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In Ukraine, much of the world’s matzah supply is under fire

Before the Holocaust, Dnipro, a city in eastern Ukraine on the Dnieper River, had a rich Jewish history, home to tens of thousands of Jews. But, during Nazi occupation, the population plummeted from 80,000 to about 700, with at least 20,000 Jews murdered by firing squads while others fled or were deported.

Today, Dnipro is once again a Jewish center. Boasting the largest Jewish community in Ukraine, it’s a triumphant symbol of the renaissance experienced by the Ukrainian Jewish community despite Nazi and communist regimes decimating the population.

Dnipro’s Menorah Center, an enormous building shaped in seven towers after the eponymous candelabra, is the largest Chabad center in the world and houses the largest Holocaust museum in the former Soviet states, along with ritual baths, kosher restaurants and wedding halls. The city also produces nearly all of the shmurah matzah — a handmade version of the unleavened bread preferred by more observant Jews — for the former Soviet world, as well as exporting to Western Europe and the U.S.

Now, however, with Dnipro hit by Russian missiles on Friday, Jews (and non-Jews) may once again be forced to flee the city, ending its Jewish renaissance and possibly preventing religious Jewish Passover observance throughout the former Soviet world — a particularly ironic fate given Putin’s false assertion that his attack on Ukraine is necessary to fight Nazis and antisemitism.

Dnipro is an important city beyond its Jewish heritage; during previous conflicts with Russia on Ukraine’s eastern border, it has served as a safe haven for residents fleeing, some of whom have sheltered in the Menorah Center. And for years, it was the center of Ukraine’s rocket and missile program, even operating as a closed city, requiring a permit to remain overnight.

Perhaps that’s the reason the city has come under fire in this round of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Or perhaps it’s because of its controversial former governor, Jewish oligarch Igor Kolomoyskyy, who funded the construction of the Menorah Center, took a hard line against pro-Russian factions during his tenure as governor and seems to enjoy provoking Putin. Either way, Dnipro has long been the subject of Putin’s attention.

Dnipro’s Jewish population has also long had a conflict with Russia over matzah specifically. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, pushed to have his own kosher supervision over the matzah produced in Dnipro when he was chief rabbi of the city; previously the Russian government had overseen matzah production and the change was controversial as the rigorous kosher standards required by the Lubavitcher rabbi made the process more expensive, eventually resulting in the elder Schneerson’s deportation “for strengthening Jewish observance under communism” according to Chabad’s site.

After the U.S.S.R. dissolved, matzah production became less fraught and the Tiferet HaMatzot bakery opened in Dnipro in the early 2000s to make the expensive, extra-kosher shmurah matzah. Ukrainian shmurah matzah is less expensive than its Israeli- or Western-baked counterparts, which makes it an essential for many observant families who cannot otherwise afford the matzah that can cost as much as $60 a pound. It’s also the main supplier to Jewish communities in former Soviet countries such as Azerbaijan.

The Ukrainian bakery exports well over 70 tons of the handmade matzah each year, and has done so during previous conflicts with Putin, undeterred by the violence, though during war they are unable to export the matzah across the border to Russia.

But Dnipro has not been bombed in previous conflicts. While baking was still underway in early March, as evidenced by a Facebook video making the rounds in Chabad groups, that was before several Russian strikes hit the city. It’s unclear if the Ukrainian matzah will be available to those who need it — a post on Reddit bemoaned the fact that a store in Monsey, N.Y. didn’t have any in stock and wasn’t expecting to receive a supply.

Yet, as of today, a Chabad site for ordering shmurah matzah for Passover was still offering three varieties: New York, Israeli and Ukrainian.

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