Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

 

28.  Igor Romanov is Director of the regional office of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities (Объединение юдейских религиозных общин), the Chabad religious organization in Ukraine. The Dnipropetrovsk region includes 16 communities in Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovohrad oblasts. The role of the regional office is to bring Jewish life to Jews in towns in the area that do not have rabbis.  Only three cities of the 16 - Krivoi Rog, Kirovohrad, and Dniprodzerzhynsk[69] - have resident rabbis, Mr. Romanov noted. 

 

 

Igor Romanov represents Chabad in small Jewish population centers in Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovohrad oblasts.  He also is the chief liaison officer between Chabad and political and judicial systems in Dnipropetrovsk itself and in the two oblasts.  In his spare time, Mr. Romanov is a competitive badminton player.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

 

The regional office extends support to these Jewish population centers for celebration of Jewish holidays, Mr. Romanov stated.  For example, about 2,000 people in these towns attended Purim celebrations, and 1,500 attended Pesach seders.  For the seders, he said, his office provides matza, wine, juice and haggadot, as well as illustrated instructions on how to organize the seder table.  Local communities are expected to purchase other food items.  Chabad sends a young rabbi or yeshiva students to lead the seder.

 

For each of the last 10 years, Mr. Romanov continued, his office has distributed gift parcels of food to Jewish elderly and invalids twice yearly, at Rosh Hashanah and at Purim/Pesach.  The parcels contain basic food staples, such as cooking oil, as well as canned vegetables, tins of fish, and other items.  In current economic conditions, Mr. Romanov observed, the need for such food assistance has only increased.  It seems that the number of elderly people without family support has grown, and the number of people with chronic health conditions that limit their ability to work also has multiplied.  Although the quantity of food parcels distributed - 5,700 - sounds impressive, Mr. Romanov acknowledged, the number actually has been reduced by 100 from last year as Dnipropetrovsk Chabad attempts to deal with its financial crisis.

 

The regional office also organizes commemorative events for Jewish veterans of World War II and recently honored about 50 Jewish master athletes for their sports achievements.  Involvement of Jewish young people in community endeavors requires more financial support than currently is available.[70]

 

In his work with the local judicial system, Mr. Romanov refers individuals who need legal representation to local lawyers who are competent and eschew corruption.  If people cannot afford to pay for legal assistance, Mr. Romanov usually can find attorneys who accept clients on a non-fee basis.  An individual sponsor has enabled Chabad to initiate a program of visiting Jewish prisoners in punitive labor camps throughout Ukraine, stated Mr. Romanov.  These individuals include people who emigrated to Israel, but failed to adjust there and returned to Ukraine.  Chabad provided kits to 60 Jewish inmates for individual seders in labor camps (with juice instead of wine) and also supplies prisoners with certain personal items.  However, Mr. Romanov said, a major problem occurs with Jewish former prisoners after their release.  Their prison record often impedes their ability to find work, many lack marketable skills anyway, and many are aggressive, even dangerous.  When they fail to find work, some come to the synagogue to demand/beg for financial support.[71]

 

Another area of Mr. Romanov's work is representing the Jewish community in various civic groups.  Among these is Unity (Единство), a well-known and highly respected local organization that includes representatives of all Dnipropetrovsk ethnic groups.  The work of these groups encourages ethnic harmony in the city, Mr. Romanov stated.

 

 

 

29.  Eliahu Pavlotsky, a local man, directs Pidyon Shavuyim (Heb., פִּדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים, lit. Redemption of the Captives), a Chabad organization in Ukraine that is tasked with visiting Jewish prisoners in Ukrainian prison and labor camps.[72]  Mr. Pavlotsky said that he has been leading the program for three years in Dnipropetrovsk oblast and for shorter periods in other regions. 

 

Nine prison/labor colonies for men exist in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, along with one for women, said Mr. Pavlotsky.  Four to six Jews are in each men's colony, he explained, and one halachically Jewish woman is in the women's prison camp.  It is possible that these numbers are low, he added, because some Jews may be afraid to publicly identify as Jews and others may not even know that they are Jewish.  He visits each camp once monthly, bringing Jewish books, tefillin, and Jewish holiday items.  He also teaches Jewish inmates about their heritage.  When permitted by camp administration, he brings material assistance, such as food, clothing, and medicine.  His visits to prison camps/colonies in other regions are less frequent, but he did visit 90 colonies throughout Ukraine before or during Pesach.  In general, stated Mr. Pavlotsky, prison camp administration is very positive about the work of Pidyon Shavuyim. 

