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A Winter Visit To Dnipropetrovsk And Kyiv

January, February, 2000


This report reviews a journey to Jewish populations in Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv during late January and early February of 2000. An effort was made to confer with many of the individuals interviewed during a visit to the same two cities in April and May of 1999. Similarly, the current report follows the format of the 1999 report.1

Ukraine appears to the observer to be mired in continuing political and economic crisis. On the political front, the Rada (Parliament) appears hopelessly split, its warring factions barely able to meet in single session. The pro-reform majority faction walked out in late January and both it and the left opposition held separate sessions, each claiming to act in the interests of thr3 Ukrainian people. The factions managed to return to a common chamber in February, but civility remains strained and prospects for legislation mandating necessary reforms are poor. Unlike Russia, its neighbor to the north, Ukraine has not managed to pay overdue wages and pensions. Inflation shows a clear upward trend over the last several months. Among the few positive developments in the country was the appointment by President leonid Kuchma, shortly after he was re-elected in November of last year, of a new Prime Minister, Viktor Yushchenko. The former head of the National Bank of Ukraine, Mr. Yushchenko is said to understand the severity of problems facing his country and is a firm proponent of necessary political and economic reforms.

The author arrived in Ukraine as a continent-wide outbreak of grippe (?'pun) or influenza swept the country. Schools had been closed across the nation, the quarantine ending in Dnipropetrovsk just as the author left the city. In Kyiv, schools remained shuttered another week. Cynics remarked that the government-ordered closures were due less to official concern for the health of children and their teachers than to a desire to reduce government expenditures through curtailing the demand for heat and other school needs.

Accompanying the author were five large cartons of various medications requested by a small clinic based in the Dnipropetrovsk synagogue.2 More than 60 percent of the pharmaceutical goods consisted of vitamins, aspirins and aspirin-substitutes, influenza and common cold remedies, antacids, insulin, and other common preparations that are beyond the budgetary capacity of the clinic or its impoverished clientele. The remainder were physician-approved pre- scription drugs, most of which are unavailable at any cost in eastern Ukraine.

Credible estimates of the Jewish population in Ukraine range from 250,000 to 350,000 individuals concentrated in four cities: Kyiv (70,000 to 100,000 Jews), Dnipropetrovsk (45.000), and Kharkiv and Odessa (35,000 to 40,000 each), Ukrainian Jewry is losing about 40,000 individuals annually due to heavy emigra- tion and a high mor- tality rate. The average age of Ukra- -inian Jewry is about 56 and the death to, -.-birth ratio is believed to be about 13:1 3

(Map available at: b!!P-;!f www.maDs.com/maqellan/ imaqes.ukrain-w1 )

 

Individuals in both Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv report increasing antisemitism. They attribute its growth to continuing economic distress, election rhetoric of Ukrainian and Russian nationalist groups, envy of the comparably well-organized Jewish community and the services it provides to Ukrainian Jews, and, in Dnipropetrovsk, to Arab students enrolled at local universities and other post- secondary institutions.

National Jewish communal activity in Ukraine is complex, segments of it governed by four competing organizations. The national Jewish group with the greatest credibility is the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine (Єврейська конфедерація украіни), established in 1999 under the leadership of ~ Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich. The Confederation reflects a joining of four pre- existing associations: the Va'ad (identified with Yosif Zissels and Rabbi Bleich); the Ukrainian Jewish Council (Єврейсьска рада Украіни; Ilva Levitas); the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Community Киів місьска єврейська громада;Rabbi Bleich); and the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine (Об’єднання іудейських релігійних організацій Украіни; Rabbi Bleich). Its structure provides representation for a number of smaller Jewish groups, such as the Union of Jewish Students, Magen Avot (a national welfare organization), the Committee on the Preservation of the Jewish Heritage (Комитет  Сохранения Еврейского Наследия) an association that supports preservation of Jewish buildings and cemeteries, the Association for Humanistic Judaism, the Association of Jewish [Day] Schools, and the Jewish Press Association. It publishes a biweekly newsletter Еврейский меридиан) in Ukrainian/Russian and English editions, available in paper or e-mail format.

In the pattern of the Russian Jewish Congress, which serves as a model for the entity that Rabbi Bleich is attempting to develop, a number of wealthy Jewish oligarchs constitute the leadership of the Confederation. Yehven Chervonenko and Serhv Maximov, both of Kyiv, and Yefim Zviahilskv of Donetsk serve as co- presidents.

