Small in number, great in motivation: Subbotnik Jews in Ukraine
Their numbers may be small, but their motivation is great. That was one of the conclusions from Shavei Israel’s most recent outreach mission to Ukraine to learn more about the Subbotnik Jewish community there.
Eldad Fedorchuk, who we wrote about previously and who had already been in neighboring Russia investigating the Subbotnik Jewish community in Rodnikovskaya, concluded his visit to Eastern Europe by traveling to the Ukrainian town of Krivoy Rog, in the eastern part of the country, where 56 Subbotnik Jews are living. He then headed to the west of Ukraine, where he visited the nine Subbotnik Jews who live in Belye Oslavy.
Two hundred years ago in the early 19th century, under the rule of Czar Alexander I, thousands of mostly Russian peasants converted to Judaism. The name “Subbotnik” comes from their love of the “Subbota,” Russian for Sabbath. Many of them immigrated to Israel during the “2nd Aliyah” in the early 1900s. Thousands still remain in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and Shavei Israel emissaries visit them regularly.
The 65 Subbotnik Jews Fedorchuk has visited so far in Ukraine may be isolated, but they are actively engaged in Jewish study and practice. For example, Shabbat afternoon is invariably dedicated to a detailed analysis of the weekly Torah portion. “In their emails to me, they use tons of quotes from the Torah and the Prophets in a very sophisticated way,” reports Shavei Israel’s coordinator for Russia and Eastern Europe, Esther Surikova.
The Subbotnik Jewish community is also counted in the minyan at the local synagogue in Krivoy Rog – an unusual occurrence, Surikova points out, as “most rabbis will only do this after their formal conversion to Judaism. Their relationship to the local Jewish community is very good, although in general they prefer to pray and study within their own community.”
Fedorchuk found that the Subbotnik Jews he met with have a decent command of Hebrew – both reading and speaking. And the men have all been circumcised – a sign of undeniable commitment to the Jewish people. “All of them are ready to study seriously, convert to Judaism and make aliyah,” Surikova says. “Their religious level and motivation is very high.”
The two communities of Krivoy Rog and Belye Oslavy stay in regular touch and receive support from local rabbis, in particular two Chabad rabbis – Rabbi Liron Ederi in Krivoy Rog and Rabbi Leib Kolisnik from Ivano-Frankovsk, which is the nearest community to Belye Oslavy. The town of Ivano-Frankovsk itself has a distinguished Jewish history: it was the home of seven Hasidic rebbes prior to World War II and in 2010, a kosher hotel and Jewish museum were opened. The town is close to the Carpathian Mountain resorts of Yaremcha and Bukovel, which are popular with Jewish tourists in the former Soviet Union.
In contrast to the Subbotnik Jewish community in Visoky, Russia, which mostly consists of farmers, the Ukrainian Subbotniks are urban dwellers.
Fedorchuk began his visit to the Subbotnik Jews of Russia and Ukraine earlier this summer, when together with Dr. Velvl Chernin, Shavei Israel’s coordinator for the Subbotnik Jewish community, he visited Rodnikovskaya where a quarter of the town’s 7,000 residents are either Subbotnik Jews or their descendants. Chernin and Fedorchuk traveled to Rodnikovskaya after the community turned to Shavei Israel with an urgent request that a teacher be sent from Israel.
We have several videos from the Ukrainian Subbotnik communities below, showing community members blowing the shofar, singing Hatikva (the Israeli national anthem) and two other songs – the classic Tum Balalaika (with a special Russian translation expressing the community’s desire to return to Jerusalem) and Tzur Mishalo, which the Subbotnik Jews use instead of Birkat Hamazon, as they have yet to master the lengthy Hebrew in the traditional Grace After Meals.
We have a few pictures from Fedorchuk’s visit, including a local Subbotnik Jewish wedding!