman of the community, declared himself as “a non-religious person.” He also added that he and his colleagues, as far as communal activity was concerned, were more interested in extending aid to the needy, restoring their traditional occupations, looking for relatives lost during the war years, and organizing repatriation to Palestine through Poland.47

The possibility of registering as a national civil community was tested by the Jews of Nikolaev, who in their application mentioned the Moscow precedent. Similar trends were visible in the Jewish communities of Kiev, Dnyepropetrovsk, Odessa, Voroshilovgrad, Volyn, Sumy, Poltava, and other provinces of Ukraine. For example, the idea of creating a synagogue council that would deal with “civil” kahal affairs was suggested by the executive organ of the Dnyepropetrosk religious community. That initiative, as it was put by Dnyepropetrovsk authorities, came from people “very far from religion.”48

Attempts to restore the traditional infrastructure of Jewish life were recorded in other places as well. In Kiev, for example, Ministry of State Security (MGB) investigators in the 1950s discovered a Jewish “arbitration court” (evidently, a beit din) which settled personal and property disputes, “avoiding decision via the Soviet courts.”49 Religious community infrastructure was also sometimes used as an “umbrella” for professional, cultural, youth, and other national organizations. For example, in Bershad, at the end of the 1940s, in addition to a synagogue, there were also minyanim (prayer quorums). One of them was made up exclusively of shoemakers, while another was that of tailors.50 Also, approximately 100 representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia (mainly medical doctors) regularly formed aminyan on Kreshchatik Street in Kiev.51 During the 1970s, there was a minyan of Jewish youth on Bayyeva St., while the minyan on Krasnoarmeyskaya St. was mainly attended by Jewish intellectuals.52 In many places a kind of shtadlanut was practiced. Noted Jewish writers, lawyers, officers, state officials, and others took it upon themselves to represent the interests of specific communities.

The communist establishment was not pleased to hear the conclusion of the Ukrainian state official of the USSR Government Council for Religious Cults: “A day-to-day observation and studying of what is taking place in [Jewish] religious communities…shows a transformation of the communities into social and political organizations.”53 Of course, the punitive organs harshly suppressed all these signs of organized national life. The destiny of the above-mentioned Lvov community, which was trampled by the KGB shortly after its establishment, was typical.54

The government also tried to prevent any coordination between Jewish religious communities. Thus, the Chernovtsy rabbinate, having survived World War II and, by 1945, was coordinating the activities of 24 Jewish religious communities (out of 110 in 1940), was dissolved in 1946. In later periods the authorities also suppressed attempts “of the most active members of the religious communities…to coordinate their activities with other communities,” including “sharing practical experience,” and “establishing closer professional ties.”55

In general, Jewish religious associations operated under the firm control of state officials for religious affairs and the respective KGB subdivisions. For example, a good picture of this is presented in the report of the state official for religious affairs regarding his activities in the Dnyepropetrovsk Jewish community in 1974. Pressure by this official resulted in the appointment of “more loyal persons to the position of chairman of the synagogue [executive] body…and to the position of chairman of the Synagogue Control Committee,” as well as arranging for “more qualified control over the content of the chazan’s speeches.” The author of the report stressed specifically that “in the synagogue executive body there were no people with anti-Soviet, Zionist, and openly nationalist sentiments.”56

The community leaders, rabbis, and synagogue employees had to cooperate in one way or another with the authorities, and often had to maneuver between what the state demanded and Jewish public opinion. As a result, Jewish religious associations frequently became an area of intensive ideological as well as political confrontation. For instance, a major crisis in the Kiev Jewish religious community resulted from the collaborationist approach of the synagogue’s “official” leadership to the presence of the authorities.57 A similar case took place a few years later (in 1966) at the Chernovtsy synagogue.58

