If the walls at 12 Pushkinskaya Street could talk, what would they say? It would be a heart-wrenching tale of tears, hope, and broken trust, eerily paralleling the tumultuous history of the Jewish people.
But last week there was cause for celebration in Kharkov’s central synagogue, as 2,000 people gathered to witness a new beginning for the 90-year old sanctuary.
Built in 1913, Kharkov’s central synagogue was a labor of love, standing a regal seven stories high on its completion. The synagogue was a source of unmitigated pride to the local Jewish community. Here they gathered in prayer and celebration, addressing their Heavenly father from inside the walls of the grandiose structure.
But communism was on the rise, and a mere ten years after the synagogue was built, it would be cruelly confiscated by the Kharkov Sports Committee. For seventy long years it served as the local sports complex, still an overpowering structure, but completely stripped of the Jewish spirit that had breathed life into its walls.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, and the arrival of Chabad-sent emissaries, Rabbi Moshe and Miriam Moscovitz, the synagogue was returned, on loan, to the local Jewish community. “It was a shell of a building,” Mrs. Moscovitz recalls, with only the Stars of David engraved in the outer brick walls, silent testimony to the building’s intended purpose.
A reconciliatory gesture on the part of the Kharkov government, the return of the synagogue was a joyous moment for the city’s Jews, some of whom could still remember it back when the songs of Jewish prayer were heard within its walls. But the triumph once again prove to be short-lived, when an arsonist’s attack in 1998 left the building a charred skeleton.
The event cast a shadow over the future of Jewish life in Kharkov, but the Moscovitz’s would not despair. They promised to restore this symbol of vitality to the local Jewish community.
Anatoly Girshfeld, a Kiev senator and generous supporter who attended Monday’s event, recalled visiting the synagogue three years ago, its walls still smoldering from the fire. “Rabbi Moscovitz told me we’d build a magnificent synagogue,” he said, “and I thought he was naÃ¯ve.” But the hope and belief were contagious, and Girshfeld admits that he too, “began to share the dream.”
After procuring government permission to renovate the building, the Moscovitz’s, undertook a massive project, with the generous support of Mr. George Rohr, Lev Leviev, and local donors, to restore the prized structure to its former grandeur. Last week, in a stunning re-transformation of the synagogue-turned sports complex-turned synagogue again, the Kharkov Jewish community, said Girshfeld, was witness to a “dream come true.”
At 1.2 million dollars, the renovated sanctuary, called Beis Menachem, stands 90 feet tall with seating for 500. A dome-shaped roof and stately ark, custom designed in Israel, give the room a majestic feel. According Mr. Sidorenko, vice governor of Kharkov, the building is, “without doubt, one of the most beautiful in all of Kharkov.”
But it is more than an awesome structure, said Moscovitz. A focal point for local Jewish life, the synagogue, he said, is evidence of a triumphant Jewish spirit that has overcome the odds, and is once again a vibrant reality in Kharkov, “proof that Judaism is alive, and miracles do happen.”
It’s a vitality that expresses itself through a multitude of religious, educational and social programs run by Chabad here. Some 500 children are enrolled at the Chabad-Or Avner schools, 1,000 of the city’s poor receive free meals daily, and the city boasts two ritual baths, all born in just over a decade of hard work and perseverance.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe challenged us never to be satisfied with our accomplishments,” said Mr. Rohr, at Monday’s event, “but to always strive for more.” On the same note, said Rohr, “The opening of this Shul is not a conclusion, but a true beginning for increased Jewish activity in Beis Menachem and throughout Kharkov.”