|Jewish children in Chernigov, Ukraine, take part in a class activity at the school run by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yisroel and Alizah Silberstein.|
Chernigov, Ukraine – situated north of Kiev on the Desna River – has spent the last several weeks buried under a thick blanket of fresh winter snow, its streets slick with ice, freezing temperatures and blustery winds rouging the bare cheeks of bundled-up city-dwellers.
But Chernigov’s Chabad-Lubavitch center evokes a far cozier atmosphere, where a re-emergent Jewish community is undergoing a spiritual and religious transformation of the most enthusiastic sort.
Misha Dudchin is among a core group of local residents who, with the help of Rabbi Yisroel and Alizah Silbertstein, are embracing a heritage undermined by generations of Communist leaders. Dudchin, whose two children attend the Silberstein’s new preschool, had never stepped foot in a synagogue before the city’s Chabad House opened.
“My son got a Jewish education,” says Dudchin. “And today, he is a proud Jew.”
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jewish life in Chernigov – a city whose community dates back to the 13th century and before the October Revolution in 1917, boasted ritual baths, schools and 11 synagogues – has seen its ups and downs. A Jewish school finally opened its doors after the dawn of the new millennium, but the recent global financial crisis left it in tatters.
“When we arrived, we found a community where there was a lot of emphasis on Jewish education,” says Yisroel Silbertstein. “Unfortunately, the Jewish school had fallen apart and was closed down.
“We met people that had some interest and knowledge about Judaism,” he continues, “But the people here are very assimilated. Of the 40 families that have become active at the Chabad center, there is only one couple where the husband and wife are both Jewish.”
Establishing the preschool and a new kindergarten were among the Silberstein’s first steps. Through both institutions, parents are getting reacquainted with their heritage.
“After so many years of Communism, people are still embarrassed about their Judaism,” explains Alizah Silberstein. “They are scared to tell people about their Judaism. We are showing them that being Jewish is something fun and important and special.”
The school charges a modest “symbolic” tuition, which makes education accessible to any family in the area. The curriculum combines child-friendly Jewish activities – holiday art projects, learning the Hebrew alphabet – with secular studies such as math and reading taught by local Ukrainians.
Each time I walk into the classroom, I get chills,” gushes Alizah Silberstein, who runs the school. “It’s like, ‘Wow!’ It’s such a big excitement. You walk in and see Jewish souls learning about Judaism and it’s the most amazing feeling. This is our future and it’s a very beautiful thing.”
In addition to the school, the Silbersteins also host weekly Shabbat meals at their home, cooking classes for women to learn how to bake challah, and morning prayer services. They run a 350-square-foot synagogue, a summer camp for children and teens, and separate monthly discussion groups for men and women.
After attending informal classes and discussion sessions, one woman resolved that her seven-year-old son would have a ritual circumcision.
“As more people get closer to their Judaism, they build a community,” says Silberstein. “It’s little changes that create the biggest change.”