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REPORT ON JEWISH COMMUNITY LIFE IN KYIV

Report on a Visit to Kyiv and Zhytomyr

February – March 2003

The following is a report of a trip to Kyiv from February 26 to March 7, 2003, most of which occurred within the framework of the Chicago-Kyiv Kehilla Project of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The writer arrived in the Ukrainian capital on February 26, followed by Linda Saiger, Director of the Chicago-Kyiv Kehilla Project on February 28. Four professional staff members of affiliated agencies of the Jewish Federation arrived on March 3. These were: Dr. Robert Bloom and Fred Steffen, Executive Director and Associate Executive Director respectively of the Jewish Children’s Bureau, and Linda Kaplan and Mary Ann Manion, Director of Subsidized Housing and Director of the Weinberg Community for Senior Living1 respectively of the Council for Jewish Elderly.

The population of Ukraine, which numbered over 52 million in 1991 when Ukraine became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, continues to decline. In February 2003, according to Ukrainian government statistics, it fell to 47,956,000. Such precipitous Ukrainian population losses occurred twice in the past century, during World War II, when Ukraine is estimated to have lost more than three million people, and over the many years of Soviet control, when the country is believed to have lost more than 10 million people

due to a number of causes, including large-scale famine in the 1930’s. Some scholars estimate that the Ukrainian population will decline to 42 million by 2025.2

As if to illustrate that a portion of the population loss is due to poor health conditions, schools in Ukraine had been closed for two to three weeks (the precise length dependent upon conditions in a particular city) immediately prior to the Chicago team’s visit due to an influenza epidemic that seemed to afflict the entire country. In some areas, epidemics of measles and chicken pox coincided with the outbreak of influenza.3.

1. The Weinberg Community for Senior Living consists of two residential facilities, one designed for assisted living and the committed to early Alzheimer’s care. The Weinberg Community is located in Deerfield, IL, a suburb of Chicago impoverishment, and environmental degradation. Fully one percent of the Ukrainian population is believed to be HIV-positive; use of contaminated narcotics syringes is said to be the primary means of HIV transmission.

2. Life expectancy of men and women in Ukraine is 62 and 73 years old respectively, compared to 59 and 72 in Russia. However, after having experienced a population decline since independence similar to that of Ukraine, current demographic statistics show a modest stabilization of the Russian population.

3. Other causes of population loss in the post-Soviet states include: aging of the population, low fertility, high death rate, alcoholism and increasing use of narcotics, tobacco use, impoverishment, and environmental degradation. Fully one percent of the Ukrainian population is believed to be HIV-positive; use of contaminated narcotics syringes is said to be the primary means of HIV transmission.

 

An observer can sense an expansion of economic activity in Kyiv, with substantial new construction and the slow but significant growth of a middle class. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund affirmed a 4.1 percent growth rate in the Ukrainian real gross domestic product in 2002 and projects a 5.0 percent increase in 2003. Nonetheless, it is estimated that 75 percent of the Ukrainian population derives their income from the proceeds of a “shadow economy.” Further, economic conditions outside Kyiv and several other major cities are much less favorable than those in the national capital.

A small group of oligarchs, i.e., individuals exercising political and economic control, usually for corrupt or selfish purposes, continues to dominate Ukrainian politics and economics. The Ukrainian economy as a whole is characterized by extensive criminal activity, domination of major sectors by organized mafia-type groups, rampant corruption within government agencies, and thriving black markets in many commodities. Civic activity appears to be viewed by the state as a threat to national security; independent politicians and journalists are subject to harassment, sometimes falling victim to mysterious accidents. Media, especially major television and newspapers, are controlled by the state or by oligarchs dependent on maintaining close relationships with the state.

The popularity of President Leonid Kuchma stands at 5.8 percent. Opposition to his rule is widespread4, but ineffective. He has deftly played off regional clans against each other and weakened rising stars in his government by frequent leadership shuffles and dismissals. Business elites are dependent upon centralized power for the enhancement of their own assets. Mr. Kuchma is expected to remain in his position until the next scheduled presidential election in October 2004.


