Thursday, September 15, 2016

At Hatikvah, Kiev Ukraine Saturday Sept 10, 2016

At Hatikvah, Kiev Ukraine
Saturday Sept 10, 2016
by Aaron Ginsburg

Rabbi Marc Mandel asked me to write about my experiences while I visit the Ukraine, Belarus, and Israel. On Shabbat I was in Kiev, Ukraine. I visited the Ukraine to see some of the sights in Kiev, and visit the shtetlach where my mother Dorothy Pokross Ginsburg’s parents were born. 

My grandfather, Jacob Pokross( Pokrassa), was born in Gorodische, a two hour drive from Kiev. 


On the way to Gorodische I visited Korsun accompanied by Vitaly Buryak,. Vitaly has a website devoted to Jewish communities in the Ukraine, We met with Claudia  Kolesnikova, and Piotr Rashkovsky. Piotr founded “The Association of Small Jewish Communities of the Ukraine” in 1993 and still leads it.  Claudia writes its newsletter, published several times a year, and established a one room Jewish museum. Although small, the museum effectively tells the story of the Jews of the Korsun area, and people often donate documents and pictures.


Gorodishche Holocaust
Massacre site
Gorodishche Jewish Cemetery
Holocaust monument
in Gorodishche Cemetery
Gorodishche dates
on stone prove cemetery
was not abandoned.

In Gorodische the Jewish cemetery  is almost entirely destroyed. A few miles away is the site of the Holocaust massacre. As was common in Russia, the victims were shot and they fell, dead or alive into a pit. There is a humble monument in a fenced in area. The area appears to be cared for.


I believe my grandmother, Sarah Karnowsky Pokross, was born in Ignatovka, which is only 13 miles from Kiev. The Yiddish is Anatovka, and is the origin of Anatevka, where Tevye the milkman lived in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Before World War I, 1400 Jews constituted  90% of the shtetl’s population. During the Russian Civil War forty Jews were killed in a 1919 pogrom by Deniken's Volunteer Army.  The entire Jewish community scattered by 1921. One hundred sixty of their homes were knocked down and became orchards.
ohel caretaker
The Jewish cemetery, now a field with corn and vegetables was destroyed, although I was unable to learn when. At least nine headstones support an abandoned barn in the next village. Two more are near the cemetery in a yard. They probably supported a previous residence. 

Headstone near the
Ignatovka Cemetery
Yehuda Leib son of
 Mr Danial Shtekleberg
Headstone from Igntovka
supporting an abandoned
builing in a nearby village 

The site of the cemetery is owned privately. Although it is zoned agricultural, the only way to preserve it would be to purchase the land. I was accompanied by Tzvi Azrieli. Tavi is a professional translator. He has done many good things for the Jewish community in Kiev. Born in Riga, he has lived in Israel, studied in Iceland, and eventually settled in Kiev. 

Headstone from Igntovka
supporting an abandoned
builing in a nearby village 
We met the chairman of the local Rada (council). He was a retired business man who went into politics to clean up corruption. After he left us at the cemetery, I realized my backpack was in his car. 

When he returned with it, I explained I was a “dumb American.” I also remember some German, and, since he had studied in Germany,  we were able to converse without a translator.  Not only did he bring back the backpack, but he drove us into Kiev where it was much easier to find a taxi, and much less expensive. Although at the beginning, I may have appeared to be a pest, I think I made a friend! 


Friday morning, I visited Hesed day care, which is for Holocaust survivors, and presented the video “Remembering Dokshitsy” in Russian to about 30 people. I also met with Boris Zabarko, who leads the Ukranian Association of Jews-Former Prisoners of Ghetto and Nazi Concentration Camps. Boris has written several books about the Holocaust in the Ukraine,  with many survivor testimonies

On Friday night and Saturday, I attended a reform synagogue in Podol named Hatikvah. Although most Jews were not allowed to live in Kiev during the Russian Empire, wealthy or educated Jews were allowed but had to live in two districts of Kiev, and Podol was one of them.

Podol street market
Podol is a large neighborhood at the level of the Dnieper River. Most of Kiev is on the plateau above. Podol has many buildings built before the Russian Revolution and although near the center of Kiev, has much less hustle and bustle. Most streets are very quiet.  It is a pleasant place to live. I rented an apartment for five nights that is less than a 10 minute walk to the synagogue.

