Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine — Five months into the war that turned him into a refugee in his own country, Jacob Virin has already attended 20 Jewish weddings — including those of his son and two other relatives — at the $100 million JCC of Dnepropetrovsk.
Towering over the skyline of this industrial metropolis, the 22-story Menorah Center is said to be the largest Jewish community center in Europe and a symbol of the remarkable Jewish revival here after decades of communist repression.
But with eastern Ukraine descending into chaos in recent months, the center of late has assumed a new symbolism. With one of its two hotels serving as temporary housing for some of the hundreds of refugees displaced by fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels, and a recent mass wedding for 19 Jewish couples held on its roof terrace, the center has become an emblem of Jewish survival during the current crisis.
“More than any other single complex, the Menorah Center has empowered the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk to better serve as an anchor for Ukrainian Jewry in difficult times and as an engine for Jewish renewal,” said Zelig Brez, the community's director.
Completed in 2012 with funding from two Jewish oligarchs, the Menorah Center is a leviathan. Its 450,00 square feet of floor space includes a swanky event hall, a synagogue with black marble interior, a large Holocaust museum, luxurious ritual baths for men and women, and several kosher restaurants and cafes.
At night, powerful spotlights illuminate the center’s seven domes, making the large complex on Sholem Aleichem Street look much like its namesake.
“The idea here is also to build a presence, a great beacon of light that tells the Jews of Ukraine: ‘We are here. Come join us. The time for hiding is over,’ ” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the energetic chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk and one of the Chabad movement’s most senior envoys to Ukraine.
During the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in the 1940s, German troops murdered 20,000 Jews in and around Dnepropetrovsk, essentially annihilating the community. Many Jews who escaped eastward returned after the Red Army defeated the Nazis, but the Kremlin’s anti-Semitic and anti-religious ideology kept Jewish life underground here until Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
Following the fall of communism, Dnepropetrovsk emerged as an engine for Jewish life in Ukraine. Some 15 percent of the country's Jewish population lives here, and the city boasts several unique Jewish amenities, including the only matzah factory in Ukraine and a workshop for ritual scribes. The community’s partnership with Jewish communities in the Boston area is also the object of pride here.
Kaminezki says the Menorah Center is the largest JCC in Europe. Navigating the maze of elevators that services the building’s seven wings, he pops into a gourmet kosher restaurant with heavy cherrywood tables to chat with a donor having lunch.
Before returning to his office, Kaminezki shows off the center's main passageway, which at lunch hour fills up with a mix of religious Jews and non-Jews, including women in short skirts and high heels who come to visit medical clinics, hair dressers or the bank — all of which rent space in the center.
The vast structure “is meant to accommodate the needs of this growing community not only now but also in the future,” Kaminezki said back at his penthouse office overlooking the Dnepro River.
With such an impressive presence, the Menorah Center has become the Jewish community’s de facto embassy, hosting visits from ambassadors and diplomats, including the U.S. State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy, Ira Foreman, who visited in April.
Non-Jews sometimes refer to the center as the Kolomoisky building — Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish billionaire, funded the building with fellow Ukrainian billionaire Gennady Bogolyubov, the president of the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk.
A banker who has poured millions into Jewish causes, Kolomoisky has become something of a national hero since making sizable donations to the ill-equipped Ukrainian army in its battle against pro-Russian separatists. In April, Kolomoisky was appointed governor of this strategically crucial region.
Brez, the community director, says he is more concerned with using the Menorah Center to leave a mark on the lives of local Jews than to impress foreigners or non-Jewish locals. So earlier this month, Brez helped arrange the mass wedding on the center's roof, among them his son’s in-laws. Several of the couples had already wed decades ago but never had a Jewish ceremony.
“The community sheltered us, but also made us a family, right here at the Menorah Center,” said Virin, the editor in chief of the main Jewish paper of Donetsk, the embattled eastern city that has become a flashpoint in the fight between Ukrainian forces and the rebels.
The day after the mass wedding, Brez was back on the roof for the marriage of Baruch and Nastya Moscalenko, who met last year through a Jewish studies program at the Menorah Center. Although her family is secular, Nastya Moscalenko began attending classes at the urging of her friends.
“Baruch is from a more religious background,” she said. “We traveled in different circles, so I don’t think we would’ve met if not for Menorah.”
Kaminezki takes a more historical view of the center's significance.
Gesturing toward a neglected yard in the building's shadow, he indicates the spot where secret police agents in 1939 arrested the city's chief rabbi, Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
The younger Schneerson, revered by Chabad devotees all over the world, spent much of his adolescence in Dnepropetrovsk but left for good after his father’s arrest.
“Those who didn’t want the rebbe and other Jews here now have a 22-story building celebrating their tradition,” Kaminezki said. “That’s the story of Ukraine’s Jews.”