According to the estimates of Hebrew demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Ukraine is home to between 56,000 and 140,000 Jews, making it the fourth largest Jewish community in Europe and the eleventh largest in the world. Ukrainian Jews are prevalent throughout Ukrainian society, including high offices of the state. Despite emigration and a somewhat aging community, a number of Jewish organizations throughout the country are striving to revive Jewish life and culture and alleviate the poverty of the many destitute Jews in the country. The Ukrainian affiliates of the World Jewish Congress arethe Єврейська Конфедерація України (Jewish Confederation of Ukraine), and Ваад (Ассоциация еврейских организаций и общин) Украины (VAAD – Asssociation of Jewish Organizations & Communities of Ukraine).
Єврейська Конфедерація України
(Jewish Confederation of Ukraine)
President: Boris Lozhkin, also WJC Vice-President
Chairman: Oleksandr Kliuzner
Ваад (Ассоциация еврейских организаций и общин) Украины (VAAD – Asssociation of Jewish Organizations & Communities of Ukraine)
Voloska St, 8/5
Kyiv, Kyivs’ka, Ukraine 04070
Chairman: Andrey Adamovsky, also WJC Vice-President
Jewish communities have existed in the territory of Ukraine from the time of Kyivan Rus since late 9th century, when Jewish refugees from Byzantium, Persia, and Mesopotamia, fleeing persecution by Christians, settled along the banks of the River Dnieper in eastern and southern Ukraine. Under the rule of the Khazar Empire, Jews were able to freely practice their religion, and over time, many Jews integrated into Khazar society. According to legend, many Khazars eventually converted to Judaism.
Though the Khazar capital was ransacked around 965, Jews in the empire continued to have a large influence. This was evident in Kyiv, a tributary of the empire, where there was a large Jewish quarter and one of the city’s three gates was called the “Jew’s Gate.” However, there is little evidence to suggest that the Khazar Jewish communities survived after the devastating Mongol invasion of the 13th century.
Right-bank Ukraine, an area west of the Dnieper River and a former Khazan stronghold, was then subject to Lithuania and saw the arrival of Jews from Western Europe. The Jewish presence increased with the absorption of Lithuania by the Polish crown into the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth in 1569, as Poland’s economic influence afforded Jewish settlers a variety of economic opportunities. Jews were influential in a variety of enterprises, including agricultural, banking, real estate under the arenda system, the collection of customs duties and taxes, and trade (they mainly served as liaisons between Ukraine and the Ottoman Empire).
Ukraine soon became a center of Jewish life in Poland-Lithuania, and Jews were the largest and most important ethnic minority in Ukraine. However, despite their successes, the Ukrainian Jewish community found itself faced with hardships. Jews were constantly targeted by the church, who wanted Jewish influence limited, and the prominence of Jews in notable governmental roles as tax collectors and bankers on the behalf of Polish nobles, made them detested by Ukrainian peasants.
Growing anti-Semitism among the Ukrainian Cossacks exploded in 1648 with the Cossack Uprising against the Polish landowners and Jews. The Cossacks sought to “free” themselves of the Jews and began massacring thousands of Jews in the Chmielnicki Massacre from 1648 to 1649. Over 20,000 Jews – about half of the region’s population – were brutally murdered, and many fled the country. Those who survived were subject to numerous “repeat” massacres, and under Russian rule, anti-Semitism in Ukraine only worsened.
Yet, Jewish life in Ukraine continued on, and Jews continued to emigrate to the region and play a large role in economic matters. At the end of the eighteenth century, Ukraine, became part of the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, and was densely populated by Jews. It was during this period that Jewish religious intellectualism reached Ukraine, notably in the teachings of Israel Ben Eliezer, known as Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement, and the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment.
Despite restrictions, Jews played a prominent role in the development of commerce and industry in the region, and especially in the growth of its major cities, such as Kyiv, Odessa, Donetsk and Kharkov. Many of the most important Jewish thinkers and Zionists of the modern age were born in Ukraine.
