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

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76. In addition to the rabbinical students from Morristown, groups of four young women student-teachers from a Chabad teachers seminary in Israel are in Dnepropetrovsk on practice teaching assignments. One group is in Dnepropetrovsk from October through January, the second from February through May. They teach most of the Judaica classes at the day school and also teach classes to local young Jewish women on Sundays. Their supervisor is Chana Kaminetzky, Rabbi Kaminetzky’s wife.

77. The Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Day School appears to be thriving, enrolling more than 650 students in grades one through eleven. Early registration figures for 1984-1985 indicate that the school will educate 800 pupils next year, the maximum number that can be accommodated in its current facilities. Construction still under way when a Boston group visited the city in October 1993 has been completed. A large, well-equipped kosher kitchen (with some equipment provided by JDC) serves over one thousand meals every day, more than seven hundred to pupils and staff at lunch and more than two hundred at breakfast. Rabbi Kaminetzky believes that this kosher dining facility is the largest in all of central and eastern Europe. In addition to a spacious dining room for students, several smaller rooms accommodate groups of more modest size. The cost of maintaining this service is a major burden; the Ukrainian government pays for the lunches of children in the first four grades, but older pupils must buy their own meals—and many families cannot afford to give their children lunch money. For now, the school provides all students with lunch, but Shmuel is not sure that the free lunch program can continue indefinitely. He would like a Boston sister-city relationship to consider an ‘adoption’ program in which Boston-area Jews would ‘adopt’ a needy student, paying a small monthly sum that would cover lunches (approximately fifteen cents each day) and certain other expenses.

The second, smaller building that was serving as construction materials warehouse during our October visited has also been completed. It now houses a large and small auditorium, an activities room, a large and small gymnasium, a library, a book storage room, and classrooms for the yeshiva high school, the program for approximately thirty boys that offers an extended day with much more religious instruction than is provided in the regular day school.22

Rabbi Kaminetzky expressed disappointment with his inability to obtain computers for the school. He had hoped that JDC would supply computer equipment, but that agency has so far evaded his request. He is pursuing other potential sources (which he did not identify).

Betsy Gidwitz was present at (and addressed) a “directors’ day” at the school, a meticulously planned event in which directors (principals) of several dozen schools in the city as well as municipal and regional education officials attended a day-long program at the school. The fifty visitors viewed both secular and Judaic studies classes in the elementary and secondary divisions, heard explanations of the school’s goals and objectives, discussed curriculum and other issues with day school teachers, ate lunch (doubtless the best school lunch in the city) in the new dining room, and watched/listened to a performance of Jewish songs (most in Hebrew, some in Yiddish) and dances by groups of pupils ranging in age from first to eleventh graders. Following the musical presentation, different guests stood to comment on what they had seen; without exception, the remarks were positive, sometimes adulatory. The visitors praised the high caliber of teaching, the breadth of curriculum, the visible happiness of the children,23 and the pride the children felt for their Jewish heritage. Several of the speakers acknowledged prior antisemitic prejudice, apologized for their bigotry (which, they said, had been based on ignorance); now that they had learned more about Judaism, Jewish history, and the importance that Jews attach to education and sound upbringing,24 they would no longer tolerate anti-Jewish bias. Each visitor was given a menorah and candles (provided by JDC).

Rabbi Kaminetzky reported that nine attendees called on the following day to ask if one or more of the day school choirs would perform at their schools and/or if a day school teacher or Rabbi Kaminetzky himself would visit their school to teach about Judaism. An education official in the oblast (region encompassing Dnepropetrovsk, several other large cities, and a number of towns and villages) also called, asking if the program could be repeated for teachers in the oblast outside Dnepropetrovsk as some of them were even less informed about Judaism than those who lived and worked in Dnepropetrovsk itself. Rabbi Kaminetzky and the day school principal, Semyon Isaakovich Kaplunsky, were delighted at the response. The program had been initiated at the suggestion of the chief education inspector of the oblast, a non-Jewish woman who has been assisting the school in upgrading its secular curriculum.25 Rabbi Kaminetzky and Mr. Kaplunsky had readily agreed, realizing that school principals could influence teachers and pupils in their attitudes about Jews.

