Rabbi in Ukraine says synagogue plans threatened

kiev, ukraine | A Jewish leader in Ukraine accused nationalist activists Dec. 2 of trying to halt construction of a synagogue by erecting crosses on the land.

The synagogue will be built in the city of Poltava, once a thriving center of Jewish life before the Holocaust.

Poltava’s Chief Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Segal said activists identifying themselves as “Ukrainian patriots” were seeking to stir religious tension by placing seven wooden crosses last month on the plot of land allocated for the Jewish prayer house.

He said the activists told him there was no need for a synagogue in Poltava.

“This is horrible,” Segal said, calling the crosses an insult to the Jewish community. “They come into your house without asking, and they do what they want.”

City authorities declined to comment.

The new synagogue would be the first in Poltava since World War II, when the city’s 10 or more synagogues were destroyed. Segal said construction of the synagogue, funded by the local and global Jewish community, would begin within months and be finished in two years.

Before the Holocaust, nearly 20 percent of Poltava’s 100,000 population was Jewish, according to Segal. The population of the city in east-central Ukraine has since grown to 300,000, but only 3,000 (1 percent) are Jews.

Jewish groups say that anti-Semitism persists in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country, with little respect being given to Jewish cemeteries and memorial sites.

Segal said he believes the activists planted the crosses Nov. 22 in an effort to provoke a response from the Jewish community, and removed them several days later when no response was given.

Segal said the activists earlier had also planted a viburnum tree, a symbol of Ukraine, on the construction site — an act ignored by the Jewish community.