The outbreak of pogroms, coupled with increasingly anti-Semitic policies and complacency from Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II in the 1880s, saw many Ukrainian Jews emigrate from the country. Some founded communities in Palestine while others immigrated to countries such as the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Several young Jews who remained in Ukraine became drawn to socialist revolutionary groups and joined underground political organizations that were increasingly active after the 1905 Revolution.
Anti-Jewish pogroms accompanied the Communist Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing Russian Civil War. Following the conflict, the Pale of Settlement was abolished, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews moved throughout parts of the newly formed Soviet Union. The new Ukrainian state promised Jews full equality and autonomy, and Arnold Margolin, a Jewish assistant minister, declared in May 1919 that the Ukrainian government had given Jews more rights than they enjoyed in any other European government.
In the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic, Yiddish was one of the official state languages and it was even used on Ukrainian currency. During this period, the Jewish National Union was established, and the community was granted an autonomous status. There was, however, a continuation of anti-Jewish sentiments in Ukraine, and pogroms accompanied the Ukrainian struggle for independence against the Bolsheviks, with the number of Jews killed during the period is estimated to be from 35,000 to 50,000.
After the Soviet takeover of Ukraine in 1922, religious and Zionist activities were forced underground. The Soviet authorities established four Jewish autonomous districts in the southern part of the republic and in Crimea, and conflicts between Ukrainian Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors were largely results of power struggles in the new Soviet political climate.
The Stalinist repressions of the 1930s, in which deviations from what was considered the Soviet “norm” were met with extreme consequences, saw the suppression of Jewish and Ukrainian culture. For example, the Ukrainian language was forcibly replaced with Russian and Jewish institutions were permanently closed. On the eve of World War II and the Holocaust, Jews were the largest national minority in Ukraine.
After the war, returning Jews were often met with hostility and violence when attempting to retrieve their stolen homes and property. The repression of Jewish cultural and spiritual life in post-war Soviet Ukraine was especially severe, and only a few synagogues were allowed to remain open. Moreover, Kyiv became a center for publication of anti-Semitic works.
Beginning in the 1960s, however, Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents – the former of which wanted internal change, and the latter wanted to emigrate to Israel – established a sense of solidarity. This led to an effort, on non-Jewish Ukrainians’ behalf, to help and understand Jews in Ukraine, including raising awareness about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
In the late 1980s, a large number of Ukrainian Jews began emigrating from Ukraine, settling in countries such as Israel and the United States. This trend became exponentially larger after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, though many Ukrainian Jews supported independence. During this period, Yukhym Zvyahilsky served as Acting Prime Minister from 1993 to 1994. Jewish life began to slowly revive in Ukraine, with Jewish schools, synagogues, and other institutions established in cities such as Kiev, L’viv, and Dnipropetrovs’k.
The Ukrainian government has been sensitive to the needs of Ukrainian Jewry in the post-Soviet era and officially recognizes Jewish cultural and religious institutions. Legislation has been passed to return all confiscated Jewish religious institutions and items, including 20 synagogues, to Jewish leaders. However, the outbreak of violence in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution saw many Ukrainian Jews leave for Israel and the precarious economic situation of the Jewish community has been a decisive factor in the aliya of Ukrainian Jews.
Today, Ukrainian Jews enjoy a relative sense of stability, though economic concerns are still widespread within the community. In 2016, Vlodymir Groysman became the first Jew to ever serve as Ukrainian Prime Minister and in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, President Petro Poroshenko and Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko announced plans to create a memorial, which would be the first Holocaust memorial site in Ukraine.
At the outbreak of World War II, western Ukraine was taken under Nazi control. Those Jews who lived in those regions were placed into ghettos and deported to death camps. Mass killings in Ukraine began almost immediately upon the widespread Nazi invasion of the country during Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The German army was accompanied by Einsatzgruppen units, which rounded up Jews across the country and brutally murdered them.
