Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

59.  The Perlina School is an independent, private Jewish day school with an enroll-ment of 114 youngsters between the ages of two and 11.  It is anticipated that two more grades will be added to the school in the next two years, although the physical capacity of the school will be strained.  The current building can accommodate 124 pupils, said Chabad Rabbi Yonatan and Mrs. Inna Markovich, directors of the school.  In common with the ORT Lyceum (see above), the Perlina School occupies a former preschool building.  However, the Markoviches have added a spacious, well-equipped playground and a sports field to its fenced-in premises. 

 

The Markoviches market Perlina as a small, elite school emphasizing instruction in English (ten class periods weekly) and a non-dogmatic approach to Judaism (four class periods in Hebrew and four and one-half hours of Jewish tradition weekly, plus daily Jewish prayers).  Tuition fees are in line with most private schools in Kyiv, but only about one-third of families pay full tuition; scholarship funds are raised to cover expenses for other youngsters.

 

 

Mrs. Inna Markovich and Rabbi Yonatan Markovich, left and right, have largely turned over daily management of Perlina to their daughter, Malka Zeiger, center.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Perlina accepted a fairly large number of internally displaced Jewish children from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but most such youngsters moved on to Israel with their families after about a month at Perlina, said Mrs. Markovich.  Eleven such children remain at Perlina, Mrs. Markovich continued, and it appears that most of their families wish to stay in Kyiv.  Mrs. Markovich stated that many of these pupils need "social help"; their homes are tense and they cry easily.  The school psychologist works with them.

 

 

60.  Another project of the Markoviches is a school for autistic children, which opened in 2010.  Known as Дитина з майбутнім (Ukr.; Children with a Future), the school is housed in  a renovated two-story building previously used as a preschool.  Enrollment at the school now stands at 42 youngsters, well above its official capacity of 32, between the ages of two and eight.  It is overcrowded simply because it is the only institution of its kind in the entire country.  The school is open from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

 

Children at the school receive 40 hours of treatment weekly, compared with the 30 hours that is common in comparable institutions in the United States, said Mrs. Markovich.  The results of such intensive treatment are visible, she continued; improvement is achieved with all pupils.  Unfortunately, the school has no means of extending its programs to serve older youngsters. 

 

The teacher:pupil ratio is 1:1, not including speech therapists, psychologists, and other specialists.  Due to the large number of educators and other skilled professionals required for schools of this type, the monthly tuition is $2,000, more than twice the cost of a good private school for normal youngsters.  Although all families pay partial expenses, none pays the full cost.  Enrollment includes Jewish and non-Jewish youngsters.  With the exception of kosher meals, no religious practice is observed in the school.  Jewish children are invited to attend community-wide Jewish holiday celebrations with their families.[96]

 

Mrs. Markovich said that, technically, all Ukrainian public schools are required to accept autistic children in their districts and provide appropriate education for them.  However, funding for such special education is non-existent, and school principals and parents exert forms of psychological and social pressure on families with autistic children to withdraw these youngsters from neighbor-hood schools.  Mrs. Markovich is in fre-quent contact with government education authorities to raise awareness of special education needs, but no funding is forthcoming.

 

An exceptionally friendly trained therapy dog, Daisy, joined the school during the 2014-2015 school year. Daisy seems to possess infinite patience.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

Mrs. Markovich attempts to work with the parents of autistic children as well.  Many parents remain in denial about their children's conditions, blaming strange behavior on unrelated illnesses, such as diabetes, or on teacher incompetence if the child has been expelled from a conventional school due to unusual behavioral patterns.

 

 

61.  The writer was unable to visit the Mitzvah School, a small Chabad school operating under the auspices of Rabbi Moshe Asman.

 

 

62.  Tanya Abovich, age 28, has been director of Kyiv Hillel, the student group, since 2012.  About 1500 young people are on its data base, she said, and approximately 250 of these are activists, participating in at least one Hillel activity every month.  Kyiv Hillel serves all Jewish students in the city, operating from a large center that is well-located and easily accessible.  The premises require some updating, she commented, but she doubts that funds will be available in the near future for that purpose.

