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AN APRIL VISIT TO UKRAINE

I. KYIV, BROVARY, BILA TSERKVA, AND DNIPROPETROVSK

II. PESACH WITH ILLINOIS AND UKRAINIAN HILLEL STUDENTS

April 2000


This report reviews a visit to Ukraine from April 10 to 24, 2000. The report is divided into two sections. The first section concerns (a) a journey to Kyiv and to two smaller Jewish population centers in Kyiv oblast, (1) and (b) a weekend visit to Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. This portion of the trip is viewed by the writer as an extension of an earlier visit to Ukraine, in January and February. (2) The second section of the report covers a journey by the writer with a group of students from The Hil-lels of Illinois to par-ticipate in various Pe-sach events in Cherni-hiv, Zhytomyr, and Vin-nytsya oblasts. (3)

(Chernihiv is located to the northeast of Kyiv, Zhytomyr directly to the west of Kyiv, and Vin-nytsya is located to the southwest of Kyiv. Dni-propetrovsk is in the east central part of the country.)

1. An oblast (область) is an administrative region in Ukraine (and Russia) with authority between that of a county and a state in the United States. Ukraine contains 26 oblasts, two of which are cities with oblast status; these are the capital city of Kyiv and the military district/seaport of Sevastopol. Kyiv oblast refers to territory surrounding Kyiv, not the city itself. (Crimea has the status of a republic within Ukraine.)

2. See the writer’s A Winter Visit to Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv, January 27 – February 8, 2000.

Ukraine is comparable to France in both territorial size and population. However, the population of Ukraine has decreased from 52 million at the time that the country declared independence from the then Soviet Union in 1991 to about 49.8 million people in mid-1999. Economic distress and emigration -- with the former fueling the latter -- are considered the principal reasons for Ukrainian population decline.

The largest Ukrainian cities are: Kyiv, the capital (about 2.6 million people); Kharkiv (1.5 million); Dnipropetrovsk (1.1 million); and Donetsk and Odesa (each about 1.1 million). Approximately 73 percent of the population is of Ukrainian ethnicity. Russians, concentrated in the eastern part of Ukraine, constitute about 22 percent of the population.

In December 1999, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma appointed Viktor Yuschenko, former Chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine, as Prime Minister. Mr. Yuschenko has promised economic reforms, including increased privatization of industry and commerce, diminished government regulation of the economy, land reform (privatization), and an overall tightening of fiscal policy. Implementation of such reforms will require substantial cooperation from the Verkhovna Rada, the unicameral legislative body of the government. To date, the Rada has been paralyzed, with the Communist Party (the largest of eight parties) and several other political groups opposing significant reforms. In late January 2000, the Rada split; the pro-reform majority walked out and held its own sessions. The various parties returned to a common chamber in February, but prospects for legislation mandating necessary reforms remain murky.

Responding to the Rada impasse, President Kuchma called for a controversial referendum designed to expand the power of the Office of the President. Approximately 80 percent of the electorate voted on April 16, with overwhelming majorities approving: (1) the right of the President to dissolve the parliament if it fails to pass a budget within one month or form a majority within three months; (2) the reduction in size of the parliament from 450 lawmakers to 300; (3) the introduction of a bicameral legislature (the second chamber to be appointed by the President on the basis of regional representation); and (4) the abolition of immunity for lawmakers from criminal prosecution. However, implementation of such measures requires a majority Rada vote in favor of a bill proposing each amendment and subsequent two-thirds majority Rada vote in support of each revision.

Average per capita income in Ukraine is less than $600. Pensions range from about $9 to $15 monthly and are five to six months late in distribution. Barter dominates a large segment of the economy, taxation is confiscatory, corruption is rampant, and legislation governing business transactions is inadequate. Serious questions exist concerning the independence of the judiciary system. As in Russia, oligarchs often receive favorable consideration from the state and control major media outlets.

Several issues remain contentious with neighboring Russia, the most important of which reflect the realities that Russia controls Ukrainian energy supplies and that many in Russia consider the Crimean Peninsula essential to Russian naval operations in the Black Sea. Russia also is troubled by the vigorous efforts of the Ukrainian government to spur “ukrainianization” of the country, encouraging use of the Ukrainian language and development of a separate Ukrainian identity.

Ukraine has received substantial economic assistance from foreign countries and international economic organizations. In 1999, the International Monetary Fund suspended a $2.6 billion loan program for Ukraine, charging the government with inadequate reforms and weak governance. International auditors, who were denied full access to accounts, have charged Ukraine with deliberately supplying misleading data to the IMF, falsely inflating foreign reserves. The incorrect information led the Fund to release loans to Ukraine that otherwise would have been withheld. However, the auditors found no evidence that the officials of the central bank personally profited from diverted funds.

