Lwow (with a general population of some nine hundred thousand people) has about five or six thousand Jews today, we were told, a large percentage of them elderly. And poor. Most live on monthly pensions the equivalent of fifteen US dollars. Many of them have children living elsewhere in Europe, in Israel and in North America.
There are two rabbis serving the community. Rabbi Rosenthal is the senior of the two and he was in Israel during our visit. Rabbi Mordecai Shelomo Bald is the second rabbi and he and his wife - both from Brooklyn - have been in Lwow for six and a half years. (You ask them where they are from and they say "Lwow.") They are young, with three pre-school children. His personal affiliation is with Karlin Hassidim, but his activity in Lwow is not sponsored by them.
They have a day school and a soup kitchen, in addition to synagogue services. I did not attend services Friday night, but the others in our group did. It was a long service - and Shabbat started close to 9 PM - attended by probably eighty or a hundred people, men and women. There was also a small group of teenagers under the personal supervision of the rabbi. The height of the evening was undoubtedly supper, probably the best meal the people ate all week. Most of the women brought shopping bags and took food home as well.
I attended the morning services which began at about twenty past ten and lasted three full hours. The rabbi plays an active role in the service, singing anything possible, together with the congregation. Part of the service and the Torah reading is run by an older member of the congregation. Afterwards there was a meal, highlighted by a cholent which included kishke and kugel. The rabbi and his wife were involved themselves in serving the meal and afterwards spent as much time as possible with the teenagers. (The boys and girls were at separate tables.)
The soup kitchen, which is funded by the Joint, is active weekdays as well, and we would have been welcome to go there to eat, but didn't feel it necessary. The rest of the activities are funded from a variety of sources, including the Israeli government, and fundraising seems to be an important facet of the rabbis' lives.
Some of the members of the community speak Hebrew, having studied at an ulpan run by a retired English teacher (from the community) named Mrs. Dorfman. She and her husband Boris have a married son in Israel and a married daughter in Lwow and Boris publishes a Jewish newspaper, which appears in Ukranian and Yiddish, and gives tours of Jewish sites in Lwow. (There are buildings in central Lwow which still have Hebrew lettering, from the pre-War occupants.) I asked him why he chooses to remain in Lwow and he said that it gives him a sense of purpose. If he were to come to Israel, for instance, he would be just one more unskilled old man with nothing to do. I have heard that kind of thing from people doing community work in the US over the years, but it seemed to be much more meaningful in this context.
Another member of the community, Meilech Shoichet, is involved in cemetery restoration. Reclamation is probably a better word, as about all they can do in most cases is get the boundaries acknowledged and the area fenced and perhaps maintained. We also met an American, Dr. Sam Gruber, who was in Lwow on behalf of the World Monuments Fund and the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. They deal with restoration of both cemeteries and synagogues.
(Meilech Shoichet's late father ran an underground minyan during the Soviet years. The only other person left in Lwow from that minyan is the man who read the Torah that morning.)
The Lwow synagogue - completed in 1931 - is in rather good condition, but requires much structural work. Much of the original artwork on the walls and ceilings is still there, but needs work. (The artwork includes many of the usual themes - Rachel's Tomb, the Western Wall, Temple musical instruments of wood, lions guarding the Tablets, etc - but also some unusual images, such as parrots, tigers and brass instruments unknown two thousand years ago.) This large building has a main sanctuary and two balconies.
We also paid a brief visit to the synagogue in Stanislawow and met with
Rabbi Moshe Leib Kolesnik, who is a local man, trained by Habad in Moscow.
His community has several hundred Jews, but he also works with the smaller
communities of Kolomyya and Buczacz, with maybe two hundred Jews between