A conflict was also seen inside Jewish religious entities. It was the same synagogue in the Podol district of Kiev where one of the first open conflicts of real “leaders of thought” and Jewish nomenclatura occurred in April 1956. A group of religious Jews, headed by Avram Sokolovsky, an authoritative person in Jewish circles, openly condemned the official chairman of the Kiev synagogue society, Bakhrakh, as a KGB provocateur. (Such a condemnation was unimaginable in the Stalinist era). This proclamation of Avram Sokolovsky (a former political prisoner, who was arrested for illegal collection of funds in support of repressed Jewish religious and public leaders) was, to some extent, the inspiration for many Ukrainian and Soviet Jews during the Khrushchev era. “All these [councils for religious] cults will not exist soon – neither the KGB nor the MVD [Ministry of Interior]. All synagogues will be reopened soon. It was Stalin who closed all the synagogues. If I am elected to the community board, let the MVD or the KGB come to me. I will talk with them differently. Their rule is finished.” Of course, the official synagogue head tried to stop all dangerous speeches immediately, and informed his patrons in the KGB and the Committee for Religious Affairs about what had happened.59

It is evident that all participants in “synagogue politics” of that and later epochs had to accept, de jure or de facto, the national representative role of Jewish religious structures. This point was articulated by representatives of the “Jewish public,” meaning that independent informal leaders, such as Kiev Jews Torsinov and Zoirekh, while applying for a second synagogue in the city, declared that they “represent the 165,000 Jews of Kiev.”60 The Ukrainian authorities, with the help of part of the official community leadership, tried, often unsuccessfully, to separate the national and religious aspects of Jewish communal activity. However, even they had to reconcile themselves to the national representational character of synagogue institutions. Representatives of Israeli and international Jewish organizations also saw the synagogue and attendance at prayer services as the major, if not sole, channel of interaction with Ukrainian Jewry.61 The struggle between these and other interest groups was a fight for the right to determine the character and limitations of synagogue authority in domestic and international affairs.

Judaism’s national-ethnic status was also reinforced by the fact that the synagogue was almost the sole legitimate place for manifesting Jewish patriotism and pro-Israeli sympathies, which had grown stronger among Soviet Jews during the 1950s and 1960s. In other words, synagogues combined the function of restoring Jewish ethnic-cultural consciousness with its function as an institute of the Jewish national movement in Ukraine. Jewish national movement activists used synagogues, especially during Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur, as a podium for public proclamations and anti-government protest activities.62 In a secret report, V.A. Kuroyedov, the chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, noted that in the 1970s, “Synagogues, particularly at the time of major Jewish holidays, became places of massive concentration of citizens of Jewish nationality, and, in several cases, were hotbeds of nationalist and Zionist propaganda.”63 No doubt, this was the reason most people came to the synagogues. As one official report stated, “Observations show that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, people visiting the synagogues during the Jewish holidays are not religious. They come because of friends and relatives, out of curiosity and especially out of national solidarity.”64

Documents from that time suggest that the cultural-religious role of synagogues declined in the course of time, while their cultural-political functions increased. Thus, interest in Jewish tradition and synagogue attendance was in proportion to the development of interest in emigration. Between 1967 and 1972, when there was an “explosion” of Jewish national identity and struggle for aliya after the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, synagogue attendance was at a peak. Since 1973 when, for the first time, the authorities issued exit visas for more than 70 percent of applicants seeking emigration, the number of Jews attending holiday services in Kiev, Odessa, Zhitomir, Chernovtsy, and other communities decreased significantly.65 The crowds shifted from the synagogue to the lines at OVIR.

On the whole, synagogues were places where pro-Israeli sympathies were openly manifested, even during the years of active anti-Semitic campaigns. For example, in 1948, with the creation of the State of Israel, attempts were made to hold large festive prayer services in several Ukrainian synagogues in the major cities of Chernovtsy, Lviv, Odessa, Uzhgorod, and in smaller districts such as Komargory, Miaskovka, Gaisin, Chechel’nik, and others.66 Similarly, during the 1973 War, it was recorded by N. Litvin, who replaced Kuroyedov as chairman of the Council for Religious Affairs, that “in a number of minyans in Chernigov, in September and October of 1973, there were prayers for the victory of the Israeli army in the war with the Arab countries.” In some synagogues, “farewell parties for those who were leaving were organized, as well as the reading of letters that came from emigrants.”67

Synagogues and religious communities frequently became targets of anti-religious and anti-Semitic measures. These often entailed the dispersal of prayer gatherings, harassment of believers in everyday life and at work, and hounding them in the press. “Disloyal” community leaders were also persecuted, arrested or dismissed. The KGB agents also carefully watched everything that was read or said in synagogues, and sometimes demanded that state officials erase “openly Zionist texts such as ‘next year in Jerusalem'” from Jewish books and synagogue lectures.68 If the authorities, through administrative and repressive measures, were able to control the synagogue as a religious institution, their struggle for control over the synagogue as a Jewish national institution was lost. Not daring to fully delegitimize Jewish religious institutions, the authorities accepted them as a disloyal entity in their midst.

