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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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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.)

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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.)

Rabbi Kaminetsky describes how Shmist also led a march on Yom Ha’atzmaut while still under Soviet rule, “He was the only one who wasn’t afraid. He was such a big Zionist, and even though everyone was scared, he would constantly say, ‘Be proud to be Jewish!’ ” Such defiance was evident when his supervisor at work told him to cut his beard or he will be fired. His daughter Leah says he replied, “Marx, Friedrich, Lenin all had beards! Would you fire them?” Leah explains, “At that point, if she said anything, she would have gone to the great wasteland of Siberia so she relented on her threat.”

In addition to being a cardiologist, Shmist was a historian and skilled sculptor and began making stone monuments to erect at Jewish memorial sites. The communal grave where the majority of Jews were killed over two days in 1941 had merely a plaque that said, “Here were killed Soviet citizens.” Shmist demanded the plaque include the fact that these victims were Jewish. Later on, when the government initiated plans to build a stadium at the mass grave site, Shmist quit his job as a physician, and began an eight year long campaign to protect the land as hallow ground.

Consequently, Shmist developed the reputation of being the “protector of graves,” and Ukrainians would constantly come to his house to tell him Jews were killed in their yards, whereupon he would examine the site and record the witness testimony. Shmist believed his life’s mission was to memorialize Jewish life in Ukraine before WWII so that it would be known how much Jewish life had been lost. Kaminetsky says, “There are many mass graves in the whole Dnepropetrovsk region and Arkady would always say, ‘The least we can do is remember their names.’ ”

Dr. Baruch Natapov, a New York dentist whose parents regularly celebrated Jewish holidays with the Shmist family, says, “Dr. Shmist understood that if Judaism is going to thrive, you can’t just focus on history, but on young children who hold the future.” Natapov describes Shmist as a “child prodigy and genius” and tells how Shmist conceived a daring plan together with his wife to request that the Soviet authorities recognize and fund a Jewish day school. “Most told him not to hold his breath, so there was no surprise when the mayor, who was a communist, kicked him out of his office,” Natapov says.

However, despite the doubt and derision, Shmist didn’t give up and traveled to Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, where he sat in the waiting room of the ministry of education until the minister agreed to meet with him. “Shmist was very smart and really believed he was put on earth in order to preserve Yiddishkeit,” Natapov says, “so he wouldn’t give up.” Eventually, to the surprise of most of the Jews who lived in Ukraine, permission was finally granted and the government agreed to give Shmist the funds to rent space, pay teachers salaries, and buy books.

Once permission for the Jewish school was granted by the government, Rabbi Kaminetsky built the school (which currently has an enrollment of 600 children) and made Shmist’s dream, a reality. The school opened in 1991, and Dnepropetrovsk had now set a precedent for all Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union who were now requesting that their Jewish schools also be funded by the government just as in Dnepropetrovsk.

Being an ardent Zionist, Shmist moved his family to Ashdod in Israel, where he would regularly commute. Rabbi Kaminetsky says, “I never met anyone like him, a real tzaddik who was totally selfless, who had mesiras nefesh for the tzibur, who believed his sole mission in life was to rebuild the Jewish community in Ukraine.” Rabbi Kaminetsky tells how the physician was also a musician and composer and regularly gathered people together in concerts to sing the Jewish-inspired songs he composed. “A rabbi or a director can be replaced but not Arkady,” he says. “If you never met him, you just can’t understand who he was and what he was capable of. We never argued with him over any of his ideas because he had vision and was always right.”

In the humble apartment in Ashdod overlooking the sea, Leah says, “My father was especially taken by the story of the Prophet Jonah who was sent as a messenger to influence the entire community of Ninveh to do teshuvah.” She explains how her father wanted to establish a large memorial for Prophet Jonah on the small hill in Ashdod, where Jonah is buried.

“As a historian, he believed it necessary to remember our history that brought us to this point, but he also wanted to do this in an artistic and creative way so that those who may not be interested in the religious aspect of Prophet Jonah, might come to learn Torah through their interest in art and culture.”

As preparations were underway to create the Prophet Jonah memorial, Shmist chose an artist to design the memorial and a sculptor to create it. On morning he went down to the sea where he would immerse each day in a natural mikveh and tragically drowned at the age of 59.

Now, Leah wants to continue the project her father started in Israel but wasn’t able to complete, just as Rabbi Kaminetsky and the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community (with the support of Lev Leviev, Gennady Bogolubov, and Alexander Byoko) have completed many of the projects that Shmist began in Ukraine. Shmist’s family has established a non-profit organization, Ohel Avrohom, as they plan to complete the single project that he began in the holy land.

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