The Book of Esther is read, against all odds, in the ruins of Lviv’s oldest synagogue
LVIV, Ukraine – Meylakh Sheykhet, lay leader of the Turei Zehav community, opened a heavy wooden door and waved me inside. He rushed, for although the Book of Esther – or megala — must be read at sunset, his community moved its reading to late afternoon, “because everyone wants to go home before curfew” at 10 p.m., he said.
Without a rabbi and without a proper building, Turei Zahav is not considered one of two functioning synagogues in a city that housed more than 100 shrine buildings before World War II.
Instead, housed in the ruins of Golden Rose, a Renaissance synagogue that was the oldest in Lviv until it was desecrated and destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the community demonstrated creativity while preserving its heritage.
The current sanctuary of the few worshipers is the old entrance gate of the synagogue, to which they affixed a wall to create an enclosed space. It is now filled with prayer books and Judaica, as well as mattresses and boxes of clothes donated to Ukrainian refugees, about a dozen of whom sleep in the prayer space each night.
Sheykhet grew up in Lviv and, after a brief stint in the United States, is now the Ukrainian director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union. Among his responsibilities, he lobbies the Ukrainian government to restore Jewish historical sites, including Golden Rose.
As of Wednesday evening, his community had five members, who were guarded by two security guards. “We are here all the time,” said one.
Turei Zahav has taken his shots as much from assimilation and immigration to Israel as from COVID-19 and, now, war.
Before the pandemic, Turei Zehav boasted of “four minyans a day,” Sheykhet said, referring to a Jewish prayer quorum of 10. Well, that can’t fill one.
Those who remain
The remaining community is biased older. Everyone who attended the Purim service was at least middle-aged and came without their extended family. Although Sheykhet said, “We plan to hold a Bar Mitzvah again,” no specific plans are on the horizon.
With the onset of war, “many left for shelter in Israel,” he said, “and they planned to return.”
But, he says, “maybe they won’t come back. They will see that they have a good life in Israel and will not come back. We do not know.
“Everyone wants us to exist,” Sheykhet said, tugging at his long white beard. “The whole of the [local] Jews – secular, non-secular – are happy that our community exists.
“But the main point is that they have to join. They must be present and share the richness of Jewish life.
Nonetheless, “the skeleton of the community remains,” said longtime member Leah, in her 70s, who, like everyone in attendance other than public figure Sheykhet, declined to give her last name.
Leah’s own grandson lives in Israel, and her wedding visit story included a “greeting” by a member of the Jerusalem State Rabbinate, who asked her about her Jewish heritage.
“I made it! I knew all the answers,” she said proudly.
Since there are no civil marriages in Israel, marriages are performed by religious authorities, or performed abroad and recognized retroactively by the state. Before performing Jewish marriages, the rabbinate has the power to establish Jewish good faith and takes care to determine the religious status of immigrants, such as Leah’s grandson.
Michael, born in Ukraine but sometimes residing in Haifa, arrived wearing a fatigues and yarmulke under his pageboy hat, despite not yet being in the military. Visibly harassed, Michael was at his family’s second home in Lviv when the war broke out, and his wife and 7-year-old son are still trapped in kyiv.
“How do you think I feel?” ” he said. “I call them five to six times a day.”
On the 21st day of the Russian invasion, the community did not wear Purim costumes, bake any sweet talk, or break hamantaschen, the traditional holiday pastries. Rather than festive, the atmosphere was tense, but comfortable. Everyone had their eye on the clock.
With a sweet suggestion that “maybe you’d like to keep Leah company”, I transitioned behind the wood mehitzahor separation barrier between men and women which is a common prayer custom for observant Jews.
The table in the women’s section, lovingly wiped down by Leah before the reading began, was an island of calm in a sea of mattresses, nappies, clothes and other gifts from a Jewish community in Baden-Baden , in Germany, to Ukrainian refugees, which Turei Zahav distributes.
Sheykhet, who grew up in Soviet Ukraine and never took an interest in rabbinical studies for fear of reprisals from the regime, began a slow, methodical chant from a roll of weathered parchment.
In Yiddish style, he rolled his Hebrew letter “tav” into an “s” sound, and in universal style, joined everyone in banging his fist on the table at the mention of Haman.
After the megila Reading over, Turei Zahav reconfigured his shrine into a refugee shelter for the night, ending the story of redemption from the brink of annihilation, while praying for Ukraine.
“Please, Gd,” Sheykhet said, “let this war end.”