Working in Ukraine was a privilege between 1992 and 2002. There were hospital visits, collaboration with many professionals, and cultural exchanges. History came live on the streets of L’viv, Odessa, Luhansk, Donetsk, and of course, the capitol city of Kiev.
As families near and far celebrate the coming of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, it seems fitting to revisit The Great Synagogue, also known as the Central Synagogue, the Brodsky Synagogue and the Choral Synagogue, which was returned to the Jewish community of Kiev in 1992 after many years as the State Puppet Theatre. Until it was shut down by the Soviets in 1926 as the Communist Party began to consolidate its hold on society, the Great Synagogue was the place of worship for many, including Shalom Aleichem, the Jewish Ukrainian writer, and Golda Meir, who would become the prime minister of Israel in the 1960s.
Preparations were extensive for the March 21st ceremony, and involved efforts by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), then co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus in the U.S. Congress, whose grandparents emigrated from Ukraine. She presented a crown, delivered by Rabbi Yaakov Pollak of the Shomrei Emunah Synagogue of Brooklyn, N.Y., and presented to the director of the renovation project, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Reuven Azman, several days before the rededication ceremony. The rededication ceremony also included a standard ribbon-cutting ceremony, as well as the traditional affixing of the Mezuzah, an engraved metal container attached to the main doors that holds parchment inscribed with biblical passages. Dr. Mira Brichto of Cincinnati, founder of the R’faye-nu Society, helped build a network of religious leaders, both Jewish and Catholic, to work together on the restoration. She also brought the project to the attention of Rep. Kaptur, Fr. Ken Nowakowski, President of Caritas Ukraine, who oversaw its charitable works and directed the Press Office of the Catholic Churches in Ukraine during His Holiness John Paul II’s visit in 2001, and to me as Director of Premier’s Office of International Affairs. Fr. Ken and I officiated at the ceremony and added the finishing touches to the synagogue, including plants, lighting, brochures, and a warm welcome to the thousands of visitors. We escorted elderly women to the balcony, many of whom had last visited the site as young children.
Originally the rededication ceremony was to have taken place the previous week, on March 14, but because of the Krasnodon coal mine disaster, in which 81 people lost their lives, we decided to postpone the ceremony and offer a memorial service to the miners instead. Members of several Jewish organizations raised some 100,000 hrv, which was delivered to the miners’ families. A significant contribution was made by Premier (founded as the Consortium of Jewish Hospitals with 16 members in 1983), including household goods, shelter, food and more.
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is about new beginnings. Many believe that our actions during the High Holy Days impact our lives; thus, the holiday period is a time of reflection. Moments like those in 1992 are also cause for reflection: on a rich past, our present and new beginnings.
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In 1994, with the assistance of Rabbi Azman and Father Ken Nowakowski, she visited her family’s homeland in Volynia.