Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

The general population of Ukraine is estimated to be 44,429,471 as of July 2015, a steep decline from the estimated 1991 national population (at the time of the disintegration of the Soviet Union) of 53 million.  Individuals of Ukrainian and Russian ethnicity account for 77.8 percent and 17.3 percent of the population respectively.  The estimated 2015 Ukrainian birthrate is 10.72 per 1,000 population, compared with a death rate of 14.46 per 1,000 population, that is, significantly more people die than are born.[7]  Population loss reflects poor health care, inadequate nutrition, substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, narcotics), aging of the population, low fertility, high mortality, emigration of younger age cohorts, impoverishment, and environmental degradation. 

 

Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was estimated in mid-2015 to have a population of 2,797,553.  It is followed in size by Kharkiv, 1,430,885; Dnipropetrovsk, 1,032,822; Donetsk, 1,024,700; and Odesa, 1,001,558.[8]  It is likely that some of these figures have been affected by hostilities in eastern Ukraine, with Donetsk suffering a population loss and the three largest cities experiencing an influx of internally displaced persons.

 

Different Jewish organizations use different methods to estimate the total Jewish population of Ukraine.  One of the more reasonable numbers, 211,000, is advanced by the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and employed by the Jewish Agency for Israel.  Jewish population figures parallel those of the general Ukrainian population, that is, the largest numbers of Jews reside in the largest cities.  Perhaps 35,000 Jews live in Kyiv, 26,000 in Dnipropetrovsk, 25,000 in Odesa, 21,000 in Kharkiv, and 10,500 in Donetsk.[9]  Smaller Jewish populations of up to 15,000 may reside in smaller cities and towns in the periphery of each of these major demographic centers.  About 50 percent of the Jewish population is believed to be elderly.  The number of Jewish internally displaced people remaining in Ukraine is thought to be about 2,000, some of whom have found their own housing and others of whom reside in temporary shelters, receiving full or partial support from rabbis and/or the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

 

The Jewish population of Ukraine has declined substantially in recent years, mirroring and exceeding the decrease in the Ukrainian population in general.  Emigration to Israel has increased dramatically, reflecting both the deteriorating economic situation in Ukraine and the displacement of many Jews in eastern Ukraine.

 

 

The writer interviewed 74 individuals during her travels in Ukraine, including five diplomats attached to foreign representations.  The diplomats are not identified by name or position in this report.  The writer also communicated with several additional individuals by telephone and/or e-mail with reference to this report.

 

 

Dnipropetrovsk

 

 

Founded in 1778 on the banks of the Dnipr River, Dnipropetrovsk was known until 1926 as Ekaterinoslav, in honor of Catherine II (Catherine the Great) whose troops conquered the territory. As the Soviet Union consolidated its power in the 1920’s, place names associated with the tsarist period were changed to reflect Communist control.[10]  Currently the third largest city in Ukraine, following Kyiv and Kharkiv, the population of Dnipropetrovsk is slightly over one million. It was a closed city until mid-1990 due to its extensive military industry, particularly Yuzhmash, a producer of intercontinental ballistic missiles, booster rockets, and related products.

File:Dnipropetrovsk Panorama.jpg

Panoramic view of the city as seen from the tower of the National Mining University. Three stepped towers of the Menorah Center are visible at right. (The towers appear as beige in color.)  The city rises on both sides of the Dnipr River.  As is true in most Dnipr River cities, the more developed side is on the west bank (which appears in the foreground of the above photo.)

Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dnipropetrovsk_Panorama.jpg.  Retrieved July 19, 2013.

 

Dnipropetrovsk continues to be a center of heavy industry, hosting factories producing cast iron, rolled metal, pipes, mining and agricultural machinery, large appliances, and transportation equipment.  Other prominent industries in the city include food processing and apparel manufacture, the latter for European firms.  Notwithstanding the current economic crisis that affects the local economy, just as it affects the remainder of the country, economic conditions in Dnipropetrovsk are somewhat less severe than in most other areas of Ukraine.  The oblast government is considered among the most enlightened and capable in the country; private enterprise is encouraged and supported, thus diversifying the economy and providing some hedge in conditions of economic turbulence.

 

Historically, the city has been an important source of leadership for the former Soviet Union and for post-Soviet Ukraine. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko, and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma all spent significant portions of their careers in important leadership positions in the city.  Yulia Tymoshenko, a past Prime Minister of Ukraine imprisoned under the former Yanukhovych regime, is a native of the city.