 

Eliahu Pavlotsky directs the Pidyon Shavuyim program that is sponsored by an individual from Dnipropetrovsk.  Mr. Pavlotsky is the father of Elisha Pavlotsky (pages 26-27), who directs the See the Light program.  Pavlotsky father and son are representative of a number of local families in which several people are employed by Chabad.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

In response to a question about his working relationship with Rabbi Levi Raices of Kharkiv,[73] who does the same kind of work in that city, Mr. Pavlotsky said that he knows Rabbi Raices, but does not work with him.  The writer did not ask him about collaboration with rabbis in other cities who also visit Jewish inmates in labor/prison colonies.

 

 

30.  Rabbi Mayer Stambler, an Israeli, is Executive Director of the Chabad Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine.  Chabad now has rabbis in 32 cities in Ukraine, somewhat fewer than previously.  Some representations have closed because the Jewish population in the locale has declined to a level that is too low to support a rabbi and the programs that he operates.[74]  Rabbi Stambler also acknowledges that some appointed rabbis simply do not fulfill their responsibilities and are forced to leave.

 

The general economic situation has been tough for all rabbis and for all Chabad institutions in the country.  However, Rabbi Stambler said that Russian intervention in Ukraine has created sympathy and, he continued, he is hopeful that this sympathy will generate new support for Chabad work in the country.

 

 

 

 

Based in Dnipropetrovsk, Rabbi Meir Stambler is well-informed about Chabad operations throughout Ukraine.  He has special expertise on Chabad educational institutions in the country.

 

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Speaking of the Beit Chana International Humanitarian-Pedagogical Institute, Rabbi Stambler said that reconstruction of the donated building and the new structures on the same site has proved more complex and expensive than anticipated.  Although it had been hoped that the new premises would be ready for use by the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, it now appears likely that the following academic year is a more realistic target date.[75]

 

 

31.  Oleg Rostovtsev is a media specialist whose primary client is the Chabad Jewish community structure in Dnipropetrovsk.  He is responsible for the community website (http://djc.com.ua), a community newspaper (Shabbat Shalom), and a weekly television show, Alef.  Each episode of Alef  is shown twice weekly on a regional network and draws several hundred thousand viewers to its program of interviews with local Jews and visiting Jewish guests, information about Jewish holidays and Jewish current events, and news from Israel.  Because of its large audience, it attracts significant advertising.  Mr. Rostovtsev also produces various publications for the community, arranges and manages press conferences, and serves as a guide/contact person for visiting reporters and other media specialists. 

 

In common with other people with whom the writer spoke, Mr. Rostovtsev expressed full support for Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia.  Local people are very "proud" of the demonstrations on Maidan that forced Viktor Yanukhovich to flee the country, Mr. Rostovtsev said; they believe that they have created a "new country," one that bears few vestiges of the old Soviet Union.  Continuing, Mr. Rostovtsev said that people in Ukraine want to be modern and sophisticated, whereas Russia appears to want to revive the USSR.

 

The writer asked Mr. Rostovtsev, a keen observer of antisemitism, if anti-Jewish bigotry had increased during the current turmoil.  On the contrary, he responded, it is well-known that wealthy Jews, such as Ihor Kolomoisky, are providing financial support to the Ukrainian defense effort; their generosity brings additional respect to the Jewish people.  Further, he added, Jews are very well integrated into Ukrainian - and, especially, Dnipropetrovsk, society.  Dnipropetrovsk is host to many different ethnic groups and people get along together.  However, continued Mr. Rostovtsev, some antisemitic sentiment has been injected into the currentDSC00375 situation by Russian nationalists, including "political tourists" who have entered Ukraine ostensibly as tourists, but conduct themselves as agitators.[76]  Some have declared that Jews are allied with Banderists[77] and intend to destroy Ukraine, stated Mr. Rostovtsev.

 

 

 

Oleg Rostovtsev is a media relations specialist in the Dnipro-petrovsk Jewish community.

 

Photo: the writer (in 2013).