The most notorious massacre of Jews in Ukraine during the Holocaust occurred at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kyiv, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation from September 29 to 30 in 1941. It was carried out by a mixture of SS, SD and Security Police, assisted by the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police.
On the Monday, the Jews of Kyiv gathered by the cemetery, expecting to be loaded onto trains. All were driven down a corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten, and then shot. In the evening, the Germans undermined the wall of the ravine and buried the people under the thick layers of earth. Wounded victims were buried alive in the ravine along with the rest of the bodies. The money, valuables, underwear and clothing of the murdered victims were turned over to the local ethnic Germans and to the Nazi administration of the city.
The arrival of the Nazis in territories such as eastern Galicia, which had been a part of independent Poland and then Soviet control during the interwar years, was seen as liberating from the “Jewish-Communist” oppressors, and several spontaneous and extremely violent pogroms broke out. It is important to note that throughout the Holocaust, Ukrainians played an active and supporting role in collaborating with the Nazis and participating in the genocide of Jews in Ukraine.
Ghettos began to be established throughout the country in 1942 and the Janowska concentration camp in L’viv became one of the more notorious transit camps, where thousands of Jews were deported to their deaths. By the time Ukraine was liberated from Nazi control, approximately 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews had been murdered; over half of the pre-war Jewish population.
Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that there were between 56,000 and 140,000 Jews in Ukraine, as of 2001. According to the World Jewish Population Report, in 2010 Ukraine belonged to the list of countries with the largest ‘core’ Jewish populations, ranked eleventh in the world with 71,500 Jews.
The largest Jewish population centers are in Kyiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, Odessa, and Donetsk. In the Census of 2001, 103,600 people identified themselves as Jews (but only 3,100 of these indicated Yiddish as their native language). Ashkenazi Jews represent the largest Jewish ethnic group. There are small groups of Krymchaks, Bukharian, Mountain and Georgian Jews living in the state.
According to the State Committee on Ethnicities and Religions, 288 Jewish national organizations and 297 Jewish religious congregations were registered in Ukraine at the beginning of 2010. The leading umbrella organizations are the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (Va’ad) and the Jewish Council of Ukraine.
The community is made up of many different Jewish religious and cultural groups, including various Zionist organizations, in addition to the offices of the main international Jewish organizations in Ukraine: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Claims Conference, and Hillel. With the help of, the community is striving to alleviate the poverty of the many destitute Jews in the country, a large portion of whom are elderly. The Chesed Avot welfare society of Kyiv and the Magen Avot social services network of Ukraine, are examples of Ukrainian Jewish aid organizations.
In addition to aid societies, the local Kyiv Jewish community has invested in cultural centers as well, including the Menorah center, which is considered the largest Jewish community center in Europe. The complex consists of a synagogue, museums, hotels, and a research and education center. There are also a number of Jewish institutions in Kyiv devoted to foster Israeli-Ukrainian relations, including the Israel Cultural Center and the Jewish Agency for Israel, “Sochnut-Ukraine.”
All streams of Judaism in Ukraine have formed religious unions in an effort to organize Jewish religious life in the country. The orthodox communities are organized under the umbrellas of Chabad Lubavitch, which consists of 123 registered communities, the Association of Judaic Religious Organizations of Ukraine, which consists of eighty-four communities, and the All-Ukrainian Congress of Judaic Religious Communities, which consists of thirteen registered communities.
Followers of Reform Judaism have their own organization – the Religious Association of Progressive Judaism Congregations of Ukraine – which is comprised of fifty-one registered congregations. The other twenty-six officially registered religious communities do not belong to any all-Ukrainian union, and act independently. There are a few notable communities of Skver, Braslav and other Chasidim in Ukraine. The Conservative Movement is active in Chernivtsi, Berdichev, Kyiv and other cities.
