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JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE IN EASTERN UKRAINE

Report of a Visit

April 12-28, 2002

 

 

This report reviews a visit by the writer to eastern Ukraine from April 12 to April 28, 2002. The cities visited include three of the five largest in Ukraine -- Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk.1 The writer also traveled to Zaporizhya, Krivyy Rig, and Dniprodzerzhinsk in the same region.

Collectively, more than 100,000 Jews live in this area, a number larger than that of the Jewish population living in Kyiv and the area surrounding the Ukrainian capital. Although estimates of the size of the Jewish populations in these and other Ukrainian cities vary, many observers believe that the Jewish population of Dnipropet-rovsk is between 40,000 and 46,000, second in Ukraine only to that of Kyiv (perhaps 70,000 to 80,000). The Jewish population of Kharkiv may number 30,000 to 36,000, and that of Donetsk may be 14,000. Between 7,000 and 8,000 Jews reside in Zaporizhya and in Krivyy Rig. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews probably live in Dniprodzerzhinsk.

Eastern Ukraine has long been the industrial heartland of Ukraine (and, earlier, a critically important industrial center of the Soviet Union). Few regions of comparable size elsewhere in the world are so well endowed with mineral resources: coal in the area around Donetsk, iron ore in and between Kriviy Rig and Dniprodzerzhinsk, manganese to the east of Krivyy Rig, uranium near Dniprodzerzhinsk, and mercury near Donetsk led to the development of major industries in iron and steel, armaments, machine construction (agricultural, transportation, oil refinery, turbines), and chemicals. A series of dams and power plants along the Dnipr River provides hydroelectric power in the region.

Over time, some of these resources have become severely depleted; further, a substantial portion of industrial production in the area now is obsolescent. Investment in new technology and design is negligible, reflecting, in part, reluctance of business to advance capital in a country with an immature legal system, pervasive corruption, and a dysfunctional government. The con-centration of heavy industry in the region without environmental safeguards has created dangerous ecological conditions.

Notwithstanding economic dislocation, eastern Ukraine continues to wield considerable political clout throughout the entire country. Dnipropetrovsk is the most powerful political locus, following Kyiv, in all of Ukraine; it has been a critical source of leadership for the former USSR and for contemporary Ukraine. Leonid Brezhnev, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko, and current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma all spent significant portions of their careers in the city. Donetsk is the third center of political and economic power in Ukraine.

Equally, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk are among the most significant centers of Jewish community life in Ukraine and in the entire territory of the former USSR. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk, is widely considered the most effective community rabbi anywhere in the post-Soviet states, developing a community infrastructure that is without peer. Due to its smaller Jewish population, the network of Jewish institutions in Donetsk is more modest, but Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, Chief Rabbi of Donetsk, also is deemed among the most capable community rabbis in the successor states.2

 

 

Map Of Ukraine

 

The writer’s visit to the region, in mid- and late April of 2002, occurred shortly after some of the worst episodes of current Palestinian violence against civilians in Israel, including, as many have noted, a large number of recent olim (immigrants) from Ukraine and Russia. Concern for the welfare of the State of Israel and for Israelis was extraordinary, expressed in almost every conversation with local Jews and visible in attendance at celebrations mark-ing the 54th anniversary of Israeli independence. The majority of Jews in Ukraine have relatives in Israel and many are considering their own aliyah (emigration to Israel) at some point in the future. Ukraine has been the greatest source of post-Soviet aliyah, surpassing even Russia, which has a larger Jewish population.

 

Strong ties to Israel are evident in Our Life in the Diaspora and at Home, a community newspaper published jointly by the Religious Community of Jews and the Jewish Agency in Donetsk. The upper half of the front page of the April issue is printed in blue ink, commemorating the 54th anniversary of Israeli independence. The upper headline reads People of Israel, Our Heart is With You!2 The lower headline and accompanying story, both of which appear in black ink, question why no airline service is available between Donetsk and Israel.

(The three blocks appearing just below the title introduce articles on Pesach in the Donetsk region, an interview with a well-known cultural figure, and recent incidents of antisemitism in Ukraine. The symbol with a menorah is that of the Jewish community organization of the Donetsk region; the symbol with the Star of David is that of the Jewish Agency for Israel.)