 

 

Although Mr. Rostovtsev remained hopeful that Ukraine would emerge from this episode in its history as an independent, modern state, he expressed concern about the future.  The situation is very difficult (тяжело) even now, especially regarding the economic well-being of the country, and conditions are unlikely to improve.  The previous president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukhovych, and his cronies "took our money" and little remains for basic needs.

 

32.  Rabbi Moshe Weber, an Israeli who previously focused on formal Jewish education, is now engaged in informal Jewish education and religious tourism.   He organizes camps, seminars, and tours to places of hasidic interest.

 

Chabad, said Rabbi Weber, has long been concerned about the children of its emissaries in smaller Jewish population centers in which these youngsters have few peers.  Therefore, it is a priority to arrange gatherings where such children can come together for informal education and socializing with others in an environment of common values.  The need is especially acute, he continued, for children who are home schooled and/or study online because the local Chabad community is too small to support a day school and the children are too young to attend boarding schools.  These youngsters are socially isolated and can benefit greatly from periodic social interaction with their Chabad contemporaries.

 

During the winter vacation period, said Rabbi Weber, he organized a winter camp for 92 Chabad boys from all over Ukraine that was held in Zhytomyr.  Ten madrichim (leaders, mainly yeshiva students) staffed the camp, which operated for 10 days in December/January.  Concurrently, Rabbi Weber stated, a camp enrolling 76 Chabad girls convened in Berdychiv.  Fifteen counselors from the United States and Israel led activities at the girls' camp, he said.  Families were charged $200 for each child attending one of the camps, said Rabbi Weber, although the real cost per camper was close to $700.  (He did not state the source of the subsidy.)  Rabbi Weber expects to organize two-week camps, one for Chabad boys and one for Chabad girls, at a site in the Carpathian mountains during the summer months.[78]

 

 

Rabbi Moshe Weber, formerly involved in several different Chabad formal education ventures, is now engaged in Chabad tourism, including youth camps and seminars, as well as commercial tourism focusing on hasidic shrines.

 

Photo: the writer.

 


[69]  Mr. Romanov stated that the size of the Jewish population in Krivoi Rog is about 6,000.  Each of the other two cities has about 4,000 Jews, he said.  See page 76-80 for more information about Jewish life in Krivoi Rog.

[70]  Chabad requires that all young people participating in its community activities are halachically Jewish.  However, some individuals who receive its food parcels and other welfare assistance are not halachically Jewish.

[71]  See the interview with Eliahu Pavlotsky, page 53.

[72]  Pidyon shavuyim is a religious responsibility in Judaism to secure the release of other Jews who are held by bandits or slavers or are otherwise unjustly imprisoned.  The release of the prisoner is gained by a ransom paid by the Jewish community.  Chabad is using the term loosely as there is no suggestion that Jews in Ukrainian prison camps are being held unjustly or that Chabad is attempting to secure their release before their camp term is completed.  Oddly, Mr. Pavlotsky did not know the name of the group that he directs when asked by the writer at the beginning of their meeting; he may have known it in Russian translation, but did not mention the Russian name (although the language of the discussion was Russian) and had to leave the meeting briefly to call someone for the name. 

[73]  See page 68 for an interview with Rabbi Raices.

[74]  Chabad rabbis usually are subsidized by a central body for their first year or so when opening a new Chabad community.  After this initial period, they are responsible for raising their own funds, approaching both local and international donors.

[75]  See pages 27-28.

[76]  For additional reference to Russian "political tourists", see page 70.

[77] The reference is to Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), a Ukrainian nationalist accused of working with Germany during World War II against the Soviet Union and in favor of an independent, non-Soviet Ukraine.  He also is accused of collaborating with Nazi forces in the murder of Jews in Ukraine during the Holocaust.  Bandera was assassinated by the Soviet KGB in Munich in 1959.  Many contemporary Ukrainian Jews are aware of Bandera's history and found Moscow's clumsy attempts to create an alliance between Jews and a notorious antisemite worthy of contempt and derision.  Sarcastic jokes and mocking t-shirts emerged among some Ukrainian Jews.  The Russian propaganda was viewed as raw anti-Jewish bigotry and was understood as aimed against Dnipropetrovsk Jewish oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky for his support of Ukrainian military forces.

[78] Each of these camps is intended for the children of Chabad emissaries and is operated separately from camps operated by Chabad for non-Chabad Jewish children.

 
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