78. A delegation from the Lishkat haKesher has recently visited the city to explore possibilities of opening a second day school (under the Lishka Maavar program).26 This group, which included Zvi Gruman, the director of the Israel Cultural Center in Dnepropetrovsk, attempted to gain permission for such a school from municipal education authorities and from the deputy mayor of the city by declaring to them that the religious orientation of the existing day school is so overpowering that it offends many parents and that the existing day school is biased in that it does not accept children of mixed marriages.27 The second charge is blatantly false and the first appears to be equally untruthful because (a) the Judaic component of the curriculum is deliberately limited in scope so as not to alienate parents whose outlook has been shaped by decades of forced secularization under Soviet domination, and (b) persistently high enrollment figures suggest strong parental satisfaction with the school. The aggressive and fallacious Lishka approach angered municipal education officials and the deputy mayor who have their own stake in the success of the school because they have worked with it since its inception, have encouraged city financial support for it, and have developed strong relations with Rabbi Kaminetzky, Principal Kaplunsky, and others associated with the school. The officials were also embarrassed by the spectacle of bellicose Jews denouncing other Jews.

Flustered, the officials mentioned that a particular school building might become available in the near future. The Lishka delegation subsequently entered the still-operating school without invitation, “inspected” the facility, and informed its startled principal that the Lishka might operate it in the future. The unauthorized exploratory tour caused an uproar in the school and generated a hostile report in a small newspaper in Dnepropetrovsk. When Rabbi Kaminetzky heard that a larger, more respected newspaper was investigating the matter and intended to publish an equally critical article, he intervened with the newspaper’s editor to prevent its publication. As of mid-May, the Lishka attempt to open a Maavar school in Dnepropetrovsk remained unfulfilled.

79. Betsy Gidwitz also visited the Jewish preschool, which has finally relocated to larger quarters that can accommodate about forty children between the ages of three and six. The school has its own kosher kitchen and a fence-enclosed playground. Chani Kaminetzky and the wives of Rabbis Chaim Ber Stambler and Meir Stambler are all involved in its management as are other women. Rabbi Kaminetzky would like to open additional preschools in other areas of the city.

80. The Chabad summer camp expects to enroll 160 children between the ages of ten and sixteen during each of three 22-day sessions. Because the camp is one of very few in the post-Soviet Union actually owned by the Jewish community (rather than leased),28 the Joint Distribution Committee is seriously considering developing it into a facility that can be used the entire year for seminars, winter camping, etc. A city-owned construction company (Dneprograzhdanproyekt) has organized plans for winterizing current buildings and erecting new structures; if approved by JDC in Jerusalem, work may begin in August or September. The camp property covers fifty-five hectares (approximately twenty-three acres) and is located on the Samara River in Novo-Moskovsk, an easy drive from Dnepropetrovsk.

81. The new Jewish Agency station in Dnepropetrovsk will also conduct a summer camp in 1994. Located in the same general region as the Chabad camp, the JAFI facility is leased from a formerly successful factory that operated it as a Pioneer camp for the children of its employees.29 The camp will accommodate 200 youngsters between the ages of ten and seventeen in each of three two-week sessions30 Individuals who have seen both the Chabad camp and the JAFI camp describe the latter as significantly larger and in better condition. The leased JAFI property has two swimming pools. Campers will be drawn from Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe oblasts. Local counselors for this camp and for another JAFI camp near Kharkov will be trained at the Dnepropetrovsk-area camp in a common pre-camp training session.31

82. The Joint Distribution Committee has recently opened an office in Dnepropetrovsk from which it serves Jewish population centers in Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe oblasts. Shimon Strinkovsky, who previously served the area through monthly visits from a base in Moscow, is now living in a Dnepropetrovsk hotel until more conventional housing can be arranged.32 The JDC office itself consists of one room that accommodates Mr. Strinkovsky, several local staff (including Jan Sidelkovsky, an exceptionally competent local man who has long been engaged in Jewish communal work), and various equipment and supplies. Because of overcrowding, the atmosphere is often chaotic; when Mr. Strinkovsky is present, the chaos is accompanied by a thick cloud of cigarette smoke that never dissipates.