Plaques on the synagogue walls recognize donors. Among the names are Susan L. and James D. Klau, who also support Touro Synagogue. I immediately felt very much at home

Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny was welcoming.  I was asked to help light the Shabbas candles on Friday evening. During the service, after quick instructions by the Rabbi, we sang a moving “Oseh Shalom,” while signing it for the deaf.

Before the service on Saturday, the Rabbi reviewed the Parasha, Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9. The Parsha is about establishing a civil society in the land of Israel.  The parsha begins with instructions to appoint judges, with the admonition, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” and warns that taking bribes perverts justice. When entering and leaving Kiev from the Borispol Airport, prominent signs from the Border service say, “Stop Bribery.”

If the people want a king, he will be chosen by G-d, and should not have too many horses in the stable. The overthrown President of the Ukraine was renowned for having a collection of 1000 cars. The king shall have a copy of the Torah near his throne. The past President of the Ukraine constantly invoked the name of G-d, but did not believe. The king shall not “amass silver and gold to excess.” The past President of the Ukraine had loaves of bread made of gold. I would say that the past President was definitely having a bad hair day during Shabbat at Hatikvah.

The Rabbi also referred to different levels of learning or knowledge.  I found many different descriptions online. At , the levels are can tell, can do, can teach, and can innovate. Rabbi Dukhovny drew particular attention to “can teach”

The Parsha ends by describing a prophet, and discusses false prophets, although it does not give clear instructions on how to differentiate them.  Rabbi Dukhovny wondered if journalists are today’s prophets, and recalled the murder of several reporters in the Ukraine during the rule of President Kuchma. 

Although the service at Hatikvah was different from the service at Touro synagogue, there were many familiar parts. Ahava Rabbah, the prayer before Shema on Saturday morning, was sung to the tune of Hativkah. I was honored with hagbah, lifting the Torah. With some hyperbole, the Rabbi said I was strong in both character and body.  Nevertheless, he stayed close lest I run into a problem.

After a potluck lunch, the video “Remembering Dokshitsy” was shown. Rabbi Dukhovny introduced the video by mentioning the approaching anniversery of Babi Yar, September 29-30, 1941. He said that remembering what had happened in Babi Yar and Dokshitz helped us recall 1000 Holocaust massacres in Ukraine, and many in Belarus. His mother’s sister was killed in the Shoa. When people asked his mother, “Where was G-d?” She responded, “It was done by people, and they had a choice.” 

Later Rabbi Dukhovny showed me a two story building at the end of the courtyard. He said, “Many Jews lived on the street. In 1941five Jewish families lived in the building,19 people in total. Congregation Hativkah helps strengthen Jewish life tin Kiev;  its mission is a response to those 19 people who carefully locked the door and took the key with them on September 29, 1941, when they left for Babi Yar, hoping to return. They were among 33,771 Jews murdered from September 29-30th, 1941.

Thanks to Rabbi Dukhovny and Rabbi Grisha Abramavich in Minsk, I will be attending a conference in Minsk of reform Rabbis and leaders from the Former Soviet Union during the coming Shabbat. The conference marks the 25th anniversary of their activity after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

At Touro Synagogue September 3, 2016 The Thrice Asked Question

At Touro Synagogue September 3, 2016  
The Thrice Asked Question
by Aaron Ginsburg

Brr! When I got into my car to leave for my one hour drive to shul, it was so chilly that I reflexively stretched out my arm to turn off the air conditioning. Then I realized that the car keys were in my hand and I hadn’t turned on the ignition. The climate in shul was very controlled, and there was none of the usual jockeying for the best fan position.

I sat next to someone from Miami, who was delighted to have an Aliyah. I asked him if he knew my Ginzburg cousins who had fled Cuba when Castro took over. He did not, but he did say that it was important to know Spanish in Florida. He knew what he was talking about. His wife was from Argentina. I mentioned a large Chabad Synagogue that one of my relatives attended. He said when it was built it was called “The Dome” after its most prominent feature. At the time real estate values were depressed enabling many Sabbath observant families to move in, but the market soon recovered from the brief drop. 

