Bringing Shabbat Back to the Old Shtetl with Ukraine’s Jewish Heritage Protectors

A few weeks ago, I was in another old shtetl of Ukraine. I traveled to Staryi Sambir, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, for another volunteer work camp preserving the Jewish heritage of Ukraine. It was organized by the Lviv Volunteer Center, a branch of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Charitable Foundation: Hesed Arieh. The LVC organizes important civic-oriented service projects (Jewish and non-Jewish) in Lviv and the surrounding oblast region, from helping meet the basic needs of low-income seniors to protecting sites of Jewish historical significance.

I had been romping around the Carpathian Mountains when I learned of this project in Staryi Sambir, so I arrived after they had already begun. Sasha Nazar was my contact. He is the head of the LVC and was the main organizer of the project in Staryi Sambir. He is a native of Lviv. For the past few years, Sasha has been spearheading the restoration of one the last remaining synagogues of Lviv. With the volunteer base he’s built at the LVC, he turned his attention outward as well, to other historic Jewish places in the Lviv Oblast which have very little to no Jewish community left (not that Lviv has much left — 1,500 Jews today vs. 150,000 Jews pre-Holocaust). He and his volunteers spend much of their free time preserving what’s left of centuries of Galician Jewish history in their region.

I met Sasha and a team of the volunteers hard at work on repairs of the historic 19th century synagogue of Staryi Sambir. They had a team on the outside, setting up support beams to maintain structural integrity while repairs were made on the dilapidated roof. The roof had long been in a state of disrepair and it no longer protected the interior from weather-related decay. The work we were doing was part of a longer-term project to restore the roof and preserve the synagogue.

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The inside of the synagogue was littered with rubble and trash, so there was a team working inside at the same time, clearing out decades worth of debris, including collapsed pieces of the roof.

This holy site had been the spiritual center for the Jews of Staryi Sambir and the surrounding area. Hasidim from the surrounding villages would flock to the rabbis of Staryi Sambir to soak up their teachings and dance their ecstatic tunes. To lose this synagogue would be to lose one of the last physical traces of centuries worth of Jewish cultural and spiritual history on that land.

Down the road, another team of volunteers were hard at work clearing and restoring the historic 16th century Jewish cemetery of Staryi Sambir. I participated in the cleanup and repair work at the synagogue for the first day and a half. After lunch on my second day there, I joined the team at the cemetery.

It is one of the oldest surviving cemeteries in Eastern Europe. I’m not sure how or why this cemetery survived the Nazis and the Soviets. Not many of the historic Jewish cemeteries that were under occupation by both of those regimes are still around today. After bearing witness to the aftermath of destruction of so many cemeteries in Ukraine, including cemeteries in which my own ancestors were buried, it seems to me a miracle that this centuries-old one in Staryi Sambir is still around.

It is a gorgeous site. The old cemetery runs along a hill above the main road through town, overlooking the beautiful Carpathian Mountains. The ancestors have quite the view from there.

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The team had already done a remarkable cleanup job by the time I joined them. A walk along the hill to the section of cemetery they hadn’t gotten to yet showed me what this place looked like before:

The synagogue and the cemetery had been in a state of decay since the Jewish community was wiped out during the Holocaust. Prior to the war, according to local accounts, the Jewish population made up about sixty percent of the village and numbered in the thousands. Today there are no Jews left living in Staryi Sambir.

But there are those of us from other places, near and far, who honor their memory.

There were a few dozen volunteers total. The majority of the them were members of the LVC from Lviv, but there were some who joined from other parts of Ukraine, as well as Russia, Poland, Israel, and the U.S. (me).

Only a portion identified as Jewish. Many were Ukrainians who don’t have any Jewish roots that they know of. They came for various reasons. Many young Ukrainians have taken an interest in the Jewish history of their country. They hear about these neighbors that their grandparents and great-grandparents had, and they want to know who they were. Some of them feel a sense of loss, like a part of their own culture and history had disappeared. Some want to do what they can to preserve what’s left of it.

At the cemetery, I met another hero in Jewish heritage preservation who I’ve known on Facebook for some time, but had yet to meet in person: Marla Raucher Osborn. Marla’s story is an inspiration. Marla founded and runs Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, an organization dedicated to, as paraphrased from the website, facilitating reconnection of the modern-day Rohatyn community with their lost Jewish community history. This came to be out of a literal calling from the current residents there.

Marla is from California, but has roots in Rohatyn, Ukraine. After a couple of heritage journeys of her own to her ancestral hometown, and investing enough time there to inevitably build relationships with the current residents, some of the Rohatyn locals began coming to her with findings. They began bringing her fragments and entire pieces of headstones with Hebrew writing that they would find while doing repairs on homes, buildings, or roads (the Nazis and the Soviets often used headstones from cemeteries they destroyed to lay foundations and pave roads). Marla and her husband Jay would make frequent trips to Rohatyn to aid in the recovery of these lost ancestral memorials. Eventually this led to her and Jay moving to Ukraine and working on this mission, in partnership with the local Ukrainian population, full-time.

