Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

Another facet of Mr. Romanov's work is dealing with police, security forces, and the court system on behalf of the Jewish community.  Private security firms patrol the area around the synagogue and Menorah Center 24 hours every day.  Certain other community buildings are under constant guard, he said, and almost every structure is monitored by security cameras.   In general, continued Mr. Romanov, the Dnipropetrovsk population is very tolerant; in addition to Jews, many other ethnic groups are represented in the city, including a large number of Armenians.  Very little antisemitism exists locally; the atmosphere here (in Dnipropetrovsk) is not comparable to that of France, he asserted.

 

At its inception, the Russian-backed insurgency in the Donbas caused general panic in Dnipropetrovsk, stated Mr. Romanov; many people feared that the Russians would move on to Dnipropetrovsk.  The sudden arrival in the city of thousands of internally displaced people from that area only exacerbated the sense of dread, he continued.  However, things have calmed down considerably since then.  Many of the Jewish IDP's have gone to Israel, significantly relieving the burden of care imposed upon the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community.

 

Notwithstanding all that has happened in recent months, city life is almost back to normal now, Mr. Romanov stated.  In fact, he noted, many visitors arrive with great anxiety and seem surprised by the sense of normalcy here (in Dnipropetrovsk).  They expected something like a garrison town, but find that people are going about their business in a routine manner.  However, he added, it is public knowledge that many young men, fearing conscription into the Ukrainian army, have left town and some have gone abroad.  Some Jewish young men have left rather hastily for Israel.[67]

 

 

28.  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.[68]  Rabbi Stambler also acknowledged that some appointed rabbis simply do not fulfill their responsibilities and are forced to leave.

 

Because the economic situation in Ukraine has severely limited local fundraising and because the value of foreign currencies has appreciated against the weak Ukrainian hryvnia, almost all community rabbis are forced to go abroad in search of financial support, stated Rabbi Stambler.  In some locales, he continued, it is no secret that the chief rabbi's wife really is in charge of local Chabad activities because her husband's fundraising responsibilities require lengthy trips to North America and western Europe.

 

Speaking of the Beit Chana International Humanitarian-Pedagogical Institute and the stalled International Hasidic Women's Seminary, Rabbi Stambler stated that mutual accreditation with an internationally recognized university or college remains an essential goal for each program.  Students need to know that their work will be recognized in North America.  However, certain barriers to such accreditation exist, most notably the poor English-language skills of local students and instructors.  The agreement between Alfred Nobel University in Dnipropetrovsk and Beit Chana is a first step; the second step probably will be accreditation by a university in Kyiv.  Only after recognition by a major Kyiv institution will Beit Chana and/or the Seminary be prepared to seek accreditation by an American college or university.  These efforts will require dedicated fulltime professional staff for each program, a financial impossibility at this time.  Beit Chana will continue in its current mode; the revival of the International Hasidic Women's Seminary is on hold for now.[69]

 

Based in Dnipropetrovsk, Rabbi Meir Stambler coordinates Chabad operations throughout Ukraine.  He possesses special expertise on Chabad educational institutions in the country.

Photo: the writer (in 2014).

 

29.   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.  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 response to a question about the general atmosphere in Dnipropetrovsk, Mr. Rostovtsev said that the situation is much worse than it was in 2014.  The war with Russian separatists is expensive - in human lives, financial resources, and morale.  The Ukrainian economy is in bad condition.  Salaries are not being paid.   Medicines and medical care are beyond the reach of many.  People have no hope for the future.  They are risk-averse, will not enter into any new ventures.  His own budget has been reduced.  His television show, Alef, receives much less advertising than previously because vendors simply cannot afford it.  He is very pessimistic about the future, he said.

 

Speaking about the community website, Mr. Rostovtsev said that it has 3,000 to 4,000 regular viewers.  Essentially, he continued, the website presents a calendar of community events, mostly those sponsored by Chabad; however, other organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee, also post announce- ments of their special occasions.  From time to time, said Mr. Rostovtsev, organization executives complain to him about community website coverage of their programs; they all want preferential placement on the site, favorable comments about their events, and many photographs.  Rabbi Kaminezki, he commented, wants only positive news on the website; this is boring, stated Mr. Rostovtsev.

 

 

Oleg Rostovtsev is a media specialist in the Dnipropetrovsk Jew-ish community.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

Referring to local Jewish oligarchs, Mr. Rostovtsev believes that their time has passed.    They are "too big" for ordinary daily life, but, he acknowledged, their financial resources and influence remain necessary.    Ihor Kolomoisky, he observed, is respected throughout the country for the assistance that he provides to the Ukrainian armed forces.  Most Jews feel that these local "big men" who identify strongly with the Jewish community provide some protection to the average Jew in the street.  Local Jews will be afraid if Jewish oligarchs leave the city to reside permanently in the homes that they already own abroad.[70] 

 

Antisemitism, said Mr. Rostovtsev, exists, but it is not a problem.  Again, the support provided by Jewish oligarchs to the Ukrainian defense effort is well-known and protects Ukrainian Jews.