 

Emigration to Israel from Ukraine has decreased by 50 percent in recent months, a casualty of the intifada and improvements in the local economy. In some areas, a diminished pool of aliyah-eligible Jews also is a factor in reduced aliyah, but the current violence in Israel is the major deterrent.

Although the Ukrainian economy has shown a strong growth rate in 2001 and the early months of 2002, many people remain impoverished. Widespread economic and social dislocation is manifest in a growing number of children at risk, many of them requiring institutional housing due to inadequate parental care. More than 400 Jewish youngsters currently reside in seven such programs sponsored by rabbis (in Kyiv, Korosten, Zhytomyr, Odesa, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, and Kharkiv); two more such facilities (in Zaporizhya and a second program in Kharkiv) will open by the start of the new school year in September.

Elderly Jews also confront new difficulties. Facing a $9 million deficit in its post-Soviet programs and anticipating further budgetary woes stemming from the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Joint Distribution Committee slashed its allocations to the post-Soviet successor states by one-third in 2002. Although different locales in the post-Soviet states are affected differently, almost all JDC-assisted welfare programs in Ukraine and Russia have been curtailed substantially. A failure by JDC to explain its budgetary policies to both clients and the general Jewish population has generated additional pain and cynicism.

Antisemitism is increasing in eastern Ukraine. Arab students, who are recruited for many Ukrainian universities and other institutions of higher education because they pay full tuition, are among the most active purveyors of anti-Jewish bigotry.4 They have staged anti-Israel and antisemitic demonstrations and have harassed individual Jews. Antisemitism spurred by strong Ukrainian or Russian nationalist sentiment also is evident, although Ukrainian nationalism is far more serious in western Ukraine than in the eastern part of the country. Almost all Jewish institutions in eastern Ukraine employ visible security guards.

With a vast state-owned armaments industry dating from the Soviet period, the government of Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian middlemen, including some Jews, are active in the international arms marketplace. Among their customers are Iraq and other countries hostile to Israel. In general, the Ukrainian press is pro-Israel, far more so than its counterparts in Russia and in western Europe. It is speculated by some that this outlook reflects continuing ties between Ukrainians and the large Ukrainian Jewish population now in Israel.

1. The capital city of Kyiv has the largest population, estimated at 2.6 million. Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk rank second, third, and fourth with populations estimated at 1.5 million, 1.1 million, and 1.0 million respectively. Odesa, which the writer did not visit on this journey, also has a population of about one million. The populations of Zaporizhya, Kriviy Rig, and Dniprodzerzhinsk are estimated at 875,000, 715,000, and 280,000 respectively.

2. As noted in the author’s Jewish Life in Ukraine at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century, Part One (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2001), p. 4, rabbis usually are the most effective Jewish leaders in post-Soviet Jewish population centers. They bring knowledge and skills, as well as stability and continuity, to Jewish populations long bereft of such capacity. Whereas individual emissaries of the Jewish Agency for Israel or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee also may exhibit strong leadership skills, their tenure in any specific locale usually is no longer than three or four years and most are conspicuously constrained by the distinct agendas of their respective agencies. Community rabbis, however, promote and participate in multiple activities, including those that are primary on the programs of specialized Jewish organizations. Rabbi Kaminezki has been in Dnipropetrovsk since 1990; Rabbi Vishedski arrived in Donetsk in 1993.

3. The sense of People of Israel (Народ Израиля) is Am Yisrael.

4. Enrollment of Arab students appears to be particularly high in the study of medicine, dentistry, and engineering. Arab students in a college of dentistry in one eastern Ukraine city invited a popular professor to a festive occasion in October 2001 in “celebration” of the destruction by a Ukrainian missile of a Sibir Airlines aircraft over the Black Sea. “So many Jews were killed!” exulted an Arab student proffering the invitation, noting the predominantly Jewish passenger load on a plane flying from Israel to Novosibirsk. Unknown to the student, the professor in question is Jewish and was horrified by the reaction of her students to the incident. She did not attend the party.

 


 

 
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