CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine — On Rabbi Noah Kofmansky’s desk is a stack of notes scribbled in a cursive handwriting only he can decipher. The notes, probably at least 50 of them, are lying face down. A few Ukrainian hryvnas are sticking out of the rabbi’s shirt pocket, but he says he didn’t count the money. All he knows is that it’s from a lot of people. On this Sunday, he’s been meeting them from 9 in the morning to 7 in the evening.
“People come from all over Ukraine, from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Moldova, Romania,” he said, as he poked inside his ear with a paper clip.
The people who come are not Jewish. They are Christians who believe in the power of Jewish prayer to bring miracles. They say that the prayers of the Jews are closer to God. Kofmansky writes down their problems and asks God to help them.
“Everything depends on the result,” he says. “If the result is good, people come more often and they bring their relatives.”
One of the rabbi’s biggest fans is 51-year-old hotel administrator Irina Tarasenko, who is not Jewish.
She met Rabbi Kofmansky for the first time when her mother had a kidney operation. Thank God, the rabbi’s prayer worked, she says, and now her mother is still well. Tarasenko asked for the rabbi’s blessing again when her daughter was taking the entrance exams at the police academy. Again, the result was positive: she was accepted. Nowadays, Tarasenko is so convinced of the rabbi’s abilities that whenever she meets a hotel guest with problems she strongly advises them to go talk to the rabbi first thing in the morning.
“I don’t think it’s a violation [for a Christian to go to the synagogue.] It’s freedom of religion,” she said. “It’s like going to the doctor — you can choose where to go.”
Everyone in this small town has heard about Christians asking for Jewish blessings — and no one seems to realize that the custom doesn’t exist everywhere else. One person who was very surprised by it, though, is Chabad Rabbi Menachem Glisnshtain, who arrived in Chernivtsi five years ago.
“It’s very strange,” he said, describing how he felt when non-Jews started showing up in the synagogue asking for blessings. “I was shocked.”
‘Once a day, we read everything they write, and we pray for everyone together’
Out of fear that turning Christians away might fuel anti-Semitism — or that it might make the Chabad synagogue look bad compared to the other synagogue, Glisnshtain says he had to tell Christians to write notes and leave a donation in the box “because a sincere donation can’t hurt.”
“Once a day, we read everything they write, and we pray for everyone together,” he said.
Glitsnshtain estimates that at least 50 Christians visit the synagogue daily. Most of the people want their boyfriends or girlfriends not to leave them, he said, or they need a prayer for recovery from illness, or for it to rain — or not rain.
Jewish prayers and anti-Semitism
The motivation for turning to the rabbi for prayer rather than to their own Christian priests is not exactly flattering.
In Chernivtsi, people repeat the same rumor: That the Jews allegedly don’t care what they pray for — as long as they are paid.
“They also pray for bad things, like to curse someone,” said Victor Melnik, the owner of a downtown shoe repair shop.
This idea comes from the interpretation of the phrase “a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye” in the Old Testament of the Bible, said Moishe Krais, a Jewish businessman and a former member of the Chernivtsi City Council, who often gets approached by high-ranking officials who want to be introduced to the rabbi.
That phrase is understood by some to mean that the Jewish religion sanctions revenge — unlike the Christian faith that teaches that if you get hit on one cheek, you have to turn the other, he said.
“People are sure that the Jewish God allows the punishment of evildoers. It’s for that reason they go to the rabbi — to do something bad to their neighbor,” Krais said. “In their understanding, the rabbi is connected with black magic and voodoo.”
The problem is that if the rabbi curses someone and something bad does happen, then people’s anger “will turn against all the Jewish people — against me and my children,” he said — not just against the rabbi.
‘They also pray for bad things, like to curse someone’
“If one man does something bad, then he is a bad man, but if a Jew does something bad, then all Jews are evil,” Krais said.
However, when questioned, both rabbis denied ever cursing anyone — although Rabbi Glisnshtain said that Rabbi Kofmansky does put curses on people.
Kofmansky strongly denied the allegations.
“I never say a bad word in anyone’s direction. I didn’t give life, and I have no right to take it away,” he said.
Instead, he busies himself with the good tasks. On a recent Sunday evening, just as he was about to lock the doors of the synagogue where a giant photo of himself adorns the waiting room to his office, his phone rang. It was a woman calling from Italy in tears because her husband beat her up again.
“Stop crying,” Kofmansky repeated into the receiver several times. “We will ask God to give your husband reason, so that he doesn’t hit you again.”
Kofmansky says his services for non-Jews have benefited the Jewish community. With the money he made blessing Christians, he replaced the synagogue’s rotten floor and leaky roof and installed new windows and doors. He also provides free hot meals daily to about 60 elderly Jews, he said.
He believes that because of his work, he has good relations with the Christian community.
“We don’t have security guards. Can you think of another synagogue with no security?” he said. “We have no problems.”
Two synagogues feud in Chernivtsi
It is estimated that Chernivtsi is home to only about 1,000 Jews, or less than one percent of the population. Still, the city has two active synagogues.
The older synagogue, built in 1923, was one of 14 synagogues in the Soviet Union that was never shut down, although it was without a rabbi until Kofmansky took on the job in 1992. (100 years ago, there were about a dozen synagogues in Chernivtsi and a third of all the residents were Jewish.)
This synagogue, which will soon celebrate its 100th birthday, is an old building where one can still see the murals of animals that were painted before World War II and sit on benches that predate the Holocaust. Kofmansky, who speaks fluent Yiddish, says he became a rabbi because his grandfather was also a rabbi in the same shul. (During Soviet times, Kofmansky worked as an engineer in a factory.)
The Chabad synagogue, on the other hand, is in a recently renovated, sparkling clean space that opened a few years ago and houses the city’s only kosher restaurant.
Unfortunately, the relationship between the two rabbis is not a good one.
Kofmansky says he lost half of his congregation because the “newcomer from Israel” who “came here with huge financial support” tries to “discredit him in every way that he can.”
He said some of his friends even offered to beat up the Chabad rabbi, but he told them not to do it “because he is a Jew after all.”
As for Chabad supporters, some of them claim that Rabbi Kofmansky was never officially trained to be a rabbi and that after Chabad’s arrival in Chernivtsi he began reading the prayers in Russian because he was ashamed of how bad his Hebrew was.
“I am a Jew and I don’t consider him a rabbi,” Krais said.