Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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VISIT TO JEWISH COMMUNITIES IN UKRAINE AND MOSCOW AND

RELATED MEETINGS IN JERUSALEM

OCTOBER 1993 (continued)

 

Dnipropetrovsk

 

4. In his initial meeting with Betsy Gidwitz, Rabbi Schmuel Kaminetzky spoke of increased tension in the city stemming from the deteriorating economic climate. In recent years, the Jewish community had commemorated the Katastrola (Holocaust) by marching from the center of the city on October 13 to Zhedarmskaya balka, the site of the Nazi massacre of 30,000 Jews on that date in 1941. However Rabbi Kaminetzky believed that a simple gathering at the balka (gulch), without a march (which would require closure of several major thoroughfares to ordinary traffic), would be advisable under current conditions.

On a more positive note, Rabbi Kaminetzky reported that he expects the Choral Synagogue to be returned to the Jewish community in the near future. The facility will require substantial renovation because it has been used as a warehouse for many years. The adjacent factory that currently possess the synagogue will continue to control its electricity and water supply, a situation that Rabbi Kaminetzky hopes to change. When the choral synagogue is restored to its proper use, the existing smaller synagogue will be converted into a yeshiva study hall for the yeshiva students from Morristown, NJ who currently use another facility and for local men who will join them someday.

Rabbi Kaminetzky has recently acquired premises for an additional synagogue that would soon open in the Pobeda (Victory) district of the city. This congregation would be operated according to modern Orthodox philosophy, hoping to attract some of the large number of younger Jews who reside in the area. A young rabbi from Great Britain had already agreed to lead the new synagogue, but he had not yet arrived in the city.

Rabbi Kaminetzky frequently visits other cities in the area with Jewish populations – Zaporozhe, Kivoi Rog, and Dnipropetrovsk. None of these communities are likely to attract a resident rabbi in the near future, but Jewish community life is beginning to stir in each.8

Rabbi Kaminetzky observed that the local Dnipropetrovsk, Jewish Community Council, strongly encouraged by Bostonians and nurtured by Shimon Strinkovsky of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was beginning to function as a representative Jewish organization. In this discussion and on several other occasions, Rabbi Kaminetzky expressed his admiration for the JDC in general and Shimon Strinkovsky in particular.9

8. See below for reports of visits to these cities.

9. In addition to encouraging the formation of the Jewish Community Council, Mr. Strinkovsky has arranged for number of Jews from Dnipropetrovsk to attend JDC and other seminars during the past year. These include CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) conference in San Antonio; Brandeis-Bardin Institute in California, JDZ/WZO European Jewish teachers seminar in Prague; JDC day school principals seminar in Dnipropetrovsk itself; JDC kindergarten teachers seminar in Zvenigorod, Russia (also attended by a teacher from Zaporozhe); JDC welfare operation seminars in Moscow (also attended by individuals from Krivoi Rog and Dneprodzerzhinski); JDC library management seminar in Kiev (also attended by librarians from Krivoi Rog and Zaporozhe); and JDC Jewish folk dance seminars in Moscow and Odessa (also attended by individuals from Krivoi Rog and Zaporozhe). Forty-three youngsters from the area attended a JDC summer camp in Hungary.

In subsequent discussions, Rabbi Kaminetzky said that he and his wife Chana had decided to make a long-term commitment to Dnipropetrovsk, intending to remain “until the last Jew leaves”. Rabbi Kaminetzky had remarked previously that he views his primary responsibility to be instilling a spirit of Yiddishkeit among local Jews so that they will identify as Jews and go to Israel. He perceives no enduring future for Jews in any of the Soviet successor states and is strongly Zionist in his vision of Jewish life.