In December 2002, the Ukrainian government released statistics from its official 2001 census. These figures list a national Jewish population of 103,591, a figure almost identical to that of 100,000 estimated by Sergio DellaPergola and Mark Tolts of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. These estimates are interpreted by most to represent the “core” Jewish population of the country; the “extended” Jewish population, that is, a number including Jews who do not declare themselves to census interviewers as Jewish and non-Jews related to Jews, is believed to be between 200,000 and 300,000. All such individuals are eligible to emigrate to Israel under provisions of the Israeli Law of Return.

4. Several large anti-Kuchma demonstrations were held in different Ukrainian cities in 2002. On March 9, 2003, approximately 20,000 individuals (according to police estimates) gathered in downtown Kyiv in an anti-Kuchma rally, joined by smaller groups of protesters in more than 100 additional Ukrainian cities and towns.

The estimate of 100,000+ Ukrainian Jews shows a steep decline from the last Soviet census in 1989, which listed a Ukrainian Jewish population of 487,000. The reasons for the decline are well-known: an aging Jewish population (average age close to 60), high mortality rate, low fertility rate, high assimilation, and massive emigration. The current intermarriage rate is believed to be about 90 percent in Kyiv and many other larger Jewish population centers, and the emigration rate over the last 12 years is estimated by some as 560,000, a number that includes members of the extended Jewish population as well as core Jews.5

The largest Jewish population center in Ukraine is Kyiv, believed to have an extended Jewish population between 70,000 and 100,000 individuals. Perhaps 35,000 to 45,000 Jews live in Dnipropetrovsk, 30,000 in Kharkiv, and 25,000 in Odesa. Donetsk and Kryvyy Rih (Krivoy Rog) have Jewish populations of 10,000 to 15,000 each.

 

Kyiv


1. The Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv, perhaps better known as the Schekavitskaya street shul or Rabbi Bleich’s synagogue, was re-dedicated on Tuesday afternoon, March 4, 2003, after extensive renovation. As is often the case in Kyiv, the ceremony began late, due in part to customary heavy traffic in the city. Various dignitaries, including the Ambassador of Israel, presented greetings, and Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Karlin-Stolin hasid and the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, briefly reviewed the history of the building and thanked various mentors, contributors, and individuals involved in the actual restoration process.

President Leonid Kuchma, who had promised to attend the ceremony, sent word earlier in the day that pressing matters of government would prevent his attendance. Most Jewish leaders in the city were present, including Chabad rabbis and others who might be considered ‘rivals’ of Rabbi Bleich. The proceedings in the synagogue were followed by a festive dinner at a downtown hotel.6

5. The intermarriage rate in Dnipropetrovsk, perhaps the strongest Jewish community in all of the post-Soviet successor states, is estimated by some to be significantly lower.

For general English-language observations on Ukrainian Jewish demography, see Joseph Zissels, “Community Development Process in Ukraine,” Jews of Euro-Asia, #1 (June–August, 2002), passim. Mr. Zissels also has written a detailed Russian-language analysis of the 2001 Ukrainian census related to the Ukrainian Jewish population; see his monograph Динамика численности еврейского населения Украины, December 2002.

6. The six-person Chicago delegation attended the synagogue ceremony and the hotel dinner at the invitation of Rabbi Bleich.


Originally constructed in 1895, the synagogue remained open during most of the Soviet period, although its operations were restricted. A large and thoroughly renovated prayer hall occupies most of the ground floor. Modern stained-glass windows in the prayer hall and lobby add a contemporary touch to an otherwise very traditional design. The basement level includes a smaller prayer hall, several community offices, and a small store selling kosher food products, ritual items, and a modest number of gift items. The second floor includes the women’s balcony and additional office space.

