Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

Recruitment of young women to STARS is done through the Chabad day school, machon, and the Chabad summer camp.  Further, said Ms. Kolnak, brochures about the program are distributed in various universities, institutions, and the Hillel student organi-zation. 

 

Ms. Kolnak tries to maintain contact with the young women after they complete STARS.  Many remain active in Jewish communal life, she said, although that activism is not always religious in nature.  A large number of STARS participants emigrate to Israel, she continued.  The main issue, as far as she is concerned, is that graduates marry Jewish young men. The program is very successful in encouraging in-marriage, she stated.

 

 

Pearl Kolnak, left, focuses on Jewish education for young adults, particularly young women, in Kharkiv.

 

 

Photo: the writer.

 

A STARS Intensive course for young men, led by a Chabad rabbi, also exists.  Its program components are comparable to those in the women's programs, although the young men also are taught to lead seders in small towns.  As is the case with participants in the young women's program, STARS pays the university/institute tuition of individuals in the young men's group.

 

The final STARS program in Kharkiv is coeducational, enrolling 25 young men and women, many of whom are "refugees" from far eastern Ukraine.  Some of these young people were STARS participants in their previous places of residence, said Ms. Kolnak, but others had little or no prior Jewish education.

 

 

41.  Lycée Sha’alavim is a struggling Jewish day school started in 1994 and then abandoned in 2009 by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU; New York).  As a private school, the lycée receives very modest state funding, less than that allocated to public schools (such as School #170).  It receives no financial support from the municipality.  Further, a major component of OU support had been the assignment of three young adult modern Orthodox Jewish couples from Israel as Jewish studies teachers in the school; when the OU withdrew its support, the Israelis returned to Israel, leaving the lycée without any qualified teachers of Jewish subjects.

 

Yevgeny Persky, who has been director of the school since its inception, has invested great energy in attempting to maintain it as a competitive institution.  He changed its denominational affiliation to Masorti (Conservative), which is more accepting of non-halachic Jewish youngsters as pupils.  Enrollment during the 2014-2015 academic year was 116 pupils in grades one through eleven, two fewer youngsters than in the previous year.  The parents of all youngsters claim that their children are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return, but Mr. Persky readily acknowledged that some of these assertions may not be factual.[82] 

 

Responding to a question, Mr. Persky stated that 19 children from a larger group of internally displaced Jewish youngsters from the east remain at the school.  About five or six previously enrolled IDP children had gone on to Israel with their families or were on their way there now, he said.  Most internally displaced children had been directed to Sha'alavim by the local hesed,[83] he averred. Very few of these children had attended Jewish day schools previously, Mr. Persky continued; in fact, some of them were from small villages (поселки) that are much too small to support Jewish schools.[84]

 

Many youngsters attending the school live in remote areas of the city, said Mr. Persky, and commute long distances every day.  About 90 percent of families pay a portion of the stated tuition fee; additionally, some parents provide goods in kind that they are able to obtain through their workplaces and others help out in various ways in the school. 

 

World Jewish Relief of England supports 39 Jewish special needs youngsters who are integrated into regular Sha'alavim classes whenever possible, Mr. Persky stated.  Six of these youngsters are autistic, and others are hearing-impaired, hyperactive, afflicted with cerebral palsy, or have other disabilities.   The majority of these children are from single-parent families, Mr. Persky continued; echoing an assertion heard throughout the post-Soviet states, Mr. Persky commented that many fathers seem unable to cope with the reality of a disabled child and subsequently abandon their parental responsibilities.

 

In addition to the 11-grade school, Sha'alavim maintains a preschool, which is a strictly commercial operation.  Thirty-seven children are enrolled, Mr. Persky stated, 30 of whom are Jewish. 

 

The Jewish studies program in the regular day school consists of five classes each week for younger children and eight lessons for older pupils. Course content includes Jewish tradition, Jewish history, Jewish literature, Hebrew, Jewish ritual practice, and Jewish music. Midreshet Yerushalayim, the Russian-language section of the Schechter Institute[85] in Jerusalem, has been very supportive of the Sha'alavim Jewish studies program, said Mr. Persky.   Gila Katz, a senior Russian-speaking Jewish educator from Midreshet Yerushalayim, visits the school every few months to instruct teachers in these and other topics, as well as teaching methodology and curriculum planning.  Sha'alavim also receives program assistance from Sochnut (the Jewish Agency) and the Eurasian Jewish Congress, Mr. Persky noted.  Because parents usually are reluctant to ask employers for time off from work on Jewish holidays, the school remains open and operational on these days, said Mr. Persky.  They observe the holiday within the school in a manner appropriate for each age group in Sha'alavim.