5. Prior to the arrivals of other from Boston, Betsy Gidwitz visited a number of the Jewish Community Council welfare clients. She was accompanied on her visits by two volunteer council workers, Nina Frotsova and Alexandra (Sasha) Grabova. Ms. Frotsova is a fedsher10 at the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish day school. Ms. Grabova is an engineer. Ms. Frotsova explained that her medical background convinced her of the need for this work and she is grateful for the opportunity to provide assistance to the Jewish elderly of the community, especially those with multiple handicaps. Because the elderly are dependent on meager pensions and will be unable to contribute to society in the future, they receive very poor care when hospitalized. She usually visits teo or three clients one to three times a week, and maintains additional contact with them and with others by daily telephone calls. Some of the clients live in remote regions of the city, have no living relatives, and are very isolated. Some live in communal apartment and are harassed by other residents, particularly drunks, Ms. Frotsova provides various nursing services, basic medication when she can obtain it, milk and bread supplied by the Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network11 and reading material to those with adequate vision. Through the synagogue she can usually arrange for craftsmen to repair apartments and their contents without costs to clients. Even when she is unable to bring any material goods to her clients, they appreciate the friendly visits. In the days immediately preceding Rosh Hashana, Ms. Frotsova visited nearly 100 elderly Jews; she was able to bring them Russian-language information about the holiday, Russian newspapers (including the community Jewish newspaper), and apples.

Because the professional work in engineering is concentrated in machinery, Ms. Grabova values her volunteer work with the council for the contract that it provides with human beings. She visits thirty clients regularly, including one family of eight people who require multifaceted assistance, including legal aid. Many elderly people are impoverished and very lonely; they often cry when she leaves, so she maintains telephone contact almost on a daily basis with those who have telephones12. One source in the city estimated that sixty percent of Dnipropetrovsk have telephones. The most persistent problems are the lack of medicine and food (in that order); dental care is also inadequate, and many elderly worry that no funds will be available for their funerals and burials. Ms. Grabova would like the Jewish council to establish an organization for the elderly and handicapped that would provide appropriate food and medications, qualified medical assistants (probably the equivalent of “home health aides” in the United States – BG), nursing care, and legal services. Those individuals who can afford to pay for such assistance would do so.

The two women believe that many of their clients are physically able to leave their apartments and would derive great benefit from socializing with others, but would require transportation services that are not available. They have heard about meals-on-wheels plans for the homebound, but implementation of such a program is a distant dream. They also noticed that the assistance they currently provide to the Jewish elderly is resented by non-Jewish elderly who live in the same apartment buildings and they fear their charitable work could actually endanger their clients. Many already suffered from the intolerance of Ukrainians and Russians. The Jewish council cannot possibly provide service to the elderly population of the entire city.


As noted in previous reports, Mr. Shinkovsky is based in Moscow and makes periodic visits To the Dnipropetrovsk area. Unfortunately, he was unable to be in Dnipropetrovsk when we were there.

10 A feldsher has received more medical training than a registered nurse, but less medical education than a physician. The closest American equivalent is probably a nurse practitioner.

11. The Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network is directed by a Chabad rabbi who has obtained surplus agricultural commodities from the Uniyed Stated government. See #17 in text.

 

Ms. Frotsova and Ms. Grabova also observed that a number of Dnipropetrovsk Jews have become wealthy in recent years and could afford to provide basic medications, nutritious food, and other services for the impoverished elderly and other needy Jews of the city. However, the concept of tzedekah is unknown.

Among the clients visited by Betsy Gidwitz were a 43-year old man with a degenerative disease (possibly a form of multiple sclerosis), obviously in great pain and unable to obtain prescribed medications, including painkillers; a 67-year old woman with both legs amputated as a consequence of diabetes, unable to obtain medications or food suitable for diabetes; three elderly sisters, two of who were paralyzed, and a 76-year old woman suffering from hypertension and unable to obtain necessary medicine. All of these individuals received some assistance from relatives and/or friendly neighbors, but lacked consistent access to appropriate food, medical care and household help. The 76-year old woman, a retired engineer, reminisced about Jewish life in the city before the consolidation of Soviet control; she was especially effusive about a magnificent cantor who sang in 1931 and 1932 and about joyous Simchat Torah celebrations during her youth.


6, The entire delegation from Boston met with the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Community council on Sunday, October 10. Bora Pessin, the council president, reported that the council was established in 1991.13 It’s role is to bring all Jewish organizations together in a common structure where the Jewish population could resolve communal problems and speak with a single voice. The synagogue, day school Israel Cultural Center, Jewish newspaper, and other groups represented on the council. Additionally, the councils sponsors various services, such as welfare programs, a Maccab sports group, and musical groups. All of the council members were very grateful to the Joint Distribution Committee, which had helped them to organize and also enable twenty-three local Jewish youngsters to attend a JDC summer camp in Hungary.