22. This program is described in two previous reports, Visit to Jewish Communities in Ukraine and Moscow and Related Meetings in Jerusalem (Cambridge: the author, October 1993) and Dnepropetrovsk Kehilla Project: Background Information (Cambridge: the author, February/March 1994).
23. One commented that children were ordered to smile for visitors during the Soviet period, but the smiles that she had seen that day were undeniably natural and heartfelt.
24. The speakers used the Russian word vospitaniye for which no English equivalent exists. Vospitaniye encompasses the concepts of moral education, cultivation of skills in community life, exemplary social conduct, etc. Use of this word (and many others) was corrupted during the Soviet era to mean upbringing according to communist ideology.
25. The inspector is close to retirement age. After she leaves her current position, she will join the day school faculty as a consultant in teaching methodology and (secular) curriculum planning.
26. The Lishkat haKesher sponsors or co-sponsors eleven day schools (Maavar schools) in the post-Soviet successor states (including one in nearby Zaporozhe) and 125 Sunday schools (Mechina schools). It works closely with the Israeli Ministry of Education in this effort. The schools vary widely in quality.
27. Day schools in the post-Soviet successor states that are sponsored by religious movements differ in their policies on accepting children of mixed marriages. Whereas the Dnepropetrovsk school has always accepted such children, drawing no distinction between children whose mother or whose father is Jewish, Rabbi Bleich’s day school in Kiev gives clear preference to children from endogamous Jewish marriages and next to children whose mother is Jewish, effectively restricting enrollment to children who are halachically Jewish.
28. The legal owner of the property is the governing board of the Chabad synagogue in Dnepropetrovsk.
29. The Pioneer organization was a more-or-less compulsory youth group for Soviet schoolchildren. It was directed by the Komsomols, the young adult division of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
30. As noted earlier, all JAFI camps will be operating short seasons in 1994 because a strike by university professors in Israel during the winter is forcing Israeli universities to extend the academic year into the summer, thus reducing the amount of time available to Israeli students for camp counseling.
31. When Rabbi Kaminetzky was informed that the Jewish Agency would also operate a summer camp in the Dnepropetrovsk region, his response was, “Ten camps are not enough. There can never be enough Jewish summer camps.”
32. While in Kiev, the JDC group in which Betsy Gidwitz participated encountered a Jewish physician from Florida who had just come to Kiev from Dnepropetrovsk. The physician had met Mr. Strinkovsky there and was quite upset to discover that he was residing in ‘“luxury hotel accommodations” that, according to the physician, cost $68 per day. The physician was aware that JDC is funded by UJA -- and he clearly viewed this expenditure as misuse of UJA money. He subsequently recorded his ire over this circumstance in a written report that has been circulated in the Union of Councils [formerly the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews] network. In a conversation in Kiev, Betsy Gidwitz told the physician that Mr. Strinkovsky had been living in the hotel for a few months while trying to find a suitable rental apartment ---and that such apartments are not readily available. Further, the hotel is hardly luxurious. The physician was not interested in hearing another view, as his anger then and his subsequent written report prove. While in Dnepropetrovsk, Betsy Gidwitz met with Shimon Strinkovsky in his office and in the hotel suite, the latter consisting of two very standard Soviet-era rooms that could not reasonably be termed luxurious. If JDC is actually charged $68 a day for this suite -- Betsy Gidwitz did not check the figures -- that price is consistent with charges for other accommodations (for foreigners) in the same hotel. Both Rabbi and Chana Kaminetzky and the Nechushtans of JAFI lived in hotels for several months after their arrival in Dnepropetrovsk.

 
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