 

Maria Goenaga and Yevgeny Persky are principal and director respectively of Sha'alavim in Kharkiv.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Midreshet Yerushalayim and Sochnut also help Sha'alavim with program planning for a day camp that operates on school grounds during the summer, added Mr. Persky.  Some older students are able to attend the Masorti Ramah Yachad residential camp during the summer.[86]

 

Rabbi Reuven Stamov, the only Masorti/Conservative rabbi in Ukraine, visited Kharkiv for three days during the current school year, Mr. Persky noted.  Rabbi Stamov conducted several Bar/Bat Mitzvahs while in the city.[87]

 

In response to a question about further education after completing Sha'alavim, Mr. Persky said that many previous graduates attended the Solomon University branch in Kharkiv, which closed recently.  For those who are interested in information technology, he continued, a popular choice now is the Touro College program in Moscow, which is "almost free".  For students who have access to financial resources, options among post-secondary institutions are much wider.  Some students transfer out of Sha'alavim in high school to the Jewish Agency Na'aleh high school program in Israel, and others enter the Israeli Selah university program after completing Sha'alavim, Mr. Persky added.

 

 

42.  The director of the Hillel student organization in Kharkiv was unavailable during the writer's visit to the city. 

 

 

43.  Beit Dan is a JDC-operated Jewish community center housed within a large JDC structure that opened in 2011.   Yanna Mastrenko, Director of Beit Dan, outlined a number of Beit Dan programs, most of which require fees.  A kindergarten program enrolls about 50 children, she said.[88]   About 100 children between the ages of three and six participate in pre-school clubs that feature music, dance, and informal  Jewish education.  School-age children, stated Ms. Mastrenko, have access to a variety of clubs in art, music, dance, and Jewish tradition; many of the participants in these clubs previously attended the pre-school programs, so continuing activity at Beit Dan is very natural for them.  Regarding the transmission of Jewish tradition, Ms. Mastrenko said that some of the youngsters are not Jewish according to Jewish law (halacha) and that they or their families do not feel welcome at the local Chabad synagogue; thus, Beit Dan has become their major resource for building Jewish identity.  Beit Dan also organizes Jewish heritage trips to other Ukrainian cities and towns for high school students, she stated.

 

Yanna Mastrenko directs Beit Dan, a JDC-sponsored Jewish community center in Kharkiv.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Beit Dan also offers approximately 60 clubs for adults, some of which are geared to retirees.  These include arts and crafts, ballroom dancing, Yiddish, and an "acquaintance club" or dating service.  Another program of the JCC, said Ms. Mastrenko, is a fee-based summer family camp that includes both resort-like activity and informal Jewish education.

 

In response to a question about Beit Dan programs geared toward internally displaced Jews who had fled to Kharkiv, Ms. Mastrenko stated that the first "refugees" (беженцы) arrived in Kharkiv in June, 2014.  Beit Dan established programs for about 30 refugee Jewish children shortly thereafter, focusing on cultural activity, including arts and crafts.  The youngsters were very nervous, she noted.  Food parcels were distributed to a number of internally displaced families, Ms. Mastrenko added.  However, almost all outreach to IDP individuals has since ceased, she said.