The first three months of 2000 saw some improvement in Ukrainian economic conditions. The country’s GDP (gross domestic product) in January-March grew by 5.6 percent, compared with the same period in 1999. Industrial production increased by 9.7 percent, compared with a 2.5 percent decrease in January-March of 1999. Light industry, engineering, and the food sector showed the greatest gains. The writer observed some acceleration of economic activity in the two largest cities on her itinerary (Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk), but the situation is smaller population centers remains bleak.

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), Odesa (36,000), and Kharkiv (34,000). Ukrainian Jewry is losing about 40,000 individuals annually due to heavy emigration. The mortality rate of those who remain is high. The average age of Ukrainian Jewry is about 56 and the death to birth ratio is believed to be about 13:1. Emigration of Ukrainian Jewry to Israel continues in 2000 at a rate almost identical with that of 1999. Economic conditions and concern for the future of children in the family usually are the most important factors in generating aliyah to Israel. Family reunification is another key issue stimulating emigration.

Reports of increased antisemitism in Ukraine are widespread. Its growth is attributed to continuing economic distress, election rhetoric of Ukrainian and Russian nationalists, envy of welfare assistance provided by the comparably well-organized and well-financed Jewish community, and, in some cities, to Arab students enrolled at local universities and other post-secondary institutions. However, recent Jewish Agency studies have shown that antisemitism ranks behind economic conditions, concern for the future of one’s children, and family reunification in encouraging emigration.

3. Ukrainian orthography is used in this report in the spelling of all place names and all Ukrainian

4. Jewish organizations that use the Ukrainian language in their own documentation.
Newsline [Radio Free Europe], 4:74 (April 13, 2000) and Interfax-Ukraine, May 6, 2000.

5. Interview with Ehud Balsar, First Secretary, Embassy of Israel in Kyiv, and head of Nativ (formerly Lishkat Hakesher) in Ukraine, February 1, 2000.

6. See FSU Aliyah Update, Summary for January-April, 2000 (Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency for Israel, May 2000), p. 3.

I. KYIV, BROVARY, BILA TSERKVA, AND DNIPROPETROVSK


Kyiv

The primary purposes of the writer’s visit to Kyiv were (1) collection of information on Jewish community programs that she was unable to obtain during her most recent previous visit, in February of this year, and (2) acquisition of more current information on certain programs examined in February. The reader is encouraged to review the earlier report (A Winter Visit to Dnipropetrovsk and Kyiv, January 27 – February 8, 2000) before assessing the material presented below.

1. The most notable Jewish event in Kyiv during the first three months of 2000 was the dedication of the renovated Brodsky Synagogue on March 22. The centrally-located building was constructed in 1896-1898 with funds contributed by Lazar Brodsky (1852-1923), one of five wealthy brothers who were generous supporters of Jewish causes (7) . Soviet authorities confiscated the synagogue in 1926, converting it into a workers’ club, then a variety theater, and finally into a children’s puppet theater. A 1992 decree by then President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk returned the structure to the Jewish community and ordered the puppet theater to vacate the premises in 1993. However, the puppet theater refused to leave, continuing to offer performances alongside a group of Chabad-associated Jews who had established a synagogue community in the same building. Amid considerable tension, the two groups continued to occupy the structure and operate parallel programs. In 1998, Vadim Rabinovich, an individual of some notoriety in Kyiv and beyond, gave $100,000 to the puppet theater to encourage its departure from synagogue premises. (8) Renovation of the building began almost immediately thereafter, with Mr. Rabinovich contributing another $300,000 in support of these efforts. (9)

7. The major portion of the Brodsky family fortune derived from the sugar industry.

8. Vadim Rabinovich is alleged to be involved in organized crime, money laundering, narcotics trafficking, weapons sales to rogue states, contract murder, and other offenses. In 1999, he established United Jewish Community of Ukraine (Обеднана єврейська община Украіни), as a successor organization to an earlier organization, the All-Ukraine Jewish Congress (Всеукраінський 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. 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 (except during the Brodsky synagogue rededication). Mr. Rabinovich 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 former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma.)

