Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

Asked about emigration among Jewish young adults, Ms. Beskorvanaya responded that "50 percent of the best people" are leaving Ukraine in search of economic stability.  They go to Israel, Germany, or Canada.  The more committed they are to Jewish life, the more likely they are to go to Israel.  She believes that Israel is "pushing" young Jews to settle there.  Life in Israel is "tough," she said. She wonders if Israel is aware that some participants in the Masa program are exploiting it just to get a free vacation in the sun and near the sea.  She is not interested in Israel; she prefers to travel elsewhere.

 

Another fluent English-speaker, Ms. Beskorvanaya discovered at the age of 22 that one of her grandfathers is Jewish.  She said that she "feels" Jewish, but her commitment to Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel is shaky.  At the time of her meeting with the writer, she had already given notice of her intent to leave Moishe House and move into a Kyiv studio apartment.  Compared to other Russian-speaking Moishe Houses, the pro-gram that she supervised in Kyiv was very weak.

Photo: the writer.

 

Although she is grateful for the international Jewish financial support of Moishe House, Ms. Beskorvanaya believes that Jewish philanthropy is too narrowly focused on Jewish programs.  Instead of spending donated funds on Shabbat observance, it would be better to commit this money to assisting internally displaced people, non-Jews as well as Jews.  Instead of gathering clothing and food for elderly Jews, she averred, she would like Moishe House to provide such items to elderly people, including non-Jews, who live in small, neglected villages.

 

Additionally, Ms. Beskorvanaya believes that the Moishe House apartment, as nice and well-located as it is, should be replaced by a real house with a yard.  Those who live in Moishe House and are responsible for implementing its programs should be provided with a good Jewish education, as well as training in conflict resolution.  Residents also should be given more independence to plan programs of their own choosing, rather than be expected to follow Moishe House guidelines so strictly.

 

 

65.  Rabbi Motti Neuwirth, who is associated with Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich and the Grand Choral Synagogue on Schekavitskaya street in the Podil area of Kyiv, directs a program for young adults between the ages of 25 and 35 that attempts to bring them into an observant Jewish lifestyle.  Known as Morasha (Heb., heritage, legacy), the program attracts 90 unique young people every week, approximately half of whom attend on any given day.  Morasha convenes in a small, but clean and well-furnished center in the basement of one of the synagogue buildings.

 

About 60 people are enrolled in stipend-based classes that require regular attendance, Rabbi Neuwith said.  Forty to 50 young men up to the age of 30 or 31 study in pairs (chevruta) 12 hours monthly.   Five men live in a rent-free apartment, committed to learn 40 hours each week while maintaining their regular jobs; all of these men are well-educated professionals, noted Rabbi Neuwirth.  Several women reside in another apartment, studying part-time; their curriculum includes Jewish history and law in addition to basic texts.  Some of the women, Rabbi Neuwirth said, are non-Jews intending to convert to Judaism.

 

Rabbi Motti Neuwirth supervises a range of programs designed to attract young Jews to Orthodox Judaism.  Originally, he focused on day school graduates, but now reaches out to a much broader seg-ment of the Jewish population.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

Some students participate in trips to London or Israel in which they "shadow" successful professionals who combine their careers with an observant lifestyle.  While abroad, the students reside with local Orthodox families in order to learn how to maintain halachically Jewish households.

 

Aliyah to Israel continues among his students and, in fact, is increasing, stated Rabbi Neuwirth.  He has lost many of his best pupils to Israel, he said, so he and his colleagues have created new programs in Israel to assist their absorption.  First, they developed their own Masa track, which supports future olim (immigrants to Israel) in a study program that also introduces them to Israeli life and potential careers in the Jewish state.  Next, they have created a small community of their own in Jerusalem that helps their olim find apartments, establish a social life, etc.  They may even provide a rent subsidy and other financial assistance for an initial period.

 

In addition to focusing on an intensive learning experience designed to bring young Jews to an observant lifestyle, Morasha also does some general outreach to the broader Jewish population, said Rabbi Neuwirth.  For example, it arranges Shabbat dinners in private homes and larger community-wide holiday observances.  Some of its concerts attract as many as 600 people, Rabbi Neuwirth stated.