 

Ms. Abovich described her responsibilities as "strange;" her job isn't really work, but rather an opportunity to "change people's lives."  For many students, Hillel is their first contact with Jewish life.  Taglit (birthright Israel) is especially important in building a person's Jewish identity; Kyiv Hillel fills two and one-half Taglit buses (approximately 100 participants) every summer.  Masa, a longer Israeli program of up to 12 months, enables young adults to become familiar with Israel, even if they don't make aliyah.  She is grateful to be able to introduce Jewish young adults to these experiences.

 

Between 65 and 70 percent of Kyiv Hillel activists actually live in Kyiv and continue to reside in their parents' homes while attending a university or institute in the city.  Most of the remaining 30 to 35 percent, Ms. Abovich said, are from smaller towns, such as Cherkasy or Chernihiv.  Few students from smaller cities and towns have had any prior Jewish experiences, she continued.  Some of these places actually have Chabad rabbis, she stated, but many student families do not relate to them.  Ms. Abovich herself is from another small city, Vinnytsya, but left it some years ago, as have all of her family members and friends.  In general, people are fleeing such small population centers, she continued, because no opportunities for the future exist in such places.  As a means of making students from these areas feel comfortable in Hillel and in Kyiv, she always engages some of them as part-time Hillel student employees.

 

 

In addition to directing Kyiv Hillel, Tanya Abovich also is a Ph.D. student in linguistics.  She plans to move to Israel in about five years, she said.  Her parents are divorced; her father lives in Israel and her mother, a "typical Soviet Jew," is very assimilated and remains in Ukraine.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

In response to a question, Ms. Abovich named a number of "favorite" Hillel programs.  First, Hillel offers a kabbalat Shabbat (greeting the Sabbath) service every Friday evening at about 6:30 p.m.  Approximately 50 to 60 students attend each week; as far as she knows, it is the only Shabbat activity in Kyiv that is exclusively for young adults.  She also likes larger Jewish holiday programs, such as a Rosh Hashanah service that may attract 500 to 800 people, and Jewish-focus concerts that draw as many as 1700 people; some of these events are held in collaboration with other Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Agency.  A third "favorite" is a master class on a particular subject, such as computer security, technology start-ups, or Jewish cuisine.  Fourth, in conjunction with ORT, Hillel operates an IT school in its own computer facility.  Among the courses offered are programming at several different levels and web design.  Fees are charged to participants, but these are lower than in commercial institutions.  Another appealing Hillel education program, Ms. Abovich stated, is a Hebrew-language ulpan that also offers courses at multiple levels; Hebrew is increasingly important because so many Jewish young people are emigrating to Israel, she said.  Finally, Ms. Abovich noted the recent completion of the annual Good Deeds Week.  With support from El Al Airlines, Hillel focused this year on thanking service workers, such as bus drivers and subway engineers, cleaners, bakers, and pediatric cancer specialists and other medical personnel.  Groups of Hillel students would approach such people and give them handwritten thank-you notes and chocolates.  She observed that such expressions of gratitude were especially valued by recipients in these difficult times.

 

Kyiv Hillel has welcomed internally displaced Jewish students from Donetsk and Lugansk, stated Ms. Abovich.  Many such students are in despair over their interrupted academic lives, loss of housing, financial difficulties, and separation from family and friends.  Hillel tries to help them, even offering some of them part-time work.  However, Ms. Abovich noted, everyone has financial problems and the Donetsk IDP's end up competing with local people for jobs and scarce affordable housing.  The situation in eastern Ukraine poses a real challenge to society, she stated.

 

Asked about the general mood (настроение) among Jewish young people in Kyiv, Ms. Abovich responded that everyone is "consumed" by the economic situation.  Some panic even exists.  Problems are present in every profession.  Job mobility has vanished.  She realizes that she may be unable to find a suitable position in linguistics after she completes her Ph.D.  Economic distress is driving young Jews to Israel, she said.

 

 

63. The Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students, which is affiliated with the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), began to work in Ukraine in the 1990's, but suspended its activities after several years.  It has since renewed operations in Ukraine under the volunteer leadership of Victoria Godik, who is employed professionally as an instructor in engineering management at a local university.  Officially, Ms. Godik is Chairperson of UUJS, as well as a Vice President of the European Union of Jewish Students.