 

 

 

 

 

The façade of the portion of the synagogue that faces Schekavitskaya street is seen at left. Access to the building is usually gained through doors on the side (below) and the rear of the structure. The primary color of the building is ochre.

 

 

 

 

One side of the building opens on to a paved square and a small park; another community building will be constructed in the park in the near future. (See below.) To the rear of the synagogue is a structure housing a bakery that produces almost all matzot consumed in Ukraine, Moldova, and some areas of Belarus and Russia. A third building, which awaits renovation, accommodates a yeshiva and student dormitories. The complex is sur-rounded by a wrought-iron fence; the portion facing the street is decorated with Jewish motifs.

(Photos are from the publication [Kyiv Municipal Jewish Community], 2003.)

 

The primary funder of the renovation project is Eduard Shyfrin, a native of Ukraine who now resides mainly in Israel and England. Sergei Maximov, the head of VA Bank in Ukraine, also contributed a substantial portion of the reconstruction costs. Several other individuals contributed $50,000 each. Mr. Shyfrin and Mr. Maximov are co-presidents of the synagogue.7


2. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, spoke with the writer about various topics in two separate meetings, the first occuring before the re-dedication of the synagogue and the second occurring several days later. Rabbi Bleich said that he hopes to break ground later this spring on a Jewish community center to be located in the small park adjacent to the synagogue. The new facility will feature a large multi-function hall on the ground floor that will provide space for an expanded dining hall for Jewish elderly at mid-day as well as for weddings and other events at other times. The second floor, continued Rabbi Bleich, will contain a kosher restaurant for the Jewish community at large, and the third will provide guest rooms for overnight visitors to the community. The basement will accommodate a mikveh. Some funding has been secured for this project, said Rabbi Bleich, and he hopes to obtain the remaining necessary funds in the very near future.8

School #299, the first Jewish day school in Kyiv, continues to operate a full Jewish elementary and high school under Rabbi Bleich’s auspices in separate buildings for boys and girls. According to Rabbi Bleich, “about 400” youngsters currently are enrolled in the school, a decrease in the school census from the 450 to 470 enrolled in previous years. It is no longer the largest Jewish day school in the city, a distinction now held by the Simcha school (see below).9

7. The Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv should not be confused with the Main Choral Synagogue in the same city. The latter, which is better known as the Brodsky synagogue, is larger and more centrally located. Built with funds contributed by Lazar Brodsky of the wealthy sugar industry family at about the same time as the Schekavitskaya street synagogue, the Brodsky synagogue was confiscated by Soviet authorities in 1926 and converted into a workers’ club. It later became a variety theater and a children’s puppet theater. After substantial international pressure, the Brodsky synagogue was returned to the Jewish community in the 1990’s and restored. Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, an independent Chabad rabbi, presides over the Brodsky synagogue.

8. Rabbi Bleich has managed a JDC-subsidized soup kitchen accommodating 40 elderly persons in each of two shifts for some years. This service, which was operated in a kitchen and dining hall on the second floor of a building in back of the synagogue, was transferred to another facility in the same neighborhood during reconstruction of the synagogue.

Kyiv already has one small kosher restaurant, located some distance away from Podil near the Brodsky synagogue in central Kyiv.

9. Rabbi Bleich did not seem eager to discuss the reasons for the decreased enrollment in his school, other than to say that Simcha enrolls many non-Jewish youngsters. School #299 accepts only halachically Jewish pupils, i.e., children whose mother is Jewish, whereas Simcha and several other Jewish schools accept some youngsters from intermarried families in which the father is Jewish. See pp. 10-13 for information about the Simcha school.

 

A second Jewish day school was opened under Rabbi Bleich’s auspices in September 2002. Modeled on Israeli schools for boys from very traditional Jewish homes, the school currently enrolls 20 boys between the ages of four and 12. Youngsters study religious subjects from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., with all instruction offered in Hebrew; secular subjects are taught in Russian after 2:00 p.m.

