In 2006 I interviewed Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, Ukraine’s chief progressive rabbi, while researching an article for The Jerusalem Report. Here is the full unpublished version.
Where did you spend your childhood?
I grew up in Kiev, with secular Jewish parents. My mother came from a shtetl called Ruzhyn. She was a religious woman and introduced me to Judaism. I remember when I grew up there were thousands of Jews in Kiev, but no synagogue.
What are the main problems people in Ukraine face today?
First of all, Ukrainians are tired of all the political clashes. More and more people are very disappointed. The main problems are political instability and economic poverty. For example, the average pension is around $30 per month, but you will pay half or more for electricity, water and municipal taxes. The prices in Kiev are not much cheaper than UK. I actually go shopping in London in the sales!
Has President Yushchenko been good for your country?
Let me tell you that in 2004 I was the only rabbi among the other 50 rabbinic clergy (mostly ultra-Orthodox Chabad), who came to the main square in Kiev to support the democratic changes in Ukraine. Why? Because it matters to me where my country is going. I wasn’t there to support a particular candidate, but I supported the main democratic changes in Ukraine. That was my main prayer in 2004. Unfortunately, the President was unable for many reasons to bring Ukraine up to the European standard. I think the major problem was that there were more words than actions. One of the major slogans of the Orange Revolution was ‘Stop corruption’. Corruption is flourishing today. The majority of Ukrainians are still living in poverty.
How has life changed for the country’s Jewish population since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991?
It’s definitely better now for the Jewish population than under the Soviet Union. Under the Soviet Union all religions were forbidden. Now there is freedom of culture and freedom of speech. This is the biggest achievement of the Orange Revolution. During the elections we began to hear the real voices of Ukrainians and I think this is very important. The press is now free to comment, but now it’s not the President or Parliament that runs the newspapers, but private companies. So, every morning I start with my morning exercises at 6am and watch the BBC World Service. Then in the afternoon I can compare it to our media.
How is the relationship between Progressive Judaism and the ultra-orthodox Chabad movement in Ukraine?
Exactly the same as you have anywhere. We love them and they hate us. There are about 240 Jewish organisations in Ukraine and more than 100 belong to Chabad. Chabad is opposed to us because we accept all kinds of people that are rediscovering their Judaism. We teach them that the experience of Judaism is about human beings and not about rules. This is why our priority in Vinnitsa and other congregations is to educate people and give them the ability to make an intellectual choice. A rabbi once said ‘To change tradition you need to know it’. So we teach traditions to our congregation so that they can make an informed choice. We hope that they will choose the Yetza Ha-tov rather than Yetza-Hara, good inclination rather than bad inclination. This is what Liberal Progressive Judaism is all about, it’s not only a set of rules, it’s about who you are. So my first question to people is not ‘Do you believe in God?’ but ‘Do you believe in yourself?’
And what about other religious faiths?
This evening I attended a conference with Jews, Christians and Muslims in Kiev. The essence of Judaism is to be a personal example to other nations to be compassionate, just and how to build peace. The Jewish community in Ukraine is just beginning to discover its identity in full flourish. It has happened all over the world and now it is happening here. This is why we are teaching Christians and Muslims are our brothers.
How did the Jewish community in Ukraine rebuild after the Holocaust?
After World War II, everything was destroyed, lives were destroyed, very many people were moved from their homes and transferred, some were moved to Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. But over time some of them began to come back and resettle. It wasn’t until 1961, 20 years after the massacres, that people started to commemorate what happened.
Stalin’s regime was also anti-Semitic. Stalin wanted to melt all the nationalities in the Soviet Union – Kazaks, Uzbeks, Ukrainians – into one Soviet nation. After Stalin, people started to find out about all the people that were murdered in the camps. There followed a short period which we call the ‘Spring of Freedom’. This was a period when people were able to say what they wanted to say. This is what we have now in independent Ukraine. But the Spring of Freedom was a small hole in the window.
How are the horrific events of World War II commemorated in Vinnitsa?
Now we commemorate those Jewish people who were murdered in 1941 during the Nazi occupation in villages and halls, usually on Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Ha-Shoa. We don’t commemorate what happened on Rosh Hashanah as we don’t want it to be a sad festival, instead on Yom Kippur, ten days later, we have the ability to commemorate. And we think this is a better way. The best monument to those Jews in Vinnitsa who were killed on Rosh Hashanah of 1941 is the present life of the Jewish community. And the LJS in London is a real participant of this Jewish renaissance by helping financially and by visiting. We feel the best way to commemorate is not to cry for the murdered people but to build a real Jewish presence in modern Ukraine. Do you agree?
How is the rebirth of Jewish culture being manifested in Ukraine today?
First of all, it is being manifested through prayers. In one of our congregations, we have a 26-year old woman who is writing new music for the Jewish liturgy. In Kiev there are dozens of Jewish schools, musical groups, theatres and art exhibitions preserving our Jewish heritage.
Do you think politics has a place in religion?
In ancient times when you said politics, you meant religion. Religion and politics are a simile. Real religion is spirituality. My surname Dukhovny in English means spiritual. So, in a way, I am Rabbi Spiritual.
What are your dreams for the future?
When my wife asked me that on a train in London, I said ‘I want to make sure that there is a Liberal movement in Ukraine.’ My dream is also to have a physical presence in Kiev. At present, there is no progressive synagogue in Kiev. I always say that unless you have a physical presence, then you will remain a marginal movement. I want us to have a property in Kiev that is a centre of acceptance, tolerance and pluralism.
Much has changed in Ukraine since this interview was conducted. Earlier this year in 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused many to flee. Rabbi Alexander Dukhovney is now located in Israel and made headlines with a heartfelt and hopeful video he posted when the war broke out. Read more about it on Time magazine’s site.
To help the progressive Ukrainian Jewish community, visit: https://wupj.org/give/ukraine/