The Ukraine recently made history by electing its first Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, notes Sophia Kulich, president of Jewish Travel Agency. Ukranian-born Kulich, who specializes in Jewish heritage travel, sees the emergence of a Jewish president as a hopeful sign for increased heritage tourism to her home country.
“This signals that the country is open to welcoming Jews,” she notes, stating that Ukraine’s Jewish heritage dates back centuries. “Ukraine as a destination for the Jewish heritage traveler is poised for growth,” says Sophia, who, in 2018, saw her number of travelers to the region increase by 45%.
Kulich explains that various ethnic groups traditionally cohabited peacefully until the early 20th century with the rise of Pogroms, followed by the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Since 1991, when Ukraine declared independence from the USSR, the country has enjoyed a new openness. This is nowhere more evident than in the streets of Kiev, which are alive with bustling cafes and cultural life, says Kulich.
Kulich’s individual itineraries and small-group tours to Ukraine featuring the country’s Jewish heritage explore the major cities of Lviv, Kyiv, and Odesa, along with visits to Chernivtsvi, known for its culture and architectural styles, and villages in the Carpathian Mountains.
Many of Kulich’s tours start out in Lviv in Western Ukraine, some 44 miles from the Polish border. Founded in the 13th century, the city boasts an elegant opera and ballet theatre, Jewish and Armenian quarter, the Golden Rose Synagogue Memorial Site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating to the 16th century; coffee cafes, and a bustling market square. Today home to about 5,000 Jews, the community is reclaiming many of its Jewish gravestones, once used by the Soviets to pave streets. Volunteer organizations are also at work on various projects, including renovation of the old Jewish quarter.
Kyiv, the capital city, is known for its Monastery of the Kyiv Caves, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Travelers will also find café-lined boulevards and the gold-domed St. Michael’s Monastery, the round-domed St. Sophia Church, as well as the nearby infamous killing grounds of Babi Yar, where the Nazis massacred 150,000 local Jews and prisoners. Kyiv’s Jewish sites include the central Brodsky Synagogue, the Podil or Great Choral Synagogue, Sholom Aleichem Museum and the house of Golda Meir, one of Kyiv’s most famous Jewish residents.
Odesa, by the Black Sea, combines international influences in culture and architecture including Greek, French, and Italian traditions. Among sights are the legendary Privoz Market, the impressive Potemkin Stairs, the Baroque Opera House, tree-lined Derybasivska Street with its many cafes and restaurants, and Primorsky Boulevard which leads to the port. Of historic interest are the catacombs, some of the longest in the world, used by Soviet Partisans during World War II. Odesa was once home to prominent Jews including Leo Trotsky, the pianist Emil Gilels, the writer Isaac Babel and the poet and Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky. Among Jewish sites are the Slobodka Cemetery, the Glavnaya or Main Synagogue and the Chabad Synagogue.