 

 

Synagogue-Related Programs

 

 

66.  Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a native of Brooklyn and a Karlin-Stolin hasid, is the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine.  He arrived in the country in 1989 and presides over the Great Choral Synagogue[99] in the Podil district of Kyiv, an area of significant Jewish population prior to World War II.  In the more than 20 years that he has served in Kyiv, Rabbi Bleich has developed a number of Jewish community institutions, including the Orach Chaim day school, a Jewish summer camp, an assisted living residential center for elderly Jews, a matza factory, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine, and the Kyiv Jewish Religious Community.  However, some of these programs are now jeopardized due to economic stress, Jewish demographic decline, and a lack of receptivity among local Jews to orthodox Judaism.

 

Rabbi Bleich's native American English and familiarity with American culture have facilitated easy access to American representations in the Ukrainian capital.  He also represents Ukrainian Jewry in several international Jewish organizations.  He remains respected among Ukrainian officials.  Yet he is increasingly an outsider, absent from the country for weeks at a time while attending to family matters, fundraising, and participating in international Jewish events.  Further, he is a Karlin-Stolin hasid in a country in which Jewish religious life is dominated by Chabad.   Rabbi Bleich was out of the country during the writer's visit to Kyiv in April 2015; in his absence, she spoke with Yevgeny Ziskind, the long time administrator of the synagogue.

 

 

 

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich is the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine.

 

Photo: Conference of European Rabbis, n.d.

 

 

Mr. Ziskind described the economic situation as moderately worse than it was in 2014. The Karlin-Stolin community will make further budget cuts during the summer that will be implemented in 2015-2016, he said.  Foreseeing their likely dismissal, some teachers have already returned to Israel or are planning to do so, stated Mr. Ziskind.

 

Speaking of synagogue revenue-generating enterprises, Mr. Ziskind said that the budget hotel on synagogue property was doing fairly well.  Hotel management works diligently with the Jewish Agency, JDC, and other Jewish groups to attract their business for Kyiv events, such as conferences and field trips.  The restaurant, an independently-run enterprise within the hotel, enjoys a good reputation, but is unable to attract a capacity crowd.  Responding to last year's reduced orders for matza, the matza factory cut back on production this year, only to find that demand exceeded supply - notwithstanding the fact that they had increased the price of the matza.  Considering widespread economic distress that had trimmed purchasing power and increased Jewish emigration, management had assumed that demand would continue to be relatively low.

 

Local fundraising, said Mr. Ziskind, remains very difficult.  Many businessmen now are bankrupt and unable to contribute to the community.  Rabbi Bleich spends more and more time in the United States, trying to raise funds there; he has engaged a consultant to help refine his fundraising strategy.

 

Yevgeny Ziskind, administrator of the Schekavitskaya street synagogue, often is alone in the synagogue while Rabbi Bleich travels.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

 

Many young adults, Mr. Ziskind stated, are emigrating to Israel.  Some males leave to avoid being drafted into the Ukrainian armed forces, but many also see no future for themselves in Ukraine.  Some who remain in Kyiv for now are thinking about going in the future; they are "sitting on their suitcases," said Mr. Ziskind, using a common Russian expression.

 

Regarding internally displaced Jews from eastern Ukraine, Mr. Ziskind stated that two floors in the synagogue's hotel were turned over to displaced Jews, about 20 people at a time, during a three month period in the summer of 2014.  Most of them emigrated to Israel, but a few returned to Donetsk.  Rabbi Bleich considered operating a summer camp for internally displaced Jewish youngsters, but was unable to raise funds for such a venture.  The Karlin-Stolin community is not now engaged with any individuals from that population group, Mr. Ziskind said.

 

Questioned about the general mood (настроение) in the city, Mr. Ziskind stated simply that it is "not good".  The major problem for him, he continued, is that it is impossible to plan anything.  There is no certainty even about next month.  He is concerned that Russia may try to grab more land, perhaps by taking Mariupol and then moving onward.  No other country is helping Ukraine.