9. Interview with Rabbi Moshe Asman, Rabbi of the Brodsky Synagogue, April 13, 2000.

The rededication of the Brodsky Synagogue was a gala affair, generously covered by local media and earning some degree of recognition in international media. However, few outlets acknowledged the absence of several prominent invited individuals who might have been expected to attend the rededication of such a celebrated symbol of Ukrainian Jewish life; not wishing to appear in the same program with Mr. Rabinovich, the ceremonies were boycotted by the Prime Minister of Ukraine, the Mayor of Kyiv, and the Ambassador of the United States in Ukraine. A number of individuals of lesser renown also absented themselves from events related to the dedication. Further, national Ukrainian television coverage of the rededication ceremonies conspicuously avoided mention of Mr. Rabinovich’s role in the synagogue’s renovation or coverage of his participation in the March celebratory events.

The façade of the Brodsky Synagogue, seen at right, is painted in a soft yellow color.


(Photo: KYIV POST, March 23, 2000)

Although the current structure is somewhat smaller than the original building and its interior is not yet fully restored, it is a grand edifice with magnificent halls and rich decoration. Numerous brass plaques bearing the names of local and international donors are conspicuous on walls and on benches in the sanctuary. (10) The basement is finished in a more ordinary style, but includes a kosher kitchen, large dining hall providing free meals to impoverished elderly Jews, and shops selling kosher food of various kinds as well as Jewish books and ritual items. A mikveh remains to be developed in the basement area.

Upper floors accommodate a women’s balcony overlooking the sanctuary, a smaller prayer hall and classroom, and the offices of the synagogue and various services and clubs operated by the synagogue. Additional classrooms will be developed when financial resources permit. The building contains no elevator, thus requiring elderly individuals to walk up four flights of stairs to reach the administrative center coordinating synagogue services to elderly Jews.

Rabbi Moshe Asman, the rabbi of the Brodsky Synagogue, was born and raised in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He began to study Hebrew and Judaism as an adolescent, meeting clandestinely with like-minded other young people and several observant older men who had spent decades in Siberian labor camps for their commitment to Jewish tradition. He emigrated to Israel as a young adult in 1987, entering a yeshiva almost immediately upon arrival in the country. Among many individuals, some question remains about the nature of Rabbi Asman’s smicha (ordination).

Rabbi Asman arrived in Kyiv in 1996, appointed by Tsirei Chabad (Young Chabad) to replace an older Chabad-associated rabbi whose effectiveness in the difficult Brodsky situation had been limited. (Tsirei Chabad is an Israeli group aligned at the time with then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and associated with Rabbi Yosif Aronov.) However, Tsirei Chabad terminated support for Rabbi Asman several years later, leaving Rabbi Asman one of very few rabbis in the post-Soviet states without significant ongoing foreign support. (11)

The writer met with Rabbi Asman in his study in the Brodsky Synagogue. It was their third meeting since April 1998. Rabbi Asman graciously accepted the writer’s congratulations for the renovation and rededication of the synagogue. With great pride, he reviewed some of the events associated with the rededication, including a concert that had attracted 4000 people during the evening preceding the ceremonies at the synagogue.

In response to a question, Rabbi Asman said that Vadim Rabinovich had contributed $3000,000 toward renovation of the main sanctuary of the synagogue. “That’s all.” (“Это все.”) Clearly annoyed by the question and by general outside concern about his relationship with Mr. Rabinovich, Rabbi Asman added, in his unpolished English, “Everyone here [in Ukraine] a criminal.” He doesn’t care about the policies of the American or Ukrainian governments regarding Mr. Rabinovich, he continued. His own government, said Rabbi Asman, is “the [late] Lubavitcher rebbe,” not the United States and not Ukraine.

Asked if he intended to affiliate with the Federation of Jewish Communities, the major Chabad support organization in Ukraine, Rabbi Asman replied that he does not want to work under FJC and that he does not need their assistance because “Baruch Hashem, G-d helps me.” (12) He has collected $1.1 million in local donations, a real miracle (чудо), he said, and there will be more miracles here. He acknowledged an outstanding $200,000 loan and unfulfilled plans to construct several classrooms and a mikveh within the existing structure.

He traveled to the United States on five different occasions during the last two years, continued Rabbi Asman. His fundraising efforts during these visits have yet to yield “good money,” he acknowledged, but he is optimistic that these trips will be fruitful in the future. He already has several significant donors among Ukrainian Jewish emigrants whose current business interests entail frequent travel to the Ukrainian capital. They visit him in the Brodsky synagogue when they come to Kyiv.

Rabbi Asman said that his relations with Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a Karlin-Stolin hasid and Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, are good. He continued that he has no political ambitions himself.

Rabbi Asman led the writer on a tour of the renovated synagogue, explaining various programs as the tour progressed. The synagogue dining hall provides free meals to 200 elderly Jews four days each week. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee subsidizes 120 such individuals and the synagogue finances the remaining 80 people. Additional people eat Shabbat meals at the synagogue, said Rabbi Asman, although he did not provide statistics for this program. The synagogue would hold three free seders on both the first and second nights of Pesach, said Rabbi Asman; he anticipated that 600 people would participate in these rituals each night.