According to Rabbi Bleich, approximately 70 percent of the pupils at the new school are sons of (mainly foreign-born) rabbis working in Kyiv, including youngsters from Chabad families; without such a school in Kyiv, many rabbis and their families would return to Israel or another country where such intensive Jewish education is available. The school is located on the ground floor of the dormitory that Rabbi Bleich operates for boys.

After renting different summer camp sites for many years, Rabbi Bleich has purchased a summer camp in the town of Teteriv’ske, located approximately halfway between Kyiv and Korosten (to the west of Kyiv). The camp grounds currently include four dormitory buildings, which, in theory, accommodate about 400 youngsters and staff. In reality, continued Rabbi Bleich, the dormitories are better suited to accommodate 250 to 300 campers and staff.10 Rabbi Bleich said that all camp facilities require extensive renovation. Additionally, he would like to winterize the buildings so that groups of youngsters and families could participate in various holiday gatherings and seminars during the winter months.11 Under current conditions, the camp is open only in the summer and offers separate four-week sessions for boys and for girls.

Rabbi Bleich also is attempting to strengthen the infrastructure of his community. A younger Gerer hasid has been appointed to do much of the traveling and international fundraising for Rabbi Bleich’s various programs, thus enabling Rabbi Bleich himself to spend more time in local community-building, including fundraising.12 Rabbi Bleich also intends to engage a new executive director for the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, a national umbrella organization with an extensive agenda in community organization, community relations, Jewish education, recovery of Jewish property confiscated during the Soviet period, and representation of the Ukrainian Jewish population in various international Jewish forums, including the European Jewish Congress.13

10. Many summer camps are available for rent in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states. During the Soviet period, trade unions and other organizations offered heavily-subsidized summer camping experiences for the children of their members. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its institutions, most camps closed. Typically, Soviet summer camps provided sleeping accommodations in large dormitory buildings, rather than in the small cabins characteristic of American summer camping.

11. As of early March 2003, no funding had been identified for renovation of the camp.

12. Observers applauded Rabbi Bleich’s belated efforts to spend more time in Kyiv, but some question whether a young hasid in traditional Gerer clothing can be an effective representative for the Kyiv Jewish community in meetings with potential donors in Western countries or with officials in international Jewish organizations, such as the European Jewish Congress.


13. The effectiveness of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine has been limited, due to inadequate funding, poorly trained professional staff, lack of lay leadership, and the refusal of Chabad rabbis, who dominate Jewish leadership in Ukraine, to participate in its activities.

 

The #include file="include/constants.inc" is an umbrella organization covering a number of Kyiv Jewish programs, including Rabbi Bleich’s synagogue, his schools and a yeshiva, a women’s club, a Jewish newspaper, and several projects in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In general, acknowledged Rabbi Bleich, this organization has been neglected as he has focused his attention on the Confederation.14

Regarding recovery of Jewish property confiscated by the state during the Soviet period, the Confederation has received a grant from the Joint Distribution Committee to examine approximately 50 structures throughout the country that were built as synagogues, Jewish schools, Jewish hospitals, and for other community purposes; these properties are now being used by various state and private institutions without any compensation to the Jewish community. The grant will enable investigators to determine the potential of such facilities for contemporary Jewish community use, to explore archives for ownership records, and to undertake legal proceedings for the return of suitable properties to the Jewish community. Rabbi Bleich emphasized that some or many of the buildings may be determined to be of little value to the Jewish community today and that no attempt will be made to recover all of them.

Renovation of the former Galitzky synagogue in Kyiv into a Jewish community center to be operated jointly by the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Association and the Jewish Agency for Israel was scheduled to begin in mid-March. The facility is to open on September 1. JAFI is paying for the renovations.15

In response to a question about Christian missionary efforts in the local Jewish population, Rabbi Bleich said that there has been a visible increase in such missionary activity. Missionary groups are even attracting some Jews who may be active in some aspect of the Jewish community, such as families who send their children to Jewish schools. In addition to distributing deceptive literature, missionaries are attracting some Jews to their religious services in return for small sums of money. Rabbi Bleich observed that countering such missionary work requires the efforts of the entire organized Jewish community, including Chabad; he would be pleased to work with Chabad in such an endeavor. Most missionary groups that he has observed, said Rabbi Bleich, are associated with American Southern Baptists.