 

 

Welfare

 

 

44.   The JDC hesed is housed in the same modern building as Beit Dan.  It currently serves 8,500 clients, said hesed director Boris Murashkovsky, a decrease from the 2014 total of 9,000.  Almost all clients are elderly, Mr. Murashkovsky continued.  The number of needy Jewish elderly is just as large, probably larger, than in previous years, he stated, but budgetary constraints along with a higher intensity of care required for ever older clients, has forced the hesed to tighten its standards and rebuff many would-be new clients.  He noted that the number of clients eligible for Claims Conference benefits as Holocaust survivors now is only 40 percent of the total, a significant decline from previous years due to the death of survivors.  With the decrease in Claims Conference income, the amount of funding coming into the hesed is reduced more and more each year.  JDC remains the primary funder, Mr. Murash-kovsky said; the hesed also receives some assistance from three other groups: World Jewish Relief of Great Britain; Ebenezer, a Christian group based in Great Britain; and Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein's International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

 

Boris Murashkovsky, right, is one of the most experienced hesed directors in the post-Soviet states.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

In response to a question, Mr. Murashkovsky said that the number of local sponsors, which never was very high, has diminished almost entirely.  Previously wealthy people now have much less hard currency, and some have left the city, probably due to embarrassment at their inability to maintain their previous lifestyles. 

 

Almost everything has changed for the worse, Mr. Murashkovsky continued.  Referring to Kharkiv's proximity (approximately 30 miles/48 kilometers) to the Russian border, many people fear warоятся войны).   In addition to the fear of a Russian invasion, inflation is enormous; pensions have lost three-quarters of their value, said Mr. Murashkovsky.  The cost of utilities has risen by a huge amount.  The mood in the city is very heavy, difficult (тяжело), he stated.

 

When asked about the hesed day center, Mr. Murashkovsky brightened up.   Groups of 20 Jewish elderly are brought to the hesed three days each month for socializing, cultural programs, hot meals, hairdressing, and medical referrals.  Another hesed day center program tends to 16 Jewish children in a three-hour daily session that focuses on psychological assistance, speech therapy, and social skills.  An additional project funded by World Jewish Relief of Great Britain, works with two groups of children with disabilities, one with autism or intellectual shortcomings and one with mobility issues.  Each group includes ten youngsters who come to the hesed twice each week.  The program for mobility-impaired children, some of whom are in wheelchairs, includes instruction in basic computer skills.  Very few youngsters in any of these programs attend school, Mr. Murashkovsky noted, because the local school system does not accommodate special-needs children.

 

In response to a question about Jewish internally displaced people in Kharkiv, Mr. Murashkovsky, in common with his JDC colleague Yanna Mastrenko (see above), referred to such individuals as беженцы (refugees), a somewhat politically incorrect term.  In all, stated Mr. Murashkovsky, 830 Jewish "refugees" had been hesed clients at one time or another.   Only 360 remained on the hesed roster [as of April 2015].   Many of the others had moved on to Israel, he said; some have joined relatives in the United States and some returned to the far eastern regions of the country.  The majority of current hesed IDP clients, Mr. Murashkovsky said, are the old and young, that is grandparents with their grandchildren.  Able-bodied middle-age people who did not want to leave the embattled eastern area returned to their hometowns to guard their property or, in some cases, to return to jobs that still existed.  Almost all of the IDP's, he continued, were psychologically traumatized.  JDC helped them find apartments and provided a six-months living allowance for rent, food, and clothing, but the subsidy was barely adequate and continued only for half a year.  The situation of IDP's was very difficult, he acknowledged.

 

 


[82]  The Israel Law of Return specifies that individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent are eligible for Israeli citizenship.

[83]  See pages 16-17.

[84]  Mr. Persky speculated that these villages were remnants of Agro-Joint settlements.  The Joint Distribution Committee, with the support of the Soviet government, began to develop collective farms for Jews on available land in Ukraine, Belarus, and Crimea in 1924.  Approximately 70,000 Jews lived and worked in these settlements by 1938.  However, dictator Joseph Stalin arrested and subsequently executed key Agro-Joint staff in 1938, leading to the collapse of many of the farms as settlers fled to nearby cities.   Almost all who remained on Agro-Joint land were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

[85]The Schechter Institute is an educational umbrella including a rabbinical seminary, a college, a pluralistic Jewish education program for Israeli schools, and community-based Jewish education programs throughout Israel. It is affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement of Judaism.

[86]  This camp usually is held in central or western Ukraine, a considerable distance from Kharkiv.

[87]  See page 22 for information about the Masorti/Conservative movement in Ukraine.

[88]  The Beit Dan kindergarten bears more resemblance to a day care program in the United States than to a standard structured kindergarten with a formal curriculum.

 
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