A second organization, the Jewish Fund of Ukraine (Еврейський Фонд Украïни) is identified with Alexander Feldman of Kharkiv, its President and principal donor, and Arkadv Monastirskv of Kyiv, its Executive Vice President, who previously was associated with the Ukrainian Jewish Council. The Jewish Fund of Ukraine operates Kinor, a Kiev Jewish cultural center offering a variety of cultural programs, and sponsors occasional activities related to Holocaust commemoration, welfare for Jewish elderly, and interreligious affairs. Its presence outside Kyiv is sporadic.

The Ukrainian representation (Представительство  в Украинеe) of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S. (Федерация еврейских общин СНГ), is an umbrella group for Chabad-associated organizations in Ukraine. With its headquarters in Dnipropetrovsk and rabbis in 13 different Ukrainian cities, FJC is a major force in Ukrainian Jewish life. Although invited by Rabbi Bleich to join the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, it has declined to do so.

The fourth national Jewish organization is United Jewish Community of Ukraine (Обедана єврейська община Украіни), backed by Vadim Rabinovich. Established in 1999, UJCU succeeds Mr. Rabinovich's earlier organization, the AII-Ukraine Jewish Congress (Всеукраïнський  єврейський конгресс), which he founded in 1997. Mr. Rabinovich, who holds dual Ukrainian and Israeli citizenship, is on the "watch list" of the United States government, i.e., barred from receiving a visa to the United States.4 Under strong pressure from the United States, Ukraine banned Mr. Rabinovich from the country in June 1999 for five years. However, he returned to Kyiv in September 1999, reportedly with the assistance of the SBU, the Ukrainian successor to the Soviet KGB. The ban on his presence in Ukraine was reinstated on December 24, at which time he returned to Israel. Nonetheless, he has flown in his private plane to Ukraine numerous times since then, maintaining a low profile while in the country.

UJCU operates a Jewish community center in Kyiv, which accommodates some activities of both Chabad and the Progressive (Reform) movement, and subsidizes several Jewish organizations, including the Association for Progressive Judaism in Ukraine. It is reported that President leonid Kuchma has tried to force Mr. Rabinovich out of his position in UJCU. Regardless of the efforts of President Kuchma, it is anticipated that UJCU will reduce its operations in the coming months as Mr. Rabinovich realizes that its continued existence does not fulfill his objectives in supporting it.


Dnipropetrovsk

1. The writer arrived in Dnipropetrovsk on a non-stop commercial flight from Vienna.5 Snow was falling, and airline personnel beseeched passengers to take care alighting from the aircraft on icy steps to the snow-covered tarmac. Accumulated snow from previous storms also covered stairs from the small airport international lounge to a parking area.

On the way from the airport into the city, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk observed one snow plow on a major thoroughfare and attributed its presence to forthcoming municipal elections. However, it could be assumed that none of the candidates was campaigning on a platform featuring snow removal as many streets showed no sign of previous encounters with snow plows and even roadways on hospital campuses remained covered with the amassed results of earlier snowstorms. Sidewalks and other intended passageways were precarious.

 



1. See the author's Journey to Jewish Population Centers in Ukraine, April 26- May 14, 1999. The 1999 trip was longer and included visits to additional cities -Kharkiv, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Novomoskovsk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhya. (Ukrainian orthography is used in the spelling of most place-names and all Ukrainian Jewish organizations that use Ukrainian in their own documentation. )
2. See pp. 9-10,
3. Interview with Ehud Balsar, First Secretary, Embassy of Israel in Kyiv, and head of Nativ (formerly Lishkat Hakesher) in Ukraine, February 1, 2000. See also p. 39.
4. Vadim Rabinovich is alleged to be involved in organized crime, money laundering, narcotics trafficking, weapons sales to rogue states, contract murder, and other offenses. He is widely believed to have established UJCU in an effort to enhance his image and to protect him from prosecution by Ukrainian and other authorities. At one time, he had been a major financial supporter of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.
5Dnipropetrovsk (formerly Ekaterinoslav, in honor of Catherine the Great) is the third largest city in Ukraine, following Kyiv and Kharkiv; its current population is about 1.1 million. It was a closed city until mid-1990 due to its extensive military industry, particularly Yuzmash, an enormous installation manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles, booster rockets, and related products. The Dnipropetrovsk area currently is experiencing severe economic distress.

Jews have lived in the area, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. By 1897, the Jewish population of Ekaterinoslav had reached 41,240, more than one-third of the entire city at that time. Pogroms occurred in 1881, 1882, and 1905; the last was the most devastating, killing 67 and wounding more than 100 people. Prior to the consolidation of Soviet authority in the 1920s, the Jewish community was highly organized, maintaining a diverse network of Jewish religious, educational, and cultural institutions. It was an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. A small Karaite community had its own prayer house.

 
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