Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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Visit To Jewish Communities In Ukraine And Moldova
April-May, 1994

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When asked about local antisemitism, the consensus response was that no Jew had been attacked, but others distanced themselves from Jews. Some Jews held influential positions in the municipality or the (Communist) Party before or after World War II, but all were “cleared out” into premature retirement in the 1950s and 1960s.

As Betsy Gidwitz was leaving, she was asked by several people not to forget them.

Upon her return to Dnepropetrovsk, Betsy Gidwitz discussed the situation in Pavlograd with Rabbi Kaminetzky (who considers himself the chief rabbi of the entire oblast, not just the city). He agreed to visit Pavlograd, determine how he can help Pavlograd Jews, and ask oblast officials, with whom he is on good terms, to intervene with Pavlograd municipal officials in an effort to obtain larger communal facilities in the city for local Jews. He will also arrange for Raisa Pomashnikova to visit the Shaarei Chesed welfare society in Dnepropetrovsk to see how they organize welfare activities; perhaps they could help her develop a similar service there. At Betsy Gidwitz’ request, he will find out how many Jewish children and adolescents live in Pavlograd and then see that all who want to do so are enrolled in the Chabad summer camp or the JAFI summer camp. Betsy Gidwitz also contacted the Jewish Agency directly on the camp enrollment issue.


Zaporozhe

Betsy Gidwitz visited Zaporozhe in January and October 1993. She was unable to travel to the city in May 1994, but she did hear several points of interest about Zaporozhe Jewish life from others in Dnepropetrovsk

91. Zaporozhe is located about fifty miles south of Dnepropetrovsk on the Dnepr River. With a population of 884,000 to 900,000, it is the administrative center of Zaporozhe oblast. Its economy is based on coal (lignite) mining, heavy industry (powered in part by a hydroelectric installation on the river), and food processing. Until June 1994, a local autombile industry produced the Zaporozhets, a small boxy car that has been the subject of great derision in the (former) Soviet Union.

92. The Jewish Agency estimates the Jewish population of Zaporozhe as 7,000. Many local Jews believe it is as high as 15,000.

93. The main synagogue in Zaporozhe has been returned to the Jewish community in recent months. It is a large building that can be used for multiple functions. The Joint Distribution Committee has developed detailed plans for its renovation, a project that is expected to start in the near future.

94. The Joint Distribution Committee will soon post a modern Orthodox Zionist rabbi from Israel in the city. (The city has no rabbi at present.) The responsibilities of this rabbi will cover the entire JDC agenda, including welfare operations, although it is likely that he will work closely with the JDC office in Dnepropetrovsk in this and other areas.

95. The local Jewish Council, under the leadership of journalist Boris Serbin, is a functional, representative body that is developing significant credibility in the community. A local Jewish physician works effectively with the Council in coordinating care for the Jewish elderly and handicapped.

96. The Zaporozhe Jewish day school, Gymnasium Alef, is operated by the municipality and the Lishkat haKesher Maavar program. It currently enrolls about 230 youngsters in very cramped conditions. Observers express concern about: (1) overcrowding in the facility, thus limiting programs and possibly endangering pupil safety; (2) the dominant secular culture and lack of Jewish ambiance in the school; and (3) the non-Zionist character of the school.

A senior faculty member of the day school outlined its Jewish curriculum as including three classes weekly in Hebrew and two classes weekly in each of three other subjects -- Jewish tradition, Jewish history, and Yiddish. However, the quality of instruction is low in tradition and history because the teachers of these subjects lack appropriate training. According to this faculty member, the inadequacy of teacher preparation reflects dissension in the larger Jewish community and the school about the role of both Judaism and Zionism in the lives of post-Soviet Zaporozhe Jewry. The principal of the school is secular and feels that the inclusion of more Jewish content in the curriculum would make a “political statement” with which he is uncomfortable. Another issue is the dearth of textbooks, particularly series of textbooks, that present Jewish tradition according to a “universal” philosophy, that is, an interpretation of Judaism that eschews a denominational approach.53

The faculty member continued that a conflict exists within both the local Jewish Council and the day school faculty about the role of Zionism. Some individuals see little role for Zionism, preferring to build a diaspora Jewish community that can exist independently of Israel. They resent the “blue and white” agendas of many of the Israelis who visit their city. It is these “diasporists” who encourage instruction of Yiddish within the day school.

