Back from the dead: a Ukrainian model for world Jewry

The city of Dnepropetrovsk

The city of Dnepropetrovsk

Dnepropetrovsk's 600,000 sq ft Menorah Centre, approached by night, looks for all the world like the lurid, self-aggrandising dream of an eastern oligarch.

Rising out of largely neglected city streets, it is, literally, a vast menorah, with the glass outhouses that crown each of its seven towers illuminated each day of the week to represent the lighting of the candles.

The combined community centre, hotel, restaurant and synagogue complex is indeed the creation of a tycoon - local billionaire Gennady Bogolyubov, now the president of the eastern Ukrainian city's Jewish community. One of the richest men in the country, he began making his estimated $3bn fortune in the free-for-all following the collapse of the Soviet Union and now owns significant stakes in the country's biggest mining, oil, steel companies, as well as its largest banking chain.

But Mr Bogolyubov's wealth is where the cliché ends. In fact, the story of the Menorah Centre and his contributuion towards it represent a strikingly egalitarian, ego-free vision of a Jewish community.

Chief Rabbi Kaminezki

Chief Rabbi Kaminezki

In 1990, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki was sent to Dnepropetrovsk by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe with a brief to revive the Jewish life there. He not only found a very poor community that relied on decrepit state healthcare and schools, but one whose understanding of what it meant to Jewish was defined by antisemitism alone.

While religious practice was outlawed in the Soviet system, Jews' passports contained the word "Jewish" under "nationality", with the result that they suffered discrimination at every institutional level.

The rabbi found only one shul left - out of 42 - that had neither been demolished nor converted to a different use.

Due to its importance as a weapons manufacturing hub, Dnepropetrovsk had been a "closed city" under the Soviets and the Jewish community had had little contact with the outside world.

Rabbi Kaminezki said: "When I came in 1990, most Jews had given up. They just thought religious life was impossible. Another 20 years and it would have been extinct. In 1990, we still had a few people who had some memories of what it was like before the Soviets clamped down."

Mr Bogolyubov met the rabbi in 1995 and gradually began contributing money to help him revive the community. Success followed success - Jewish welfare organisations moved in; schools, seminaries, kindergartens and yeshivahs were established; a Holocaust survivors' centre, orphanages and a medical clinic set up, all funded or part-funded by Mr Bogolyubov.

By 2012, the 50,000-strong community was flourishing and Mr Bogolyubov, together with Rabbi Kaminezki and Igor Kolomoisky - another local businessman and now governor of the region - decided that a large community centre that contained a mix of profit and non-profit enterprises was the best way to ensure the ongoing life of the community. That plan became the multi-purpose, $66m Menorah Centre. "It was Bogolyubov's endowment to us," said Rabbi Kaminezki.

"Now, the centre's shul is jammed with people on Shabbat, and Jews from all walks of life feel comfortable here. Everything is one place. We have a mikveh, restaurants, offices, people can get married, and a clinic will move here soon."

Community Executive Director Zelig Brez said: "When Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov got involved they introduced advanced management practices and made things systematic and professional, whether in welfare, outreach or capital projects."

The centre employs hundreds of locals, Jews and non-Jews, and by day, city residents can be seen streaming in and out of the building, from the homeless arriving for a free meal to elderly citizens attending mobility classes. Entire floors of the Menorah Centre are dedicated to welfare, outreach and philanthropic projects for the city's community. In the centre for the elderly, for example, over 1,000 people a month drop in for a range of free services, from exercise classes to group singing and assistance in filling out applications for welfare and Holocaust restitution. There is also a programme for special needs children, created 10 years ago. The Joint Distribution Committee, World Jewish Relief and the Claims Conference all run programmes there.

Jewish community leaders as far away as Kiev maintain that Mr Bogolyubov's character was key to creating the open-to-all ethic that marks out the Dnepropetrovsk community - not just his cash.

Raphael Rutman, who was sent to Dnepropetrovsk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1993 as a student emissary, and is now active in the Kiev Jewish community, said about Mr Bogolyubov: "He rallied everyone, and set an example to other oligarchs and ordinary people in the city. He was monumental in garnering support for the community - his driving aim was to show people how to help others.

Mr Kaminezki said: "Bogolyubov is one of wealthiest people in the country but he understands the importance of community, from the spiritual to the organisational aspects. Every three years he has to be voted back as president of the board. Whoever heads the board is president of the Jewish community. It's very democratic. There are 90 people on the board and everything must be voted on."

Mr Rutman added: "In some ways this is a model Jewish community. It is a model to the whole Jewish world."

Last updated: 2:45pm, April 4 2014