The synagogue sponsors various interest groups, such as clubs for adolescents and young adults, a boys’ choir, a singles club, a women’s club, consultations for individuals emigrating to various countries (Israel, the United States, Germany, France), courses in Yiddish and Hebrew, and a yeshiva. The monthly news-paper От сердца к сердцу (From Heart to Heart) has been transformed into a magazine format with glossy covers and advertisements. Rabbi Asman said that he would like to open a preschool, day school, Sunday school, and a residential facility for homeless children, all outside the synagogue (13) . He is confident that he will be able to attract financial support for such programs. Perhaps, he said, Vadim Rabinovich will be among the major donors.

2. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a native of Brooklyn and a Karlin-Stolin hasid, is Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine. (14) He works concurrently on local and national Jewish affairs, and also represents Ukrainian Jewry in various international Jewish and non-Jewish organizations. His American roots provide comfortable entrée to the Embassy of the United States in Kyiv, where he is highly respected.

In recent months, his preoccupation with the affairs of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine (Єврейська конфедерація украіни) and the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Community (Киівська місьска єврейська громада), particularly his extensive foreign travel to various international conferences on behalf of these organizations, has generated considerable criticism among activist Jews in Kyiv and central Ukraine. His detractors claim that his frequent absences from the city effectively undermine his claims to leadership of the Kyiv Jewish community. Some perceive him as detached and remote.

Rabbi Bleich’s synagogue on Shekavitskaya street in the Podil district of Kyiv is less centrally located than the Brodsky synagogue and less grand. Further, although Podil was once a heavily Jewish district, relatively few Jews currently reside in the area. Rabbi Bleich is considering an attempt to purchase several apartment buildings in the area; he would then sell or lease the living units to Jews in an effort to rebuild the Podil Jewish demographic base.

Notwithstanding the absence of Jews in the neighborhood, a steady stream of individuals visited his synagogue in the weeks preceding Pesach. Similarly, the synagogue yard became a loading yard for vehicles from across the country. For both individuals and communities, the matzot bakery to the rear of the synagogue had become the source of unleavened bread essential to the Pesach ritual. Producing as much as two tons of matzot each working day in season, the bakery supplied most matzot consumed in Ukraine. Both Chabad and JDC obtained their matzot from Rabbi Bleich, each organization providing cartons of its own design. The basement of Rabbi Bleich’s synagogue served as a matzot warehouse, awaiting vans and trucks from Jewish communities throughout the country.

10. One such plaque, located at the entrance to the main hall of the synagogue, honors Lazar Brodsky and Vadim Rabinovich. Although Mr. Brodsky’s name is mentioned first, the plaque suggests that the two men played equivalent roles in the life of the synagogue.

11. Rabbi Aronov is known for his proclivity to maintain tight control over all programs under his purview, a strategy that is difficult to apply successfully when attempting to direct operations in the post-Soviet states from abroad. The relationship between him and Rabbi Asman could not be sustained. Several discussions have occurred between Rabbi Asman and the Ukrainian representation (Представительство в Украине?) of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S. Федерация еврейских общин СНГ), a Chabad umbrella group associated with Israeli diamond magnate Levi Levayev. With its headquarters in Dnipropetrovsk and rabbis in 13 different Ukrainian cities, FJC is a major force in Ukrainian Jewish life. However, FJC of Ukraine is concerned about Rabbi Asman’s ties to Vadim Rabinovich and also is sensitive to any actions that might be perceived as a Chabad challenge to the position or programs of Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Karlin-Stolin hasid, who is chief rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine. Rabbi Asman remains independent of any Chabad umbrella group.

12. As noted in the previous footnote, several discussions have occurred between Rabbi Asman and FJC. Some sources report that, despite his statements to the contrary, Rabbi Asman is eager to associate with FJC.

13. Control over the Simcha day school, which was opened by Tsirei Chabad in 1992, has been retained by Tsirei Chabad. Rabbi Bleich supervises a preschool, day school, and residential programs for both boys and girls from troubled homes. Four Jewish newspapers are published in Kyiv.

14. Karlin-Stolin hasidism originated in the towns of Stolin and Karlin in southern Belarus. Their major area of influence was in southern Belarus and contiguous areas of western and central Ukraine. Once established in Kyiv, Rabbi Bleich was asked by rabbis in other Ukrainian cities in the early 1990s to represent all of them in dealings with the Ukrainian national government. With their endorsement, he thus became Chief Rabbi of Ukraine.

 
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