Marla’s been involved in Jewish Heritage Preservation work for many years now, and helps with heritage projects in many places in Galicia and beyond. We just missed each other weeks before at the volunteer work camp in Chernivtsi. I was honored to finally meet her and Jay in person in Staryi Sambir after observing online their dedication to protecting the heritage sites across this old country of our ancestors.

After the in-person acquaintance-making, we busied ourselves once again in the cleaning and restoration work of the cemetery. Some were clearing the vegetation overgrowth that swallowed up and threatened the structural integrity of the tombstones, while others photographed tombstones as part of a project to document and database who lies where. The work that was done there is invaluable for historians, genealogists, and especially the descendents of Staryi Sambir’s Jewish community who emigrated to other lands before the Nazis laid waste to the community that stayed behind.

The team back at the synagogue worked vigorously to get the place ready for Friday night. A very special event was to happen there. Kiddush (the blessing over wine to sanctify Shabbat) was to be recited for the first time in over seventy years in the old Staryi Sambir Synagogue.

After we wrapped up our work for the week at both sites, we headed back to our lodging to wash up and prepare. Shabbat was on its way! Where as many of us had been waiting all week to bring it in, the synagogue had been waiting much longer.

We circled up inside. Acknowledgements and gratitude were spoken from the organizers and to the organizers for all the hard work, before and during the week, that went into organizing and implementing this meaningful project.

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Photo Credit: Darina Balabai

Shabbat candles were lit for the first time in over seventy years in that synagogue.

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Photo Credit: Marla Raucher Osborn

Sasha invited me to further warm the place up with some niggunim.

I’ve been carrying the Baal Shem Tov niggun with me across Ukraine and honoring the holy sites I come in contact with through singing this and other ancestral tunes whose vibrations still linger in the walls and the land. Given that the congregation of this synagogue was chasidic, in the Carpathian Mountains where the Baal Shem Tov spent many years, I could feel the walls calling for this niggun once again.

I offered it up, and the community that had come together in the space between those walls, which had been bereft for so long of the song and prayer those walls were built for, joined in. A couple of them later shared with me that they sang with tears in their eyes.

Sasha led us in Kiddush, and we sanctified Shabbat in that historic synagogue we had begun the restoration of that week. We sanctified that synagogue’s place and role as a holy heritage site and physical memory of the ones who came before us.

We filled the walls with a joyous round of Shabbat Shalom, and then we parted from this sacred site and walked down the street to a local cafe for a Shabbat feast.

We celebrated the work done and the connections we made through the avodah (service) we gave. I asked Sasha later what motivates him to do this work. He went through a slew of reasons, but the main one he gave is the one I identify with the most. He explained that attitudes are changing in post-Soviet Ukraine. The younger generations are getting more and more interested in their roots and their heritage. Many of the Jews that are left in Ukraine are feeling a call to learn about their ancestral traditions and history. It’s a small, but growing trend. When they feel this call, they want to see the places that held so much of their history. To physically touch their history, their heritage. Preservation projects like these keep that possibility for them and the generations that will come after them alive.

I can personally attest to the truth in Sasha’s words. I personally endorse the importance of their work.

If it weren’t for the volunteers of the LVC, and the individuals and organizations doing similar work, these memorials, these physical testaments of our history here in Ukraine would vanish.

These folks are the heritage protectors of Jewish Ukraine. What’s left of it. They are preserving our heritage, for all of us with ancestral connections here. They’re investing their time, sweat, and often personal funds (as there isn’t enough support for heritage preservation work from Jewish institutions or government) into this work.

But there aren’t enough of them. They can’t do it alone. There’s more work to be done than there are boots on the ground or resources to support those boots. They need help. Otherwise centuries of our history and heritage here could disappear. It will only be read about in books (and blogs). But I can tell you from first hand experience, there is a big difference between reading about our heritage, and touching it, feeling it with your hands, between your finger tips. There is a difference between knowing it with your intellect, and knowing it with your body. There is a difference between seeing a photo of a centuries-old synagogue, and praying within its walls. There is a difference between hearing stories about your ancestors, and paying your respects at their final resting place.

These protectors are making it possible for anyone who feels the call, like I did, to make the pilgrimage and physically connect with their ancestral heritage. Support them. Come and join them. Work with them. (There will be more volunteer work camps next summer). Pray and sing with them. I promise you, it’s worth it.

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Left to right: Me, Jay, Marla, Sasha, Masha (Sasha’s partner). Photo credit: Darina Balabai

 

To support the work of the Lviv Volunteer Center, contact Sasha Nazar: volcenterlviv@gmail.com

To learn about other Jewish Heritage Preservation projects around Eastern Europe, check out: http://jewish-heritage-europe.eu/

 

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