The government policy on this issue was inconsistent, acquiring the traditional characteristics of Soviet campaigns. In the post-war years there were periods of relative liberalism, during the mid-1940s, late 1950s, and early 1970s, with regard to religious institutions, which strengthened them somewhat. Thus, at the end of the 1950s there was an increase in the number of Jewish religious communities, not only in western and central Ukraine but also in the cities of the Dnieper area, the Donetsk basin, and Crimea. Generally, these periods were followed almost immediately by an attack on Jewish religious life. Thus, in the course of the crackdown from 1959 to 1961, the number of Jewish religious communities declined from 41 to 15.69 For example, in the province of Chernovtsy, 23 out of 24 synagogues were closed by the early 1960s. In 1940, there were 110 synagogues in Chernovtsy.70 As a result, from 1968 until the early 1990s, there were only 14 operating synagogues in Ukraine.

The harassment of official religious bodies stimulated the appearance of tens of informal minyans in the 1960s and 1970s (see Table). According to the authorities, their creation indicated “a great level of [self-] organization…among the Jewish public.”71



Year 1949 1951 1959 1961 1968 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976
Synagogues 79 41 41 15 12 14 14 14 14 14
Minyans n/d 33+ n/d n/d 52 76 58 56 58 54

It can be summarized that religious institutions and tradition played a large role in preserving Jewish national identity in Ukraine. Although Judaism had ceased to be a symbol in everyday life, it nevertheless enjoyed a positive image in the ethnic-national consciousness of Ukrainian Jewry and played a large role in the reconstruction of organized Jewish life in the contemporary period.<



Of course, the public function of the synagogues in post-war Ukraine should not be overestimated. Their role in the reconstruction of national and cultural tradition, although important, was quite limited. However, the indirect political impact of Jewish religious institutions on Ukrainian Jewry was quite significant. On the one hand, the majority of local Jews were not directly involved in synagogue activities and, until the late 1980s, involvement was decreasing. On the other hand, the latent social and political influence of Jewish religious structures was much more extensive. These institutions were organically integrated into what remained from local Jewish culture and, simultaneously, greatly affected the national and political identity of Ukrainian Jews in the 1940s-1980s.

Thus, the synagogue, a more or less legal institution in the 1940s-1980s, helped to preserve the political tradition of Ukrainian Jewry. The synagogue provided a framework for combining all major aspects of Jewish public life. Together with the carrying out of spiritual and religious functions, Jewish religious communities were a channel for realizing ideological (“prophetic”) leadership models, exercised by the activists of the Jewish underground national movement. These communities also included some elements of public administration, both in the form of bureaucratic regulation from the authorities, and attempts at self-government.

No less important was the role of Jewish religious structures in Ukraine, as well as in the USSR in general, in preserving the idea of Jewish civil (town, regional, etc.) community as the most adequate and legitimate form of organization of Jewish life. That idea, which survived 70 years of communist rule, became a banner of the independent Jewish movement in the 1980s. (The phrase “Jewish community” was openly pronounced – for the first time since the ban on Jewish communities in the late 1920s – at the first legal meeting of the Jewish national movement activists, in 1989, in the Latvian capital of Riga.72 After the fall of the USSR in 1991, Jewish communities and their institutions opposed the “satellite” Jewish organization which was promoted by the post-communist establishment of the successor states.

All of the above explains the present-day Jewish situation in Ukraine, as well as in other former Soviet states. There is a contradiction between the explosion of institutionalizing activities among the Jewish population and their refraining from political activism, which traditionally went together. In other words, even among Jews who prefer to stay in Ukraine, their interest in Jewish educational, cultural, religious, welfare, and other communal institutions is much greater than their interest in national Ukrainian politics and nation-building. That fact, which is of value for the study of political behavior among modern Ukrainian and Eastern European Jewry, is the main difference between the organized Jewish movement of the post-communist world and its predecessors.