Odessa Jews protest new luxury apartments that could collapse historic synagogue
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Local Jews hope Diaspora pressure will prompt gov't rethink

Odessa Jews protest new luxury apartments that could collapse historic synagogue

Built as house of prayer for kosher butchers in 1909, structure passed through Nazi and KGB hands and has been a JCC since 1991 — but may not survive new construction project

  • Undated photo showing the exterior of the JCC Migdal in Odessa, originally a synagogue built in 1909. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
    Undated photo showing the exterior of the JCC Migdal in Odessa, originally a synagogue built in 1909. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
  • Teens hang out at the JCC Migdal in Odessa in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
    Teens hang out at the JCC Migdal in Odessa in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
  • Children sing during a program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
    Children sing during a program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
  • Seniors dance during a program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
    Seniors dance during a program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
  • The JCC Migdal in Odessa is said to house the largest Jewish library in the city, and maybe all of Ukraine. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
    The JCC Migdal in Odessa is said to house the largest Jewish library in the city, and maybe all of Ukraine. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
  • Children participate in a Purim holiday program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)
    Children participate in a Purim holiday program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)

The former synagogue now housing the JCC Migdal was one of the first confiscated buildings to be returned to the Jews when the Soviet Union collapsed. And now that building too may collapse, says the Jewish community, as a new luxury apartment complex appears slated to be built perilously close to the frail structure.

Erected in 1909, the building was originally a house of prayer for kosher butchers — not the ritual slaughterers, but those who sold the meat. After the communist revolution, it was converted into a military athletic club. There was a tower in the yard, which paratroopers used for practice jumps.

The building withstood the city’s Nazi occupation, when the synagogue’s last caretaker was murdered along with his entire family. Later on, it was used by the KGB. They divided up the large prayer hall, converting it into offices and installing wiring inside the walls.

“When we got the building, the walls were as if a tractor passed through them. There were wires everywhere. It was in terrible condition. There was no central heating. Up until 12 years ago, we heated it with coal,” says Kira Verkhovsky, JCC Migdal chairwoman.

Undated photo showing the exterior of the JCC Migdal in Odessa, originally a synagogue built in 1909. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)

The community center has been in the building since 1991, and houses the largest Jewish library in the city — and possibly all of Ukraine, Verkhovsky says. The center also offers Jewish theater, dance, art, and literature classes, groups for Jewish teenagers and for Jewish parents, and a club for Holocaust survivors. About 1,000 families use the center on a regular basis.

“Everything we do is Jewish,” Verkhovsky says. “Even aerobics we have with Jewish music.”

Children dance during a program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)

But now the attendees of JCC Migdal are worried that the construction of a new six-story luxury apartment building, which is planned to be built within one to three meters (3.3 and 10 feet) from the synagogue’s wall, will lead to the collapse of the historic building.

“They are planning to build it in our yard. There are regulations that no one is following. The regulations state that they should not build within 50 or at least nine meters [164 feet or 30 feet],” Verkhovsky says. “I am worried that our building will collapse.”

The JCC Migdal in Odessa is said to house the largest Jewish library in the city, and maybe all of Ukraine. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)

Indeed, in Odessa this tends to happen. The problem is partly geological — the city stands on catacombs, underground tunnels which can make foundations unstable. Shell-rock, the material that was used to build many of Odessa’s buildings, is also not very durable. According to Verkhovsky, five houses collapsed in Odessa in the last two months alone.

Some blame the recent collapse of this Odessa building (which is not the JCC Migdal) on nearby construction. (Sergey Kurilo)

Even if construction next door does not directly cause the collapse of the synagogue at 46 A Malaya Arnautskaya, it will block the Jewish Community Center’s access to natural sunlight, eliminate its parking spots, and force people to use a back door to get in and out, Verkhovsky said.

“The building will be visible from one side only. We won’t see the light of day at all,” Verkovsky said.

To save their beloved center, members of the Jewish community have been trying to put pressure on the Ukrainian government from abroad.

For example, stay-at-home mom Jenny Bat’ya Spektor, who recently emigrated to Israel but is still serves as Migdal’s volunteer-in-chief, has been sending out emails urging Jews all over the world to help the synagogue. In the email sent out in mid-June, she urged people to contact Ukrainian embassies to inquire about the destruction of the synagogue as well as get in touch with a congressperson or member of parliament to ask them to intervene with the Ukrainian authorities about the matter.

It is hard to do anything legally in Odessa

“It is hard to do anything legally in Odessa. The idea of foreigners getting in touch with the embassies is that we want the situation to be well-known, to make them ashamed to break the law,” Spektor said.

Jenny Spektor, seen here in an undated photo, retains her role as volunteer-in-chief of the JCC Midgal in Odessa despite having recently emigrated to Israel. (Courtesy)

According to Spektor, Jewish communities in Baltimore and Washington, DC, recently sent letters about the synagogue to the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States.

“It’s about the destruction of history, a historic Jewish building,” Spektor said. “If it collapses, it will be like seeing your home fall down… I know every corner of that building. We raised money and room after room was renovated. So many of my friends stood under the chuppah [marriage canopy] in that yard. It’s definitely like a home to me.”

Migdal’s former students all over the world — in the United States, Israel, and Germany — are now working to save the building, she says.

In Odessa, too, 320 people signed a letter addressed to the mayor of the city about the construction project, but are yet to receive a reply, Verkhovsky said.

Meanwhile, the apartments in the Prostranstvo na Shmidta luxury building — on which construction has yet to start — are already for sale online, listed at $124,254 for a two-bedroom and $62,445 for a one-bedroom. By Ukrainian standards, where average annual salaries hover around $5,000, this is not cheap.

Online illustrations of the building depict large windows, balconies, and rooftop gardens, and the website boasts of concierge service and underground garbage collection receptacles.

Seniors dance during a program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)

Oksana Guk, the spokeswoman for Prostranstvo, the company building the apartment block, assured The Times of Israel that the company will cover renovation costs for the synagogue, including replacing the roof and installing support structures so that the house of worship does not collapse.

“Prostranstvo considers the preservation of Odessa’s historical heritage of utmost importance,” Guk wrote in an email.

We will begin building the apartment block only after the renovation work on the synagogue is completed

“We will begin building the apartment block only after the renovation work on the synagogue is completed. In addition to reinforcing the building, we will renovate the roof of the synagogue, since rainwater is currently destroying the foundations of the building. Prostranstvo will also renovate the facade and the yard of the synagogue. All this will be our voluntary contribution to the development of our beloved city,” wrote Guk.

She added that the apartment block will be constructed “more than three meters away” from the wall of the synagogue.

Children participate in a Purim holiday program at the JCC Migdal in Odessa, in this undated photo. (Courtesy Kira Verkhovsky)

But Verkhovsky doesn’t trust the company’s promises.

She pointed out that the company already knocked down a section of the historic shell-rock fence that was once a part of the synagogue’s yard. Previously, a kosher restaurant that occupied the space had to get special permission from the office of historical preservation just to paint that fence a different color, she said.

Verkhovsky also said that the company is actually going to be building on city-owned land.

“They are promising to reinforce our building. We have been talking with them for three months, but we didn’t sign anything yet… It’s a difficult situation. Maybe our synagogue won’t collapse while they are building. It might fall in two years,” Verkhovsky said. “For them it’s just business. For us, it’s life.”

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