Rabbi Marc Mandel welcomed everyone. His sermon was devoted to education. The entire book of Devarim is all about educating people about how they should live in the holy land and beyond.  Much of the Tanach is an educational treatise.

Rabbi Mandel mentioned that in the past education, Jewish and secular was much more home based and that we need to return to that model and not rely entirely on schools. As Jews, we also need to educate the world, and each other. He promoted an education that did not ignore Jewish values, like charity and compassion  

In Parashat Re'eh, Moses says Shema Yisrael, "Listen folks!"  Although we highlight the first sentence, but it is really an introduction to themes about Ha KadoshBaruch Hu...and how we should lead our lives. It is part of a Continuing Education course that had lasted 40 years, and will continue indefinitely. 

Rabbi Mandel pointed out that one phase in the parsha, "Thou shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" is repeated three time in the Torah.”  Often it is wise to ask a question three times to get the real answer.

Rabbi Lowell Weiss told me a joke about this. When Moses was reviewing the Torah with the Ubershter, he pointed to the first occurrence of "Thou shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk", and asked, “And that means we should separate meat and dairy?” The response from on high was, “That’s right.”  At the second occurrence, to be sure that he did not miss anything, Moses inquired again, “And that means we should separate meat and dairy?” Again the response was, “That’s right.” Moses was very interested in getting to the heart of the matter. At the third occurrence, he again asked, “And that means we should separate meat and dairy?” The exasperated Ubershter lost his temper, ”Enough already, I’ve answered this twice. Go do whatever you want.” And we did.

Miriam and Marc Ladin sponsored the Kiddish in appreciation of Jackie and Rabbi Mandel and all they do for our community. With their assistance and encouragement, Touro Synagogue continues and strengthens its welcoming ways, and this is often reflected in the comments of visitors and congregants, as well as an uptick in membership.

Marc said sponsoring the Kiddish means one is apt to become the Kiddish speaker…so the sponsorship is the easy part.  Marc’s topic was "Why Our Schools Are Not Working And How To Fix Them.” 

Rabbi Mandel announced that Marc would speak three times during services. I can imagine Marc Ladin asking Marc Mandel, “And is this what I am speaking about on Saturday?” and getting confirmation the first two times. The third time, I can hear Rabbi Mandel saying, “Marc, don’t stress out. You can speak about anything you want. Everything will work out just fine.”

Marc gave an impassioned plea to improve the education of less fortunate members of our society…who may have families that are unable to provide an encouraging background, and may need extra help both for themselves and their families to improve their educational outlook. He mentioned specific ways to do this so children are not left behind, at a huge cost both to themselves and society as a whole.  Ideas included parent to parent programs, week-end programs, and leveling the disparity between more and less affluent towns.

rhHe concluded, “We need to be that village that raises successful children.  We need to demand that our school departments provide what is needed to meet these goals.  Instead of having families vote with their feet to leave failing schools, we need to cast our votes for a legislature, and a school committee that is committed to finding equitable funding solutions to support high standards for all of our children.”
Almost There1

I was sitting near the third window behind the stairway under the end.
 The Istanbul Atatürk Airport is too small to accomadate all the traffic, so many flights don't come to the terminal.
 — at Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST).
I will be away for a few weeks. I started writing this while my flight was between Prague and Budapest, and finished at my small apartment in Podil, an older Kiev neighborhood by the Dnieper River, which cuts down below the plateau above. Most of the city is a bout 200 feet higher on the plateau. Vitaliy Buryak collected me at Borispol Airport. Vitaliy’s website devoted to Ukrainian Jewish communities, is worth looking at.

Friday, September 2, 2016

At Touro Synagogue, August 27, 2016 The Lincoln Square Synagogue and Gene Wilder

 At Touro Synagogue, August 27, 2016 
The Lincoln Square Synagogue and Gene Wilder
by Aaron Ginsburg

It was another warm Shabbat at Touro.  And Rabbi Mandel’s sermon took a serious turn.

The Parsha continued Moses’s description of the trials and tribulations of the previous forty years as the children of Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land. 

Rabbi Marc Mandel spoke of visitors last week from Efrat, Israel who made Aliyah from New York. He  recalled Rabbi Steven (Shlomo) Riskin, the first Rabbi of Efrat, who also made Aliya from the City. In the 1960s and 70s Rabbi Riskin helped to make Lincoln Square Synagogue a place that attracted many young Jews. It was the place to be for Jewish singes on Friday night, and was called “wink and stare.” Rabbi Mandel seemed to speak from personal experience. 

