Betsy Gidwitx Reports


Mykolaiv

 

 

Mykolaiv (Nikolayev, in Russian) is located along the estuary of the Southern Bug River as it flows into the Black Sea, about 70 miles (111 kilometers) northeast of Odesa.  It is the main shipbuilding center on the Black Sea and also serves as a significant transportation junction as a sea port, river port, and highway and railway nexus.  The general population of Mykolaiv is about 500,000; historically an important Jewish center, the Jewish population now probably is about 5,600.  The writer visited the city on a day trip from Odesa.

 

 

20.  Rabbi Sholom Gottleib, an emissary of Chabad, has worked in Mykolayiv, since 1996.  As the birthplace in 1902 of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last leader in the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty, Mykolayiv holds a significant place in Chabad history.

 

 

 

Rabbi Sholom Gottlieb welcomed the writer, reminding her that her most recent previous visit to the city had occurred 16 years earlier.

 

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Rabbi Gottlieb maintains a synagogue, day school (130 pupils), and preschool (45 children) in the city.  The school curriculum includes seven class periods in Jewish subjects each week - four in Hebrew language, two in Jewish tradition, and one in the weekly Torah portion.  Families pay $50 monthly for their youngsters to attend the school, which is private, said Rabbi Gottlieb; however, that fee covers only meals and transportation, so funds must be raised to cover the cost of teacher salaries, teaching materials, building maintenance, and other expenses.  Rabbi Gottlieb commented that he is now in court, having been sued for failure to pay heating bills. 

 

 

The Nikolayev synagogue (above left) occupies its original structure, but has undergone substantial renovation since Rabbi Gottlieb arrived. Children in the Nikolayev Chabad preschool were eating lunch (above right) when the writer toured the premises.  Traditionally, the midday meal is the largest of the day in Ukraine and includes multiple courses.  Photo: the writer.

 

The Chabad schools accept only halachically Jewish children and adolescents.  In response to a question, Rabbi Gottlieb estimated that 70 percent of eligible children in the city attend his institutions.  His four rented buses cover most of the city, but not all of it, he said, and it is likely that some halachically Jewish youngsters live beyond the bus routes.  In response to a question, he stated that the majority of Chabad preschool youngsters continue on to the Chabad elementary and high school, but some enroll in other institutions and some families move to larger cities, such as Kyiv or Odesa, and other families emigrate, most to Israel.  "Many" youngsters leave the school after ninth grade and go to Israel in the Na'aleh high school program, said Rabbi Gottlieb.  Some graduates of the school enroll in the JAFI Selah university program in Israel; those who remain in Ukraine after high school graduation enter local colleges and universities.

 

When asked about employment of local Jews, Rabbi Gottlieb responded that many young people work in information technology and in construction engineering and management.  A large proportion of middle-age Jews, he continued, are in various engineering fields and in hotel management.  Many Jewish women, Rabbi Gottlieb said, are bookkeepers. 

 

However, Rabbi Gottlieb stated, many local businesses have closed during the ongoing economic crisis.  Unemployment is a very serious problem.  He tries to help people find work, he said, noting that he has developed many contacts in local government during his long tenure in the city.  He observed that some unemployed individuals are very demanding in their appraisal of job opportunities; they have unreasonable requirements that limit the likelihood of obtaining steady employment.

 

The overall economic situation is very disheartening, Rabbi Gottlieb acknowledged.  People have no faith in the future, they don't know what tomorrow will bring; even if they are successful  now, they have no confidence in the future.  They are worried about the future for their children.  Jews and non-Jews are equally concerned about such matters, stated Rabbi Gottlieb.

 

Under these circumstances, Rabbi Gottlieb continued, aliyah to Israel has great appeal to many Jewish families.  Some excellent immigrant absorption programs encourage aliyah, he said.  As noted, some adolescents enroll in the Na'aleh program and university-age young people are enthusiastic about Jewish Agency college programs in Israel.  Even if parents are unable to leave when their children go, they often encourage their offspring to leave because they believe that their children have greater opportunities in Israel.  For a small group of local Jews, continued Rabbi Gottlieb, the main appeal of Israel is higher-quality medical care there; some such individuals have chronic health problems that cannot be addressed by local medical services.

 

As is the case in many Ukrainian cities and towns, the Holocaust is an everlasting presence in Mykolaiv.  The monument shown above pays tribute to the 10,000 Jews shot at this particular site, now a public park.  (The monument inscriptions are in Hebrew and Ukrainian.)  Many more were murdered elsewhere in the city.  The bookcase is in a stairwell in the Chabad Jewish day school, one of many memorial displays in this educational institution.  The Ukrainian inscription at the top declares that the Holocaust is alive in the hearts of people. [The Holocaust] is the tragedy of the Jewish people. The books are memorial volumes.

 

A benefit of sorts of the current atmosphere of uncertainty is that more Jews have been drawn to the synagogue, said Rabbi Gottlieb.  It is perceived as a comfort zone.  A Jewish women's club based at the synagogue has been re-energized.  The synagogue provides welfare assistance to a number of local Jewish families living in stressful situations; most such families, explained Rabbi Gottlieb, are single-parent families or grandparent-led family units.  The congregation delivers monthly food parcels to many such households and also provides them with seasonal clothing allowances.  Six families receive prepared meals daily.

 

If he had adequate financial resources, stated Rabbi Gottlieb, he would like to convert one of his three buildings into a welfare center, featuring a soup kitchen.  Such a center, he continued, also would provide space for cultural activities and for an employment service.

 

 


 
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