The Torah scroll in the synagogue is not kosher. The shul itself, which Vygodner said functions more like a community center than a house of worship, rarely gets a minyan, the quorum of 10 men required for some prayer services in Orthodox Judaism. Its Star of David ceiling fresco remains, but its façade is peeling, revealing the clay and hay makeup of its walls. The women’s section has been transformed into a storage area.
Even so, it is one of the best-preserved buildings of the old shtetl, boasting a new tin roof and a fresh coat of white paint.
Most of the houses that surround the synagogue, which is at the heart of Bershad’s Jewish quarter, are uninhabitable, left to disintegrate by Jewish owners who immigrated to Israel, the United States or Kiev, but were unable to sell the land in one of Ukraine’s poorest areas. The yards are filled with junk and packs of stray dogs.
Many of the houses have a front porch that Vygodner says was an amenity favored by shtetl Jews. Some even have mezuzah markings on the peeling paint of their door frames.
But members of the Jewish community here, for their part, are not complaining. Feldman says she is happy to have a synagogue – an institution that few other towns of Bershad’s size can boast in Ukraine – and feels “lucky to have Yakov as our rabbi.”
Despite the local pride Feldman, the last remaining Bershad Jew whose mother tongue is Yiddish, is contemplating leaving.
“I have a sister in Ashdod, and I’m thinking of joining her,” she said of the Israeli city, adding that her main reason for staying is her daughter, Maya, who lives in Bershad.
As for Vygodner, his son left for Israel five years ago. But he and his wife, Tamara, won’t be joining him anytime soon.
“I don’t think Israel is holding its breath for me,” he said. “Besides, living here is an acquired taste and I’m set in my ways. I have my community here, my place.”