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‘He Had A Vision And Was Always Right’: The Life Of A Ukrainian Jewish Leader

Shmist in his workshop making a memorial gravestone in 1992. (Photo courtesy of the Shmist family.)

Shmist in his workshop making a memorial gravestone in 1992. (Photo courtesy of the Shmist family.)

Single-minded and dutifully on a mission, Leah Shmist is sitting at her mother’s kitchen table in Ashdod, sorting through a box of papers. Her father, Dr. Aharon Arkady Shmist, was among the first Jewish lay leaders in Ukraine who began to rebuild the Jewish community as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev initiated Perestroika and Glasnost in the mid 1980’s – allowing for greater freedom to religious groups. Much has been written about Shmist, documenting his work as a Jewish lay leader, and now his daughter Leah says she wants to complete the last project he was in the middle of before his untimely death.

Shmist grew up in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine’s third-largest city with a population of one million people. It was the mecca of the former Soviet Union’s space, nuclear, and arms industries and the entire city consisted of military factories. Under communist rule, Dnepropetrovsk was a “closed city,” where no one was given visas to travel abroad, and no tourists were allowed to visit. The Jewish community was largely isolated and by the 1980’s, other than a few individuals who traveled to Moscow and Kiev where there were active shuls and where tourists could visit and smuggle books, very few of Dnepropetrovsk’s 50,000 Jews openly identified as Jews.

Despite the newly relaxed restraints, government tolerance had yet to be tested when Shmist decided to organize a Purim party for all the Jews in the city. Since Shmist could not publicize the party in a newspaper, he came up with a plan to send his young daughter, and other youngsters who began showing up at the city’s only shul, to the factory buildings to sell tickets for a Purim carnival. With the ticket proceeds, he rented circus grounds and hired actors. Meanwhile, at home, his wife, Dr. Bella Shmist, worked around the clock baking hamantaschen. Leah says, “We baked close to 1,200 hamantaschen and even though each person at the Purim party received a package with just one hamantasch, there wasn’t enough because 2,000 Jewish people showed up.”

Emboldened by the success of the Purim party, which most doubted at first would draw any interest, Shmist wanted to maintain the sudden enthusiasm for Jewish celebration. Although Shmist kept his own goats to assure he had kosher milk, he knew the community needed a rabbi, a leader who could build the necessary framework to sustain religious life. He lobbied Chabad to send a shliach to Dnepropetrovsk, the same city where the Lubavitcher Rebbe grew up, whereupon Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky took on the mantle of leadership in 1990.

Rabbi Kaminetsky, the Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk who has successfully just completed building the largest Jewish Community Center in the world at the cost of $66 million, downplays his own role in the success of Jewish revival in Dnepropetrovsk. Instead, he says his work is an expansion on the groundwork laid by Shmist, whom he refers to endearingly as Arkady. “When I first arrived to Dnepropetrovsk, Arkady was waiting to greet me at the train station and he was unmistakable with his long beard and clothing,” Rabbi Kaminetsky says. “Not only did he look like a yid from Ukraine 300 years ago, but he didn’t belong to our generation. He was like a person from the times of the Baal Shem Tov, totally selfless, and only concerned about Jewish life and Jewish people.”

On the anniversary of the mass killing in Dnepropetrovsk in 1941, when 13,000 Jews were rounded up at the center of town and marched through the city to a mass grave where they were all shot, Shmist began leading an annual procession of Jews through the city, all holding candles and Israeli flags, as they marched to the murder site. “Most people in his generation didn’t even know it happened, and certainly didn’t know where,” Leah says. “Some thought this march was a bit radical, but over the years many non-Jews join and march in this annual procession, too.”

Dr. Arkady Aharon Shmist leading an annual march to the mass grave of the 12,000 Jews killed in Dnepropetrovsk in 1941. (Photo courtesy of the Shmist family.)

Dr. Arkady Aharon Shmist leading an annual march to the mass grave of the 12,000 Jews killed in Dnepropetrovsk in 1941. (Photo courtesy of the Shmist family.)

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