 

 

67.  A native of St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), Chabad Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman studied in an underground quasi-yeshiva as an adolescent and subsequently moved to Israel where he entered a Chabad yeshiva.  Rabbi Asman also studied in a Toronto yeshiva, but some Chabad adherents claim that he never completed rabbinic studies according to Chabad standards and never received Chabad smicha (ordination).  Nonetheless, he settled in Kyiv and became rabbi of the famed Brodsky Synagogue (the Main Choral Synagogue) even as it remained under the control of a puppet theater.

 

After a successful struggle to gain possession of the building, Rabbi Asman presided over removal of the puppet theater and subsequent restoration of the synagogue. Well- Brodsky Synagogue.jpglocated in downtown Kyiv, the building is a familiar landmark.  It now contains a large classic prayer hall, a kosher dining hall and restaurant, a mikveh, several class-rooms, and offices.

 

The Brodsky Synagogue in Kyiv is pictured at right.

Photo:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brodsky_Synagogue#/media/File:Brodsky_Synagogue.jpg. 

 

Retrieved April 13, 2016.

 

 

Jewish refugees at Anatevka celebrate the opening of the community's new synagogue on Feb. 29, 2016. (Courtesy of the office of Rabbi Moshe Azman)Above left: Rabbi Moshe Asman, at left, with a colleague from New York, Yuriel Shtern.

Photo: the writer.

 

Above right: The new synagogue in the village of Anatevka, completed after the writer's visit to Kyiv. Few additional buildings had been constructed by spring 2016.

Photo: www.jta.org/2016/03/15/news-opinion/world/in-real-life-anatevka-ukraines-jewish-refugees-build-a-community.

 

The writer's visit to Rabbi Asman at the Brodsky synagogue was dominated by Rabbi Asman's presentation of plans for a new village, to be called Anatevka, that he planned to develop west of Kyiv as a community for internally displaced Jews from troubled areas in eastern Ukraine.  He envisioned a settlement accommodating 200 to 300 Jewish family units.  Youngsters would attend a school to be constructed on site, and adults would work in new industries to be developed in organic farming, production of agricultural drones, and computer technology.  New buildings would be erected with new materials and methods heretofore unknown in Ukraine.  English and Hebrew would be working languages, along with Ukrainian and Russian.  Perhaps the village also would be used as a transit center for Ukrainian Jews en route to Israel.

 

Local Jewish support for Rabbi Asman's Anatevka project is minimal.  Observers cite the proposed village's isolation and lack of employment opportunities, noting that development of the envisioned technology sector requires far greater resources than Rabbi Asman possesses.  The more capable internally displaced Jews have already found employment and are unlikely to be attracted by life in a ghetto-type village devoid of basic amenities, such as a grocery store, gas station, or post office.  Rather than building a thriving new Jewish community, it is said, Rabbi Asman is constructing a new shtetl to be populated by individuals whose skills are ill suited to contemporary life and whose future may be one of dependency.  Rabbi Asman, however, seemed determined to press forward in the project, and he and friend Yuriel Shtern had begun a fundraising campaign to enable construction to begin.

 

To some degree, Rabbi Asman's decision to build a new Jewish village may have been formed by his recent experience in working with Jewish internally displaced people, mainly from Luhansk, in the historically Jewish town of Spola, about 100 kilometers south of Kyiv near Cherkasy.  Between 100 and 200 people had passed through a hastily developed transit facility there, which received some support from the Joint Distribution Committee. 


[99] The Great Choral Synagogue on Schekavitskaya street in the Podil district of Kyiv should not be confused with the Main Choral Synagogue in the same city.   The latter, better known as the Brodsky synagogue, is larger and more centrally located. Built with funds contributed by Lazar Brodsky of the wealthy sugar industry family at about the same time as the Schekavitskaya street synagogue, the Brodsky synagogue was confiscated by Soviet authorities in 1926 and converted into a workers’ club. It later became a variety theater and a children’s puppet theater. After substantial international pressure, the Brodsky synagogue was returned to the Jewish community in the 1990’s and restored. Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, an independent Chabad rabbi, presides over the Brodsky synagogue.

 
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