 

Russian separatists in the Donbas region, Mr. Rostovtsev stated, are living in the past. They would like to re-create the certainty of the USSR or even the Russian Empire of old.  They are a "joke" and many are fascist in outlook.  They are afraid of the 21st century, they are afraid of freedom.

 

 

30.  Rabbi Moshe Weber, an Israeli who previously focused on formal Jewish education for young adults, is now engaged in adult education, informal education, and religious tourism.  His newest venture is a stipend-based Kollel Torah currently (April 2015) engaging 600+ men in 40 cities and towns in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states. The program focuses on smaller Jewish population centers, although it also operates in Dnipropetrovsk.

 

An Israeli of Georgian ancestry provides Rabbi Weber with a budget of approximately $100,000 monthly to enable the printing and distribution of Russian-language paperback textbooks, teacher guides, stipends of approximately $200 to each student, and general overhead expenses.  Typically, said Rabbi Weber, Kollel Torah students gather in Chabad synagogues, usually in the evenings, where they are guided by local Chabad rabbis.  The stipends are a major attraction, acknowledged Rabbi Weber; they provide much-needed pension supplements to older men and general income to unemployed or poorly paid working-age men.  Additionally, the program draws people into shuls and populates minyans, which sometimes are difficult to fill in smaller Jewish population centers.  Some of the attendees are even assuming leadership positions in participating communities, Rabbi Weber said.

 

Rabbi Moshe Weber holds one of the Russian-language textbooks distributed to students in the Kollel Torah.  The books are printed in Sumy, a city northwest of Kharkiv.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

 

Rabbis of synagogues in the programs submit attendance records and other reports to Rabbi Weber by email.  Rabbi Weber transmits funds to these rabbis by wire.

 

Religious tourism continues, with the Menorah Center hotel and event rooms serving as a convenient base for various hasidic groups that have important historical sites and shrines in the area.  For example, said Rabbi Weber, about 200 individuals came from Israel on a religious pilgrimage for Pesach; the Menorah Center accommodated them - as well as local community groups - for seders.

 

Locally, Rabbi Weber arranged summer and winter camps for the sons and daughters of Chabad emissaries in Ukraine.  He also arranged a Pesach vacation, including seders, at a resort in the Carpathian Mountains for young families.

 

 

National and International Jewish Organizations

 

 

31.  Based in the Menorah Center, the Dnipropetrovsk office of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI, Sochnut) is headquarters for Jewish Agency activity in all of eastern Ukraine.  Natalia Nabitovsky, a native of the city who now is an Israeli citizen, directs all JAFI operations within the city of Dnipropetrovsk itself; her husband, Max Lurie, also a previous resident of Dnipropetrovsk, manages JAFI responsibilities in the remainder of the eastern section of the country.  Mr. Lurie travels regularly from Dnipropetrovsk to other cities east of the Dnipr River.

 

JAFI estimates that a total of 85,000 Jews live in eastern Ukraine, said Mr. Lurie.  The two largest Jewish population centers are Dnipropetrovsk (approximately 26,000 Jews) and Kharkiv (21,000 Jews).  Of the two major cities in the separatist area, Donetsk has a Jewish population of about 10,500, Mr. Lurie stated, and Luhansk is home to no more than 1,000 to 2,000 Jews.  Almost all of the Jews who remain in Luhansk, he added, are elderly and/or impoverished; they are unable to leave the city, and the political/military situation limits access to them by outsiders.  As is the case throughout Ukraine, some Jews in the separatist area are unaware of their Jewish heritage and thus do not realize that they are eligible for assistance from Jewish organizations.  Equally, they do not know that they are entitled to emi-grate to Israel.

 

Natalia Nabitovsky and Max Lurie are JAFI emissaries in eastern Ukraine; she directs JAFI operations in the city of Dnipropetrovsk, and he manages JAFI responsibilities in the remainder of the region. They are seen in the photo at right just outside the main building at the Mayak JAFI transit station just outside Dnipro-petrovsk.

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Legally, Mr. Lurie continued, Jews who are aware of their Jewish identity and wish to go to Israel are free to do so without any government impediment.  However, the new quasi-states in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (Donetsk Peoples Republic, Luhansk Peoples Republic) desire that healthy young people remain to build their new "countries;" further, official and unofficial militia units from various organizations and governments patrol highways and extort tribute (bribes) from passengers for safe passage in and out of these areas.


[67]  At least a dozen middle-aged Jewish adults and draft-age or almost draft-age Jewish young men have told the author that Jewish young men are willing serve in the Israeli military, but reluctant to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces.

[68]  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.

[69] See page 7 for information about Beit Chana and the International Hasidic Women's Seminary.

[70]   For example, Ihor Kolomoisky owns a home in Geneva, and Hennady Boholubov owns a home in London.

 
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