For the Chabad emissaries in nearby cities who made the trip on December 15, and for the locals who came to participate, this bar mitzvah represented a collective milestone. Four hundred people came to celebrate Mendel Moscovitz’s bar mitzvah—a first for the children of Shluchim—which in every way marked the coming of age of Jewish revival in the former Soviet Union.
A phenomenon of historic proportions, the celebrants at the bar mitzvah were among the primary catalysts responsible for the stunning transformation of life in the former Soviet Union. The uninhibited joyful dancing in the magnificent central synagogue of Kharkov in celebration of Mendel’s maturity as a Torah observant Jew, made it hard to believe that not too long ago, this was a place of utter hostility to Jewish life.
Mendel is the first of all the sons of the hundreds of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim in the former Soviet Union, to turn 13. An infant when his parents—Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moscovitz—set out for the uncertain terrain of a country trying to rebuild itself after the collapse of Communism, Mendel shared in their initial discomfort, living in a cramped hotel room with insufficient running water and electricity, and only canned food for breakfast, lunch and supper. Growing up surrounded by poverty, Mendel was made deeply aware of the needs of others and his own responsibility towards his fellow Jews; he learned early on to share, extending material, emotional, and spiritual support to his less fortunate friends. And amidst plans and a hubbub of activity surrounding his own bar mitzvah, Mendel resolved to make this momentous occasion more than just a lavish party thrown in his own honor. Instead, at the bar-mitzvah boy’s request, ten of his friends would mark their own entry into Jewish adulthood, each receiving his own first pair of tefillin, a stepping-stone towards further Jewish involvement.
Kharkov’s central synagogue, the largest in the CIS and second in Europe only to one other synagogue, was originally built in the early years of the twentieth century and soon afterwards transformed into a sports complex. Rebuilt with the support of the Rohr Family Foundation, the synagogue is once again a bustling center of Jewish activity. The shul houses parts of Chabad’s school, which began as a class of seven, with Mendel Moscovitz among them, and now includes a preschool, separate primary and high schools for boys and girls, as well as a post-secondary institution of higher learning in Judaic studies with some 500+ students combined.
The Moscovitz’s were not spared the starts and setbacks so endemic to the Shliach’s experience: Three thousand people attended Kharkov’s first Rosh Hashanah services in the newly opened synagogue, immediately following the Moscovitz’s arrival, and the future seemed bright. But it was curiosity that had drawn people, and to the Moscovitz’s disappointment, the curiosity would fast be displaced by apathy and a general disinterest filling the road ahead with challenges that at times seemed insurmountable. Reminiscing about her early days here, Miriam recalls how one person approached her husband on Yom Kippur about his paleness, and suggested that he eat something. Another expressed his dismay that he had no truck on which to build a Sukkah; he assumed that like the Moscovitz’s Sukkah mobile, meant to publicize the holiday of booths, his too must be built on wheels. “Those were the days,” Miriam chuckles, glad that they are behind her. This Chanukah eight hundred people braved dangerously low temperatures to participate at a Chanukah event that included fireworks, latkes, and the lighting of a 20-foot tall menorah.
Although Jewish life is gaining new currency amongst the country’s 50,000 Jews, poverty remains the norm for the vast majority here, and providing humanitarian aid is an important feature of the Moscovitz’s activities. The “Meals on Wheels” program, by now a well known feature in the streets of Kharkov, provides daily meals to 1,000 people, with ten drivers delivering the food packages to eight hundred people who cannot leave their homes, and the two hundred are served meals daily in the shul. A medicine program for the sick and ailing, sponsored by the Global Jewish Relief Network, enables them to visit a doctor at the shul and procure required medicines, all at no charge. Without the necessary government aid, orphaned children are often left unattended and when one young boy without a father was suddenly orphaned of his mother too, Chabad took the initiative and opened an orphanage that ten boys now call home. A girls orphanage is expected to open next September.
But mostly they are happy occasions that bring the Jews of Kharkov together, culminating this year with Mendel’s bar mitzvah. According to Alexander Kaganovsky, formerly a secular Ukranian Jew, now heavily involved with Jewish activity here, the Moscovitzes have “changed the face of the city, and brought about an enormous Jewish renaissance.”