South Hills congregation embraces links to Ukrainian town

South Hills congregation embraces links to Ukrainian town

Shepetovka, Ukraine is about 4,800 miles from Pittsburgh, but Beth El Congregation of the South Hills is trying to bring that distance a little closer.

For the past four years, the congregation has maintained a partnership with the Ukrainian city, which is located approximately 170 miles west of Kiev. Rabbi Alex Greenbaum explained that the partnership developed at the bequest of a congregant who possessed a relationship with the city.

Nearly five years ago, Ellen and Burt Singerman traveled to the Eastern European nation. Their trip was fueled by a desire to see Trochenbrod, the hometown of Burt’s mother. Although the town had been razed by the Nazis during World War II, the couple still wished to have a connection to Burt’s ancestral land; after some research, they discovered that not far away stood Shepetovka and its small Jewish population.

The Singermans, who reached out to leaders of Shepetovka’s Jewish community, sat down with residents there to learn about Ukrainian life. After returning from their trip, the Singermans worked with their congregation in Johnstown, Pa., to assist Shepetovka’s Jewish community. Approximately a year later, the Singermans moved to Pittsburgh and along with their possessions they brought the connection to Shepetovka. Greenbaum was immediately supportive of the Singermans’ work in Ukraine.

“Sometimes living in Pittsburgh we forget about the outside world, but every little thing makes a difference for them. It makes us appreciate what we have,” Greenbaum said.

Along with the congregation’s world Jewry committee and religious school, Greenbaum and the Singermans worked to educate synagogue members about Shepetovka.

The scope of these efforts has shifted recently as Ukraine has occupied global attention. For the past five months, Ukrainians and pro-Russian rebels have engaged in a military battle.

Already attuned to Ukraine, members of Beth El took further note. Vitamins were collected and sent from Beth El students and members. The synagogue’s men’s club and sisterhood both held events to benefit Shepetovka’s Jewish community. Informative slide shows about Shepetovka, as well as the Ukrainian political situation, were presented. Additionally, regular Skype conversations between members of Beth El and leaders of Shepetovka’s Jewish community occurred.

Ellen Singerman said that from these exchanges, Beth El members have learned firsthand about the difficulties of daily life — specifically that gas, electricity and food prices have soared, while the availability of social services has plummeted. According to Singerman, despite daily challenges, Shepetovka’s Jewish community will continue to keep its synagogue open, observe all of the holidays and provide food, medication and support to its members.

Singerman also noted that during “Europe Day,” a Shepetovka community-wide event highlighting various regional European ethnic groups, the Jewish community was invited to occupy its own booth. Despite lacking a tent to house the booth, leaders constructed a sukkah from materials purchased from Beth El’s donations. After constructing the sukkah, Jewish leaders participated in the communal event by disseminating information about Judaism, hanging an Israeli flag and displaying Judaica sent from Beth El.

As of last week, a ceasefire was reached between the Ukrainians and pro-Russian rebels. While details of the agreement have been debated by political pundits, Singerman remains skeptical that the ceasefire will end the conflict.

“I wish I felt more optimistic, but I feel it’s more a ploy on the part of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. My own personal opinion is that he wants to go into the Baltic States as well and he’s just playing his chess game,” she said. “I don’t see that he’s seriously felt enough of a pinch to have an enduring peace, and that he doesn’t have designs for continuing to go after Ukraine and other Baltic States.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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