Tens of thousands of fans and hundreds of journalists came to Kharkov, Ukraine over the past two weeks to take part in the Euro 2012 Football playoffs. Many of the fans stopped in to look at the great choral synagogue on Pushkinskaya St.
In one of the local newspapers, the Dutch fans spoke of their impressions of Kharkov, and they marveled at the beauty of the synagogue – of all places.
Among the visitors were also many Jewish fans who eagerly put on tefillin, and enjoyed kosher meals in the shul. Backpackers found a place to sleep in the Beis Chabad, and many joined the Shabbos tefillos and meals in the shluchim’s house.
The sports commentator for Yediot Achronot, Amir Peleg, was in shul on Shabbos Mevarchim Tammuz – and joined the lively farbrengen together with locals and Israeli fans who had come for the football match. The next day, Sunday, June 17th, he wrote the following article in the print version of the Yediot Acharonot:
The Synagogue League
When you come to tournaments like the Euro or World Cup, it’s not hard to think about what would happen if Israel was playing, what would the Israeli fans be doing and how would they pass the time between games. Well, unlike the non Jewish ultra fans who spent most of their time in the ‘Fan-Zone’ and drank beer, it is likely that many of our supporters would have taken advantage of Shabbat – and prayed for the success of the team.
The Great Synagogue in Kharkov actually has a lot to do with sport. Firstly, the synagogue building itself was used as a sports complex under the communist regime. Secondly, one of the worshippers yesterday, a Jew of around 80 years old, was wearing a T-shirt of Milan (I swear, it’s true!). Thirdly, the city’s chief rabbi, Moshe Moskovitz, has 11 children… that is – a team of his own! “At home I really feel like a referee”, the rabbi told me yesterday.
The synagogue was renovated a few years ago, with a lot of help of Lev Leviev, as a big sign shows on a wall at the entrance to the synagogue. Moskovitz was sent to Kharkov from Venezuela in 1990, on a mission of Chabad, and now, for more than 20 years he hosts every Shabbat, Jews who come to the city to pray and gives lunch in the basement of the synagogue. Yesterday about 50 people gathered there and heard stories from him, about the chosen people,the meaning of the word Tzizit, and even a story about a Jewish boy from America who played baseball, but he understood that even if loses its just a game. In the end the good wins. Every story the Rabbi said in Hebrew and then simultaneously in Russian, ending with a L’chaim with glasses of vodka. Then everyone broke out in song “hinei mah tov u mah naim,” ”Yerushalayim shel Zahav,“ and one song in Russian, whose translation was ”Our capital is not Moscow, not New York and Tel-Aviv -our capital is Jerusalem!”
Like their brethren throughout Ukraine, the Jews of Kharkov suffered terrible things the past century, and even thirty years ago, it wasn’t simple here at all. One of the worshippers in the community, about 40 years old, told me yesterday “When I was a kid, Jews changed their last names so they wouldn’t be harassed – today in Kharkov it’s ‘cool’ (to be a Jew). Jews have an image of being serious and wise…” maybe because the governor of the city, Mikhail Dobkin, is Jewish
About the Euro 2012 match, Rabbi Moskovitz didn’t know much, but he certainly had heard about Ukraine losing the match to France. I guess that’s what happens when you play such a decisive match on Erev Shabbat.