 

Victoria Godik is the volunteer leader of the Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students.  In common with Tanya Abovich (opposite) of Hillel, Ms. Godik speaks fluent idiomatic English.

 

Photo: the writer (in 2014).

 

 

WUJS/UUJS aims to "provide a community for Jewish young adults and young professionals," Ms. Godik stated.  Approximately 600 people are on the UUJS email list in Kyiv, she said, 150 of whom participated in WUJS winter events.  So far, Kyiv is the only city in Ukraine with a UUJS group, but Ms. Godik anticipates that another group will open in Odesa in the near future.

 

The most popular UUJS events, said Ms. Godik, are business clubs, Sunday brunches with speakers, social gatherings, seminars abroad, and ski trips.  Clearly, the current economic situation limits their ability to operate as many programs as they would like.  However, UUJS schedules at least one local event every month.  It has no premises of its own, but uses rented facilities, such as Jewish- or Israeli-focus cafés.  UUJS also conducts social projects, such as visiting elderly Jews in their homes.  During Chanukah, UUJS brought menorahs and sufganiyot (Israeli jelly-filled doughnuts) to many older Jews in the city.[97]  UUJS also has extended assistance to some internally displaced people from the east who are now in Kyiv.

 

In late January, continued Ms. Godik, 40+ UUJS members joined an equal number of their WUJS counterparts from other countries (small delegations from the Baltic States, Belarus, Russia, France, Poland, and Israel) in a winter university in western Ukraine and Poland that focused on Jewish history in the area.  Included in their itinerary was a visit to Auschwitz, the first time that most participants had ever visited a concentration camp.  The World Jewish Congress paid for the Polish segment of the "university", and the Ukrainian Va'ad[98] sponsored the UUJC delegation for the remainder of the journey.

 

Aliyah to Israel is increasing among UUJC members, Ms. Godik stated.  Ukrainian economic conditions offer little encouragement about the future in Ukraine.  Taglit (birthright Israel) trips and Masa experiences are very useful for those young adults who are considering emigration to Israel; UUJC participants exchange information about various Israel absorption programs. 

 

In response to a question about the general mood (настроение) in the country, Ms. Godik said that many people are "unhappy" with the Ukrainian government.  Many more reforms need to be implemented, people are "fed up" with corruption.  In the course of her work at a local university, she has seen many skewed government contracts that clearly had been rigged to benefit specific companies and exclude others.  Truly competitive bids are never considered.  The entire situation is very "demoralizing," she said.

 

 

64.  Moishe House, a gathering space and Jewish program center for Jewish young adults, had moved into new premises in a central location since the writer's most recent previous visit.  The organization now occupies a comfortable sixth floor loft apartment with modern furnishings and a balcony.

 

Anya Beskorvanaya, an aspiring commercial artist currently working part-time for the Joint Distribution Committee, is one of two young women living in Moishe House.  She and another young woman, not present at the time of the writer's visit, are responsible for coordinating the Moishe House program.

 

Ms. Beskorvanaya stated that major program elements include Shabbat dinners, lectures on Jewish topics, and theater evenings outside the apartment.  They also engage in occasional welfare projects, such as raising funds for food parcels to be delivered to needy Jewish pensioners.  Ms. Beskorvanaya said that she was very grateful for the financial support from international Moishe House and other Jewish organizations and individuals that has enabled them to engage in these programs; generally, she said, non-Jewish Ukrainians do not help each other in the same way.  Jews always pull together to help each other, she said, notwithstanding occasional conflicts between Chabad and others, particularly concerning the place of non-halachic Jews in the Jewish community.

 

Moishe House attracts at least 25 people to its programs every week, sometimes as many as 40, said Ms. Beskorvanaya.  About 50 Jewish young adults are really active, participating several times every month.  However, she noted, some people come just for the free food that is offered and do not participate in any programs.


[96] Rabbi Markovich presides over a Kyiv synagogue and sponsors a number of community programs. See page 22.

[97] Lists of elderly Jews who might enjoy such attention were obtained from several rabbis, Ms. Godik said.

[98]  See page 23 for information about the Ukrainian Va'ad.

 
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