 

Jews have lived in the region of Ekaterinoslav, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. By 1897, the Jewish population of Ekaterinoslav had reached 41,240, more than one-third of the population of the entire city at that time.  Pogroms occurred in 1881, 1882, 1905, and 1918; the 1905 attacks were the most devastating, killing 97 and wounding more than 100 people. Prior to the consolidation of Soviet authority in the 1920’s, the Jewish community was highly organized, maintaining a diverse network of Jewish religious, educational, and cultural institutions.   It was an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. A small Karaite community had its own prayer house.

 

More than twenty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Dnipropetrovsk is once again an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. The State of Israel enjoys a robust image in the city, reflecting substantial emigration from Dnipropetrovsk to Israel, continuing bonds between local Jews and their family members and friends in Israel, the presence of many Israelis as teachers and other community professionals, a stream of capable shlichim (emissaries) of Israeli organizations, and the strong pro-Israel stance of Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki. Regularly scheduled commercial air service connects Dnipropetrovsk and Ben Gurion airport in Israel. Estimates of the current Jewish population of Dnipropetrovsk range from 25,000 to 40,000; it is the second largest Jewish population center in Ukraine, surpassed only by Kyiv.

 

Dnipropetrovsk is the center of the Chabad movement in Ukraine. Honoring the historic presence of Chabad in the city that continued into the 1930’s, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson appointed Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki to the post of Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk in 1990. Rabbi Kaminezki is widely recognized as the most effective large-city community rabbi in all of the post-Soviet successor states.

 

 

1.  Symbolic of the role of Chabad in the city is the Menorah Center, a Chabad Jewish cultural center that opened in October 2012.  Designed to appear as seven-branch menorah (candelabrum associated with Jewish ritual), the Menorah Center comprises 538,000 square feet (approximately 50,000 square meters).  Although the complex has been referred to as a Jewish community center - the largest Jewish community center in the world (крупнейший в мире), according to Chabad - it is a unique structure, bearing little resemblance to Jewish community centers in North or South America.  It is, instead, an office complex, conference center, banquet hall, hotel, Jewish museum, and small shopping mall.  It hosts offices and program centers of other Jewish organiza-tions, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Joint Distribution Committee, and ORT.   The regional consulate-general of the State of Israel is located within its premises.    Construction costs, said to be more than $60 million, were covered entirely by local oligarchs Ihor Kolomoisky and Hennady Bogolubov.  Parking space is very limited.

 

The Menorah Center overshad-ows the red-roofed Golden Rose Choral Synagogue in a busy area of Dnipropetrovsk.

 

Photo: Chabad of Dnipropetrovsk.

 

 

 

Although the structure appears to have seven separate towers, it is a single L-shaped building with an 18-story center and three progressively smaller sections branching out on two sides from the center.  A long and wide ground-floor corridor extends through each 'wing' of the building, meeting where the two wings join.  Multiple sets of small elevators are located along the corridor.  Entries into small elevator vestibules, shops, the hotel, and other functional areas are separated by stone replicas of facades of former synagogues in the area.  Shops include an upscale kosher restaurant, a more modest kosher coffee shop, a small kosher grocery store, Judaica shop, florist, an insurance agency, and a bank branch.  A wide stairway leads to the Museum of Jewish Holocaust and History in Ukraine,[11] and a passageway connects the Center with the synagogue.  Another passageway leads directly to the conference space and banquet halls.  Security is visible, but unobtrusive.

 

Entrance to the Menorah Center is gained most easily through street-side doors in each of the two end-towers, although doors in the end-tower at left are accessible only by ascending two flights of outdoor steps that are difficult for mobility-impaired individuals to mount.  Vehicular access is available at the rear of the structure.

 

The Menorah Hotel is a four-star facility accommodating 80 guests.  Its elevators and door key system are programmed to be Shabbat-compliant.  Because the hotel is connected to the synagogue through the Menorah Center, some religiously observant individuals and families take advantage of Shabbat package rates.  A planned hostel in a different section of the Menorah Center failed to attract guests and has been converted into a 16-room two-star facility known as the 7-Days City Hotel, featuring accommodations available at modest prices.


[7]  However, the birth/death ratio is improving.  In 2014, the estimated ratio was 9.41 to 15.72.

[8] Http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/ukraine-population/major-cities-in-ukraine.  Retrieved August 25, 2015.

[9]  Figures are provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel, April 2015.

[10] Grigoriy Ivanovich Petrovsky (1878-1958) was a prominent local pre-revolutionary political agitator, exile, and subsequent political figure in the city. His family name was combined with that of the Dnipr River to produce the current city name of Dnipropetrovsk.

 

As is the case concerning other places names in Ukraine associated with the Soviet era, debate ensues about re-naming the city to reflect its Ukrainian identity.  A return to Ekaterinoslav is unlikely as Catherine was an empress of imperial Russia.

[11]   See page 8.

 
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