Like dozens of cities in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, Donetsk, one of the largest cities in Ukraine, was home to a thriving Jewish community before the Second World War. A mass grave in the city’s center marks the resting place of 40,000 Jewish residents—only a small percentage of Dontesk’s Jewish population at the time. The war, and decades of harsh communist rule after it, eroded whatever Jewish life Donetsk had once had.
Today the city is abuzz with preparations for a Torah dedication ceremony, festivities and the groundbreaking for a four-story Jewish Community Center next door to the main shul—the community synagogue and center for Chabad activities in Donetsk. The new JCC, to be completed by Rosh Hashana 5764, will house a library, classrooms, youth rooms, sports complex, auditorium, and offices.
When she arrived in 1994, recalls Nechama Vishedsky, Chabad representative to this city, there was exactly one lulav and esrog in Donetsk. It belonged to her husband, Rabbi Pinchas Vishedsky, who was one of only a tiny handful of Jews in the city who knew what it was.
Eight years later and more than 40 families in Donetsk were proud owners of a kosher lulav and esrog. Sukkahs across the city were bursting with men, women and children celebrating the holiday, and over 500 Jewish students in Chabad schools participated in the festivities.
Jewish life in Donetsk, it appears, has undergone something of a rapid revival.
When the Vishedskys arrived here from Israel, their native country, no formal Jewish community association existed. There was nothing in the way of Jewish education or kosher food, and the city’s main synagogue was empty and had fallen into disrepair. The Vishedskys got to work immediately, building up a community with the 35,000 Jews who still lived in Donetsk.
In late August of this year, the community celebrated the dedication of the most recent Chabad building in the city, —a brand-new, modern facility for the Or Avner Boys Junior High School, with dormitory accommodations, a large kitchen, and bright beautiful classrooms. The building, made possible with the support of Rabbi Sholom Duchman and Collel Chabad, provides a home for 40 boys and a future for hundreds more.
The school is only one of a vast network of educational and social institutions in Donetsk, built from the ground up in only eight years, including a kindergarten, elementary school, Yeshiva High schools for boys and girls, post-high school institutions for men and women, Judaic study programs for all ages, summer camps, and a soup kitchen that provides kosher meals for over 500 needy people daily.
Working the Jewish landscape are 10 Chabad couples who joined the Vishedskys in the last few years.
“Donetsk now has the feel of a regular Chabad community,” marvels Nechama. “Eight years ago, even my most optimistic visions would not describe what goes on here today.”
Thanks to the hard work of the Shluchim and the generous assistance of the Rohr Family Foundation, kosher food—meat, chicken, dairy products, and packaged goods—are readily available in Donetsk, which also supplies all Chabad communities in Ukraine with kosher products.
Rabbi Vishedsky points to the assistance of several generous benefactors as key factors in Chabad of Donetsk’s success, including the Or Avner Foundation and Mr. Levi Leviev, the Rohr Family Foundation, and Rabbi Sholom Duchman of Collel Chabad, whose contributions to Jewish life in Donetsk, he says, have had immeasurable impact.
With all the hectic activity, the Jews of Donetsk take pause every year to remember and reflect. On the tenth of Teves, a public fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple and other tragic periods in Jewish history, Chabad students and community members gather at the site of the mass grave in the city center for a memorial ceremony. It is here that they remember their duty to carry on the legacy of those who were destroyed, and ensure that Jewish life in Donetsk continues to flourish.