3. The Chicago group made an early evening visit to the girls’ dormitory operated by Rabbi Bleich. The girls’ and boy’s dormitories are located in separate buildings, each of which was used previously as a preschool. Both have undergone significant remodeling for conversion to residential use; 45 boys and 35 girls between the ages of six and 17 are accommodated in the two facilities. Further renovation would permit additional youngsters to be lodged in these buildings, but funding is not yet available for such work.

One wing of the building has been renovated into premises containing small bedrooms, each accommodating two or three girls, with an attached full bathroom. Until additional financial resources are available, the other girls reside in former classrooms, each with as many as six beds. A large dining hall and several activity rooms also are available to the youngsters.

Three girls in the girls’ dormitory sit on a bed in one of the small bedrooms. Younger girls are well-supplied with dolls, stuffed animals, and other toys. Older girls have decorated their rooms with photographs and other items common to adolescents.

Youngsters in the dormitories are provided with room, board, basic medical care, clothing, and tutoring. They attend School #299 and participate in various recreational activities on Sundays and during vacation periods.

 


According to Rabbi Bleich and to caregivers, many youngsters in the dormitories are from single-parent families in which the custodial parent is unable to care for her child due to alcoholism, narcotics addiction, severe poverty, or another condition. Some parents are in prison. Several youngsters are in the custody of one or more grandparents who find it difficult to cope with the needs of active growing children. Some children have been sent from more-or-less functional families in small towns, where schools are inferior, to learn in Kyiv where opportunities are significantly greater.

Rabbi Bleich readily acknowledges that some youngsters enter the dormitories with significant health problems. Others require skilled psychological counseling, which, said Rabbi Bleich, is not currently available in Kyiv.


4. Upon receipt of a significant grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore, Rabbi Bleich has begun work on completion of an assisted living center for elderly Jews.18 Originally planned by a developer as an ordinary apartment building, Rabbi Bleich obtained the structure several years ago and has been searching for funds to convert it into a supportive living facility. The Weinberg grant will enable Rabbi Bleich to complete the project before the end of 2003; the first residents may move into the building during the summer.

The facility is six stories high and includes a total of 74 one- or two- room apartments, most on floors two through five; each unit includes a private bathroom and most will have a kitchenette. It is anticpated that two people will live in each apartment, although some units may house only one individual. The ground floor includes a kitchen and dining hall, a community room, a day center for residents and non-resident elderly, a suite of medical offices, several additonal apartments for elderly clients, and a large apartment for the building manager. The sixth floor, which is smaller in area than the other floors, will include an auditorium, fitness center, infirmary, several hotel-type rooms for visitors, and office space.

14. The effectiveness of the Kyiv Municipal Jewish Association is limited for the same reasons.

15. This project is discussed in some detail in the author’s A Brief Visit to Jewish Communities in Ukraine October 30 – November 8, 2002, p. 37.


16. An anti-missionary organization known as Magen (Shield) has had some success in countering Christian missionary activity among Russian-speaking Jews. Associated with Chabad, the offices of Magen are located in Moscow. Representatives of Magen have traveled to Kyiv and have undertaken occasional work in Ukraine.

17. As noted, facilities in the boys’ dormitory also accommodate the new school for boys from religiously observant families. In a similar manner, a wing of the girls’ dormitory is used for a preschool day program. In previous years, the combined census of the two dormitories has reached almost 120.

18. The Jewish Agency for Israel was instrumental in securing the grant from the Weinberg Foundation.

 

The supportive living facility for Jewish elderly is seen at right in a photo provided by the Jewish Confederaration of Ukraine.

 
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