Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

Commentary

 

 

85.  The protest movement on Maidan square in central Kyiv, which began in November of 2013, launched a revolutionary phase in Ukraine that has not yet concluded.  The tens of thousands of people who gathered from one day to the next demanded, and continue to demand, a civil society in Ukraine.  Their dreams for the Ukrainian future include individual rights, a free press, free assembly and voluntary organization, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance, and a market economy.  Many Ukrainians articulated a vision of Ukraine as a mid-size European country, sharing the values, culture, and sophistication of western nation-states.

 

As neighboring Russia expressed discomfort with the direction of protest in Kyiv (and several other Ukrainian cities), the sense of Ukrainian sovereignty and solidarity grew. Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine only fortified the mood of Ukrainian estrangement from Russia.  Although it is unlikely that Vladimir Putin intended to strengthen Ukrainian national unity, his actions have done just that.

 

 

86.  Every Jewish person in Ukraine with whom the writer spoke identified strongly with a new Ukraine.  Many of them now describe themselves as Ukrainian Jews, rather than Jews who live in Ukraine.  (As stated earlier, the identification issue stems from the era of Soviet internal passports or identity cards in which holders were required to disclose their nationality.  An individual of Jewish ethnicity was considered Jewish by nationality and was not permitted to identify his/her nationality as Ukrainian, Russian, etc.)  The current sense of Ukrainian Jewish identity is strong even among those whose primary language is Russian.  However, the bond with Ukraine does not mean that all Ukrainian Jews will remain in Ukraine.

 

 

87.  Antisemitism exists in Ukraine, antisemitism always has existed in Ukraine, and antisemitism always will exist in Ukraine, one Kyiv professional told the writer.  However, without exception, the many Jews with whom the writer spoke blamed Russia for instigating recent antisemitic episodes that gained international publicity; the Russians, they said, are trying to disparage Ukraine with charges of fascism and antisemitism.  Jews and many other Ukrainians acknowledge the presence of antisemitic elements in several minority political parties and in several quasi- independent Ukrainian military units fighting Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, but believe that these manifestations of anti-Jewish bigotry are not serious, can be contained, and can be eliminated in the future.

 

 

88.  The economy of Ukraine is in dire condition.  Inflation is high, 30 to 50 percent in some spheres, eroding the value of salaries and pensions.  The value of the Ukrainian hryvnia has declined severely against western currency, thus raising the cost of imports, including vital medicines.  As businesses close or downsize, unemployment grows.

 

Budgets require adjustments almost as soon as they are written.  Organizations that collect user fees find that many would-be participants require even greater subsidies or are unable to participate in programs.  Philanthropy has collapsed.  Most individuals with whom the writer spoke recognize that the road to economic well-being will be long and difficult, dependent upon commercial and industrial development, an end to corruption, implementation of a just legal system, and termination of Russian inter-vention.

 

 

89.  To date, hasidic Judaism has been the public face of Judaism within Ukraine (and neighboring countries).  Most hasidic rabbis are respected, but most Jewish population centers cry out for additional Jewish program options.  Young adult Jews seem reasonably well served by Hillel, Jewish Agency leadership development activities, Moishe House, and Limmud.  The Progressive and Conservative movements are growing in certain cities, even as hasidic rabbis attempt to constrain them in others and international financial support remains limited. 

 

 

90.  A non-rabbinic indigenous professional leadership class is developing among hesed directors and departmental managers, directors-general for several rabbis, directors-general for a few oligarch-led Jewish organizations, and directors of Hillel student organizations.  Managers of Jewish Agency representations and summer camps also are exercising professional responsibilities.  Project Kesher has trained many women who have proved competent in communal leadership.  Perhaps most promising for the future of Ukrainian Jewry and for the Jewish world in general is the emergence of younger leaders from Jewish Agency leadership programs and projects, Hillel, Moishe House, and Limmud.  One also might look to the protests on Maidan, where young Ukrainian Jews assumed disproportionate responsibility for assisting the wounded and organizing medical care abroad.

 

The continuing nurturing of indigenous Jewish professional leadership is essential to the future of Ukrainian Jewry in order to strengthen local Jewish identification with Jewish organizations and to reduce dependency on imported Israeli staff.  Also, employment of the latter is increasingly difficult to sustain for reasons of expense and a diminishing pool of appropriate candidates who wish to reside in Ukraine.

 

 

91.  Development of responsible indigenous lay leadership is much more problematic, in part because the concept of lay leadership is little understood and can be advanced only with a certain level of insincerity and even duplicity as long as foreigners in distant countries continue to control Jewish communal policy and programs in Ukraine.  Equally, oligarch leaders prefer to operate their organizations as one-man shows without sharing leadership, including fundraising obligations, with others.

 

 

92.  Notwithstanding these and other barriers - such as a host of fundraising issues - Ukrainian Jews engaged in Jewish communal activity express strong sentiment for independence from JDC and Chabad.  The notion that they are being patronized by foreign Jewish organizations is widespread among communally-involved Jews.

 

 

93.  Emigration to Israel has increased significantly during the current political/economic crisis in Ukraine.  Driven by uncertainty about the future in a seemingly unstable country, mobile young adults and young families are among the most likely Jews to depart.  They are leaving behind an older population that will require support from a diminishing pool of younger, active adults.

 

 

 

 

 

Betsy Gidwitz

Chicago, Illinois

October 20, 2014

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs and translations are by the writer.

Modified Ukrainian orthography generally is favored over Russian orthography.

 

 


 
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