Jewish community in Ukraine soaring to new heights

The Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, long considered the most organized Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, is about to take it to the next level and get back on the map of world Jewry.

Construction began last month on a $70 million community center with seven terraced roofs. At nearly 400,000 square feet, the Menorah Center would be the largest community center in the former Soviet Union and perhaps the world.

Its 20-story main building will tower above the existing synagogue on Shalom Aleichem Street and cast the shadow of a menorah on the tree-covered hills leading down to the Dnepr River.

The local Chabad community estimates that there are 50,000 Jews living in Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine’s third largest city, with just over 1 million inhabitants). In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, estimates run between 70,000 and 100,000 Jews.

Three of Ukraine’s four richest men are members of Dnepropetrovsk’s Jewish community, and they have bankrolled a raft of construction projects. Business partners Gennady Bogolubov and Igor Kolomoysky are funding the center and an attached Holocaust museum, respectively.

Community leaders say the billionaires, including metals magnate Viktor Pinchuk, have bought into the idea of giving back to the local Jewish community, a relatively new (and sporadic) development in these parts.

Bogolubov is the president of a meticulously organized community parliament with 60 members, seven committees, a chief executive and a $7 million annual budget.

The Menorah Center will house the headquarters of Bogolubov’s charitable foundation on its top floor, as well as the nerve center of the Ukraine-wide Federation of Jewish Communities and a host of local organizations.

The first floor leading through the Holocaust museum and the center will resemble a Jerusalem alleyway with brown stone and a slightly claustrophobic feel.

The center will have a kosher hotel and lobby with an elevator programmed to allow observant passengers to ride on Shabbat.

There will be apartments for visiting Jewish educators and community workers, as well as office space to rent for Jewish-related entities such as the Jewish Agency for Israel, an Israeli consular office and other organizations.

The Holocaust museum will testimonies, artifacts and names of the 11,000 Jews killed by the Nazis in Dnepropetrovsk on Simchat Torah in 1943. A sprawling monument in a local park will have dozens of stones engraved with victims’ names.

Dnepropetrovsk was the home of Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson before he fled the Soviet Union.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky said the rebbe wanted to see the community revived and become a source of pride for the Chabad movement worldwide and a new center of gravity for the emissaries and local adherents that dominate much of Jewish life across the former Soviet Union.

“For many Chabadniks in the whole world, Dnepropetrovsk is a very special place because of the history,” Kaminetsky said. “We give the rebbe all the credit because he sent me here and he gave me a plan, and he told me how to work and he gave us blessings.”