If the new Israeli rabbi who is scheduled to arrive in Zaporozhe under JDC auspices in the near future is skilled in his approach, he may be able to create a more favorable atmosphere in the day school for the teaching of Jewish tradition and history as well as the transmission of Zionist values.

97. The day school faculty member said that thirty-five children are enrolled in a separate Jewish kindergarten (which includes both nursery school and kindergarten classes) and that fifty-eight youngsters attend a Jewish Sunday school. Two teachers work in the Sunday school and teach classes in Hebrew, Jewish tradition, and Jewish music. Jewish history will be taught in the Sunday school from next fall onward.

98. At least fifty children who began the 1993-94 school year in either the day school or the Sunday school have gone to Israel on aliyah with their families.


Krivoi Rog

Betsy Gidwitz has visited Krivoi Rog once, in October 1993. The notes below reflect discussions with others about Jewish communal life in that city.

99. Krivoi Rog is located about eighty-five miles southwest of Dnepropetrovsk within Dnepropetrovsk oblast. A forty-mile long fusion of iron-mining settlements, its economic base is focused on production of iron and steel, chemicals, and engineering equipment. The general population of the city is between 713,000 and 730,000.

100. The Jewish population of the city is listed as 15,000 in the Jewish Agency study cited earlier. Some local Jews believe that it is significantly higher. The extreme linear nature of the city impedes organization of its Jewish population and the development of a sense of Jewish identity among them.

101. Visitors from Boston in October 1993 found the head of the local Jewish Cultural Society, a failed businessman, to be very difficult. He appeared demanding and repressive, and he clearly intimidated some of the other activists with whom he worked. He is still in charge and is planning to launch a sunflower oil business in September or October, using a JDC loan from an applicable fund as start-up money. Half of the profit will be assigned to Jewish welfare work in Krivoi Rog and half will be distributed among Jewish community organizations in other cities.

According to JDC, very few other people are active in the Jewish Cultural Society.

102. JDC in Dnepropetrovsk reported that the Krivoi Rog Jewish welfare group is very active and has enlisted college students to assist Jewish elderly in house cleaning and other chores as volunteers. A Jewish children’s club has recently been established. A Jewish Sunday school sponsored by the Lishkat haKesher Mechina program, enrolls about fifty children; its former principal has been replaced by someone who is more effective than her predecessor.

Dneprodzerzhinsk

Betsy Gidwitz visited Dneprodzerzhinsk in October 1993. She was unable to travel to the city in May 1994, but met with one of its Jewish leaders in Dnepropetrovsk and also spoke with others about Jewish life in the city.

103. Twenty-two miles north of Dnepropetrovsk, Dneprodzerzhinsk is named after the Dnepr River and Feliks (“Iron Feliks”) Dzerzhinsky, the Polish-born founder of the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB. The general population of the city is estimated at 285,000 to 290,000. A massive hydroelectric power station on the Dnepr River and coal from nearby mines fuel an industrial base focused on iron, steel, cement, chemicals, and the construction of railroad cars. Huge smokestacks and vast factories are visible from some distance as one approaches the city, whether by car from the south (from Dnepropetrovsk) or by train from the west (from Kiev). Dneprodzerzhinsk is considered one of the ten most heavily polluted cities in the former Soviet Union.

104. The Jewish population of the city is estimated at 2,000. The major Jewish organization is the Jewish Cuture Center “Aviv”, whose leader is Boris S. Dokter. Mr. Dokter is considered very competent and caring, and “Aviv” is regarded as an effective organization.

 



53. Betsy Gidwitz asked if the unified prayer book published by the Jewish Welfare Board for United States military personnel might be an appropriate ‘model’ for the textbooks envisioned by the Zaporozhe instructor. The instructor said that such texts would be ideal. (Note: Because Betsy Gidwitz has not seen the JWB prayer book for some time, her description of it may not have been fully accurate.)

 
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