Alexander Friedkis spoke on behalf of the Jewish sector of the community. A vice-president of the synagogue, he noted the congregation was required to register with communist authorities in 1929 and suffered greatly during the Stalin period and subsequent years. Rabbi Levy, the last rabbi in Dnipropetrovsk before Rabbi Kaminetzky, left the city in 1954, and the KGB attempted to close the synagogue in 1970. Everything changed for the better in June 24, 1990, the day that Rabbi Kaminetzky arrived miracle’. Dnipropetrovsk. [At this point, another individual attending the meeting exclaimed that Rabbi Kaminetzky’s arrival was a ‘miracle’]. Rabbi Kaminetzky has been a real unifying force among Dnipropetrovsk Jews. Dr. Friedke is the director of the surgery department in a major Dnipropetrovsk hospital and performs all circumcisions for the Jewish community. He spoke for the great need for medical supplies of all kinds in the city, and at the request of Boston visitors, has begun to organize a couple of Jewish physicians (in various specialties) that would define the medical needs of the community, so that Boston-area Jews could offer systematic medical assistance to the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community. He expressed gratitude for the supplies that we had brought . (As a surgeon, he seemed especially grateful for surgical dressings, bandages, and related material;). He affirmed the comment of another council member that his salary of chief of surgery in a major hospital is $9 a month.

A number of volunteers spoke of their work in visiting the elderly and the handicapped under the auspices of the Council14 Most held full-time jobs abd did volunteer work in their spare time, but several were retired and acknowledged that their volunteer activities helped them fill otherwise empty time. They reported that the Council had files on 1,000 Jews in the city who required welfare services, some of whom were embarrassed to ask for it. They were able to assist only three hundred such individuals, one hundred of whom required daily attention (although few actually received daily attention), Most volunteers visited clients in the areas in the city in which they themselves lived, but some traveled to remote areas. The council attempts to assemble holiday parcels, including apples for Rosh Hashanah and hamentaschen for Purim, as well as provide some staple food items, basic pharmaceutical goods when available, and household help. The council also pays for funerals. (The community records one burial approximately every ten days.) No systematic fundraising is done, but contributions are received from local individuals, Rabbi Kaminetzky and former residents who had emigrated. Some volunteers live very modestly themselves. Clients require medical care (generally unavailable to the elderly) for glaucoma, cataracts, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and cancer. They need appropriate medication and nutritious food.; some individuals had no radio or television set. And many would like Jewish calendars. Those with limited vision would like the recorded books provided by JDC (in cooperation with the New York-based Jewish Guild for the Blind) in other post-Soviet cities.

Several volunteers participated in a conference for welfare providers sponsored by JDC in Moscow. The found the experience very useful. Record keeping, al done by hand, appeared quite thorough.

Sasha Grabova spoke movingly of the renaissance of Jewish identification among both volunteers and clients. Anna Rybak, one of the veteran volunteers and an administrator of the welfare service, asked, “What Jew would not want to help another Jew?” a sentiment that would not have been expressed in Dnipropetrovsk only five years earlier.


12. One knowledgeable source in the city estimated that sixty percent of Dnipropetrovsk Jews have telephones.

13 However, it has operated as a representative, functional organization for less than a year. The catalyst for its increased activism was the distribution of JDC-supplied supplemental food psrcels to approximately 700 elderly Jews in spring 1963. To facilitate equitable allocation of parcels, JDC urged the Council to consolidate the welfare lists prepared by various local Jewish groups. BG.

14. About twenty individuals, all women, constitute the volunteer group of the council, although all are referred to as volunteers, many receive small stipends for their work. Those speaking at the meeting included Ida Akhter (the senior member of the group, a semi-retired physician, and a former city councilor), Nina Frotsova (whose professional skills as a feldsher are valued), Anna Gorcharova (who maintain
data on individual clients), Sasha Grabova (commented by others for her creativity, organizational skills, and ability to recruit other volunteers), Maya Kaminskaya (who also cooks and cleans house for her clients), Lybov Kushnirovich (the bookkeeper, mmuch praised by other for her financial acumen), Olga Nemeiroskaya (who became a volunteers after observing how her own recently deceased mother had benefited from the group’s services), Inna Poskaya (noted for her sensitivity to others) and Anna Rybak (a volunteer administrator who maintains records of services rendered by the council).

15. The exchange rate during our visit was 15,000 coupons to the dollar.

 
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