Lincoln Square Synagogue built 1970
photo: Beyond my Ken
The first bat mitzvah at the Lincoln Square Shul was that of Elena Kagan. When she grew up she spoke at Touro Synagogue…and became a Supreme Court Justice.

Recently the Lincoln Square Synagogue has lost its cachet. There are a lot of imitators, and the rising cost of real estate has  pushed the young observant community further north on New York’s upper West Side, to the 90s and beyond. Membership fell from 1000 to 500. 

The new Lincoln Square
Synagogue Sanctuary design &
photo by David Asaclon
How does Lincoln Square Synagogue plan to recover? A $51 million dollar Shul was completed in 2013.  Only time will tell if this is a cure, or merely edifice complex.

Rabbi  Mandel mentioned Nefesh B'Nefesh, which helps people form North America make Aliyah, including lone soldiers who have no family in Israel.

The Rabbi described a recent e-mail exchange with a potential visitor to Touro Synagogue. The inquiries were routine. How are services conducted? What is the schedule? Then the final question arrived, “Is there an Israeli flag in Touro Synagogue?”  The Rabbi replied “Yes,” and the rejoinder was, “‘I'm sorry, I will not be able to visit.” 

The Rabbi lamented a growing trend in some Orthodox circles to reject the State of Israel. He was especially concerned at the extreme to which this can be carried.

There are case’s and case’s, but sometimes being consistent can lead to shooting oneself in the foot. This sounds to me like political correctness.

So what is political correctness? Per wikipedia, it describes “language, policies, or measures that are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society.” It often leads to censorship or self-censorship to prevent offending..

In the 1930’s communists and others matter-of-factly discussed the “politically correct” line to take about an issue. The phrase was used ironically to describe people who hewed to the ever-changing party line since what was politically correct on Tuesday  became doubtful on Wednesday and counter-revolutionary by Thursday. 

The term was only rarely used before the 1987. Usage exploded in 1990 after a New York Times article by Richard Bernstein. Political correctness has been adopted across the political spectrum as a put-down of the other side. 

Gene Wilder, who died this week, was not politically correct. Ben Kessel wrote that Gene’s movies would not have made the cut in a politically correct world:

“In “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” Mr. Wilder plays a character named “Dave.” … In the film, Dave is deaf, but, here’s a shocker, Gene was not. Some believe that a fully abled person portraying a person with disabilities is offensive. Recently at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, a trio of girls dressed as the “Three Blind Mice” for Halloween. They were reprimanded by the university’s “Bias Incident Team” for supposedly mocking the disabled; yes, that’s how much creativity is being stifled by this outrage culture.

“Blazing Saddles” would never be made today. The Warner Brothers film was controversial even for its time. Director Mel Brooks certainly understood he was pushing buttons when he kept the N-word in the script 17 times. But the difference between then and now is that the movie was made and audiences understood the significance of language and how powerful it is in conveying a message and breaking the malaise of everyday reality.”

At the Kiddish, sponsored by Paul Tobak in honor of Zal Newman’s birthday, Sam Spencer enlightened us about the parsha, Parashat Eikev,  Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25. The parsha starts by saying that if the rules of Torah are obeyed, G-d will assure success in the Land of Israel.  G-d would even assure that the conquest of the land would be done in such away that it would not be destroyed in the process.  Moses pointed to the miracles in Egypt, with great might and an outstretched arm, implying that the conquest of Israel would also be brought about by miracles. 

Rashi downplayed the idea that we should expect miracles a second time.
The Lubavitcher Rabbi believed that the generation of the Exodus was condemned to die before reaching the Holy Land was because they were expecting miracles. 

It is a human characteristic to value things that we work hard for, and devalue things that drop from heaven.  It takes work to obey the commands of Heaven, and to conquer the land.  Miracles in Egypt were one thing. But after the revelation at Sinai and the receipt of Torah, which itself was a miracle, we had our marching orders. The “miracle” is up to us, to follow the path of righteousness and walk in G-d’s ways, and to love Eretz Israel in an active, rather than a passive way.