Since 1990, Yaakov Bleich has served as the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, having been appointed by his Karlin-Stolin community. Since his arrival in Ukraine, Bleich has been instrumental in founding the Kyiv Jewish City Community, the Union Of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine, the first Jewish day school in Ukraine, the first Jewish orphanage and boarding school in Ukraine, the Chesed Avot welfare society of Kyiv, the Magen Avot social services network of Ukraine, and a host of other organizations.
Kosher food is available in regions with a Jewish population, such as Kyiv, Kharov, Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa.
There are thirty-seven Jewish day schools in Ukraine, some sixty Sunday schools, eleven kindergartens, eight yeshivot, and seventy ulpanim, attended by an estimated 10,000 children and adults in total. In addition, there are also religious schools, supported by the Karlin-Stolin Orach Chaim Foundation, a network of ORT technological colleges, and a day school established by the Conservative Movement in Chernivitsi. The Va’ad also runs a Jewish education center.
Higher education in the field of Jewish studies is provided by several educational institutions in Ukraine, including the International Solomon University in Kyiv, which offers a Jewish educational program and has an agreement with the Chais Centre at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Kharkov State University, which has an Israeli Centre of Academic Studies.
Since the 1990s, several major international organizations and movements have dominated the Jewish youth scene in Ukraine. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) has been a pioneer in the engagement of young adults, particularly through its MASA program in Israel (since 2004). Young adults often attend various community programs before the trip, spend time living and working in Israel during it, and often become quite involved in Jewish community life in Ukraine on their return.
Hillel has also been a major player in Ukraine since 1995 and is considered to have been the most influential Jewish organization in reaching out and educating unaffiliated Jewish youth and encouraging their integration into Jewish communal life. Hillel has developed the Vkonnekte (“Get Connected”) program in recent years, which is aimed at building a stronger Jewish presence at Ukrainian universities. Specially trained youth leaders (or “Connectors”) are now working with individual Jewish students to help them to find ways to connect to their particular Jewish interests, as well as with other Jews, and specially designed software is being used to keep track of the young people they have engaged in order to increase the efficiency of follow-up activities.
Taglit-Birthright has also been active since 2000, and since that time has identified thousands of young adults with Jewish ancestry, offering them the incentive of a free ten-day trip to Israel. It is facilitated by Hillel, JAFI and the Israel Cultural Centre, with Hillel the key organization focused on work with Taglit alumni. In addition, youth and family summer recreation camps are organized with the aid of JAFI, the JDC, Ohr Avner, Midreshet Yerushalayim, Hillel and Va’ad.
Virtually all the large regional communities have their own publications (about thirty in all). The newspapers with the largest circulation and geographic reach are Khadashot (published since 1991 by the Va’ad of Ukraine); VEK, published by the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress since 1997, and Yevreyskie Vesti, published by the Jewish Council of Ukraine and funded by the State Committee on Ethnicities and Religions. Leading magazines include: Yegupetz – a literary-journalistic almanac published by the Kyiv Judaica Institute; Moriah – a scientific and journalistic almanac published by Odessa Community House of Jewish Knowledge “Moriah”); From Heart to Heart – an illustrated magazine published by the Jewish Community of Kyiv (Chabad, Brodsky synagogue); and Orah Chaim – an illustrated magazine, published by the Association of Judaic Religious Organizations of Ukraine (OIROU).
There are a number of notable Jewish sites in Ukraine, including the site of the former Uman ghetto and a marker commemorating the Jewish victims of the Janowska concentration camp. There are currently plans to build a monument to Jews murdered at Babi Yar.
Other sites include the burial place of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav and Gadyach, the tomb of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of the Lubavitch Chassidic movement, the Golden Rose Synagogue, the gravesite of Ba’al Shem Tov, the gravesite of Kenesa of Yevpatoria, and the Sholem Aleichem Hometown & Museum.
Israel and Ukraine maintain full diplomatic ties, having established them in 1991. They currently have an agreement of non-visa traffic that has substantially increased tourist flow between the two countries.
Embassy of Israel in Ukraine
01901 Ukraine, Kyiv, Lesia
Ukrainka Boulevard, 34