Ukraine is home to one of the oldest and most diverse Jewish communities in Europe. Refugees from the anti-Roman rebellions are believed to have arrived here as early as Roman times, predating any other Jewish settlers in Central Europe, Eastern Europe or Russia. The Jewish-ruled Khazar Empire dominated Ukraine in the Middle Ages. In later years, Ukraine was a cradle of Jewish philosophy and culture, producing such religious giants as the Rabbi Israel ben Eleazar (aka Ba’al Shem Tov) and literary masters including Solomon Rabinovich (aka Sholem Aleichem). Despite the pogroms of the Tsars, the genocide of the Nazis, the suppression by the Communists and the mass emigrations to Israel, Jewish culture and history survive in Ukraine thanks to some of its most enduring synagogues and institutions.
Golden Rose Synagogue
Web: www.inlviv.info (official tourism website of Lviv)
The Golden Rose Synagogue is the oldest synagogue structure in Ukraine. Its history is both turbulent and fascinating. Originally known as the Nachmanowicz Synagogue (after its founder), it was the heart of one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Europe for well over three centuries. During the 17th century, the synagogue was briefly seized by the Church and not returned until a ransom was paid.
The synagogue suffered brutally at the hands of the Nazis. The building was essentially gutted and abandoned during World War II. However, the shell of the synagogue survived, and the building has been both a reminder and a sacred monument to the Jewish community ever since. It recently survived the threat of demolition to make way for a new hotel thanks to international pressure. Sadly, the future of this important piece of Jewish history currently appears to be in doubt.
Gravesite of Ba’al Shem Tov
Web: http://baalshemtov.com (official website of the Ba’al Shem Tov Foundation)
Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, more affectionately known as Ba’al Shem Tov, was one of the most important and influential Jewish leaders of the 18th century. There are many stories and legends associated with his life, but it was his teachings and his ability as a healer more than anything that made him stand out in his day. One of his most important beliefs was the importance of prayer over mastery of the Talmud, a revolutionary idea among Jews of the time.
Baal Shem Tov went on to found a school in Medzhybizh, and many of his teachings would later be adopted among Orthodox Jewish communities. In particular, Hasidic Judaism generally traces its roots back to ben Eliezer. Much of this small Ukrainian town is now steeped in places of Hasidic Jewish interest. The grave of Ba’al Shem Tov can be found in the Old Jewish Cemetery. A replica of his school (the original having been destroyed by the Nazis) now houses a museum to his life.
Kenesa of Yevpatoria
Web: Not currently available
The Kenesa of Yevpatoria is a remnant of one of Judaism’s more unusual and certainly lesser known chapters. A Kenesa is a synagogue used by a Jewish movement known as the Karaites. The Karaites were Jews who believed in the sole authority of the Torah and who rejected the study and authority of the Talmud. Founded by a 9th century scholar named Anan ben David, the movement may have had roots in the ancient religious party known as the Saducees.
At its height in the Middle Ages, upwards of one in ten Jews worldwide might have been Karaites, but only a handful of its adherents remain to this day. Although most Karaites now live in Israel or California, the oldest surviving Karaite community can be found in Yevpatoria in the Crimea. This is now part of the territory annexed by Russia, and its status is currently unknown.
Odessa Museum of Jewish Heritage
Odessa, Ukraine (founded 2002)
Web: http://omr.gov.ua/en/tourist (official tourism website of Odessa)
When it comes to Judaism in Ukraine, few cities rival Odessa. Jews have immigrated here since ancient times, fleeing both the Romans and the Byzantines. For centuries it was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, and it was ground zero for most of the worst of the pogroms of the Tsars. It was from Odessa that many Jews took ship to America at the turn of the century, and it was from Odessa that Jews began to return to Israel during the interwar years.
Even after centuries of suffering, the Jewish community of Odessa is still alive and well. In 2002, they opened a Museum of Jewish History chronicling centuries of Jewish life in the city. Among its most poignant exhibits are on the Pogroms and the Holocaust, with a special focus on the Pogrom of 1905 (of Battleship Potemkin fame) during which thousands of Jews were killed by Russian troops and rioters.
Sholem Aleichem Hometown & Museum
Web: http://ko-tourism.gov.ua (official tourism website of Kyiv Oblast)
The Jewish experience certainly has its share of literary stars, but few careers match that of Solomon Rabinovich, better known as the humorist Sholem Aleichem. Rabinovich was born in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi in 1859, and began jotting down stories as early as the 1870s. Among his most popular creations were the stories of the Wise Men of Chelm and of the fictional town of Anatevka. The latter, based on his home town, featured the tales of Tevye the Milkman and other characters that eventually went on to become the basis for the hit Broadway show, Fiddler on the Roof.
Sholem Aleichem was forced to flee Russia in 1905 when the pogroms there became too severe to remain. He emigrated to New York where he continued to work until his death in 1916, by which time he was world-famous. The town of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, which survived both the pogroms and the world wars fairly intact, has since become a living museum, a virtual walk-on set for Fiddler on the Roof devotees. The town is also home to the Sholem Aleichem museum filled with the artifacts and writings of his early life.