It’s not too often that a 13-year-old boy can change the world — or at least the world in which he lives.
So, it is difficult to underestimate the significance of the recent bar mitzvah of Menachem Mendel Moskovitz, known as Mendel.
As the eldest son of the Venezuelan-born chief rabbi of Kharkov, his calling to the Torah represented a coming-of-age of the Jewish community in post-Soviet Ukraine and of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in particular.
Mendel’s story began in New York, where his parents — Moishe Moskovitz and Miriam Amzalak — met and married and made their decision to move to the Soviet Union.
In the late 1980s, Soviet Jews were finally gaining a measure of freedom but — following 70 years of suppression — lacked direction and leadership.
Jews from abroad stepped forward to fill that gap and, in 1990 with eight-month-old Mendel in tow, the Moskovitzs headed for Kharkov.
"It’s hard to look back and try to remember what it was like," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "The wall was starting to come down in Eastern Europe and changes were taking place — but we didn’t know much about Kharkov and we didn’t know a word of the language."
But Miriam added they soon realized they were welcome in Kharkov and that they were to be part of something special — the rebirth of the city’s Jewish community.
The massive, red-brick central synagogue on Pushkinskaya Street had recently been returned by the government, after having served as a state-run sports club for most of its existence, starting shortly after its construction in 1913. Both the synagogue and the city’s Jewish community were in need of a rabbi.
"When we finally reached Kharkov, two boys met us and told us in English, ‘We’ll be your friends,’" Miriam recalled. "On the first Friday, we had 1,000 people for Shabbat, and 3,000 for the first Rosh Hashana."
They also had concerned parents — the rabbi’s father comes from Hungary and his mother from Venezuela; while Miriam’s father is from Egypt and her mother from Czechoslovakia. She was raised in Australia.
"Our parents were very proud," Miriam said.
Her husband remembers their families’ fears. "No one knew what was going to happen," he said.
Rabbi Moskovitz said his parents’ uncertainty stemmed from the experiences of his father, Nissan, growing up in Eastern Europe — and the time he spent at Auschwitz. But his son’s success in Ukraine over the past 13 years, including the December opening of the new Holocaust memorial in Kharkov’s Drobitsky Yar, has tempered Nissan’s reservations.
"My father objected to my coming here at first — but he did come to understand the importance of the work here," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "Watching his son standing beside [Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma] — the symbol of Ukraine — my father had tears coming down his cheeks."
The Moskovitzs decision to come to Ukraine represented a long-term commitment. The Chabad movement sends its emissaries to the former Soviet Union — and elsewhere around the world — for a longer term. They learn the language, buy homes and raise their children in what turns out to be a dynamic, cosmopolitan environment.
The Moskovitz family is no exception. Mendel is the oldest of eight children, which includes one brother and six sisters. They all attend schools launched with the help of the rabbi and the synagogue — and they all inspire the new generation of Ukrainian Jews.
"Mendel is the city mascot and symbol," Miriam said. "When people see him growing up, they also think about the development of the community — and he has a positive influence on the other children as well."
Mendel — who has curly dark hair and brown eyes — takes it all in stride. He has a calm demeanor and an intelligent face — he speaks English, Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew and he likes to study music and physics. And for someone who has become the mascot for the 40,000 Jews who live in Kharkov, he was remarkably calm for his bar mitzvah, despite the ramifications of the special day on the community.
"For me it’s a very special day," he said, adding, "though I’m not as nervous as everyone thinks I am."
Having been born in New York, Mendel identifies as an American. He’s also traveled the globe, visiting family in both South America and Australia. He said he enjoys Ukraine, too, because it is the place he’s spent most of his life, a place he has watched grow up around him. The synagogue, for instance, continues to undergo extensive renovations — thanks in part to the support of the George Rhor Foundation — but is already one of the most beautiful and arguably the biggest in the country.
"I think Chabad and the Jewish community is very respected in Ukraine," Rabbi Moskovitz said. "And we’re becoming a more mature community, too — when we first came here, all the help was from the outside; and now part of that help comes from the inside, and that ability to make a difference is an important part of the community."
The rabbi said Chabad’s commitment to staying in Ukraine and proving itself was a key to its success in Kharkov.
"When the media first interviewed us when we arrived and asked how long we would stay, I told them I wanted to be the last Jew to shut the lights off in the synagogue," he said.
Moskovitz helped establish a kindergarten, boys’ and girls’ schools, a medical clinic and a food program for the elderly, and he is actually helping build a legacy that can be left for future generations of Jews in Kharkov and Ukraine — who will be able to build on the foundation being laid today. On hand for the bar mitzvah, the rabbi’s mother, Ada, commented on the progress she and her husband have witnessed over the years.
"When we came to Ukraine, first there was nothing, and now there is everything — and we see our son progressing in his community, too, and that makes us very happy," she said. "It’s a big challenge to be a rabbi here, but seeing the community growing is his reward."