Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

76.  The Ukrainian Jewish Committee was established by Oleksandr Feldman, a wealthy businessman from Kharkiv and a member of the Ukrainian Rada (parliament), in 2008.  Mr. Feldman, who previously was associated with the Jewish Fund of Ukraine, modeled the new organization on the American Jewish Committee, he said.  The writer met with Eduard Dolinsky, the director-general of the organization.

 

Mr. Dolinsky described the current situation in Ukraine as "awful."  Russians and Russian-controlled Ukrainians continue to wage war in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian economy is close to collapse, internally displaced people create new pressures on the already strained Ukrainian infrastructure, internally displaced Jews strain Jewish communities throughout Ukraine, and many skilled people are leaving the country.  Severe inflation has diminished the value of Ukrainian currency and greatly reduced the value of pensions.  Many elderly people are trying to survive on $50 each month, an impossibility and a disgrace.

 

Eduard Dolinsky, a native of Lutsk in western Ukraine, is director-general of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.  He maintains contact with Jewish family and friends in Lutsk, which had an active Jewish community until the recent crisis.  The Lutsk Jewish community needs $500-$1,000 monthly to survive, said Mr. Dolinsky; it no longer is able to raise such funds, so it has collapsed.

 

Photo: the writer.

 

The Jewish community, continued Mr. Dolinsky, has been seriously affected by the ongoing crisis.  Wealthy Jews who previously were very generous donors to Jewish causes are much less wealthy today and have trimmed their philanthropy in the Jewish sector accordingly.  Their remaining resources now are directed almost entirely to supporting the Ukrainian defense effort.  UJC is no exception; the organization has lost most of its major donors.  Oleksandr Feldman, by far the largest UJC donor, has reduced his contributions to UJC and, instead, is focusing his philanthropy on assistance to IDP's in general, a defense-related medical center, and a military ambulance service that sends vehicles into the war zone.[107]

 

A positive by-product of the emergence of Ukrainian grass-roots support for the Ukrainian armed forces, said Mr. Dolinsky, is that these organizing efforts accelerate the development of civil society that already was underway.  People are assuming responsibility for society, they are taking the initiative to organize themselves in pursuit of a common goal.  In addition to financial support, Mr. Dolinsky continued, these efforts need sound leadership, which is not necessarily the type of leadership that oligarchs have exercised in their business endeavors.  Noting the sister-city relationship between Chicago and Kyiv and the fact that the writer resides in Chicago, perhaps the Chicago Jewish community could train Kyiv Jewish leaders, Mr. Dolinsky suggested.  The development of capable Jewish leadership is "vital" to the future of Ukrainian Jewry, he stated.

 

Mr. Dolinsky sees little role for the Joint Distribution Committee in Ukrainian Jewish community development.  JDC should concentrate, he said, on its welfare agenda, especially as it concerns internally displaced Jews from eastern Ukraine.  The Jewish culture/community centers that JDC operates actually are divisive, he commented, because JDC selects its own community leaders and thus inhibits grassroots development of genuine local leadership.

 

Asked about priorities for the Jewish population in Ukraine, Mr. Dolinsky said that development of a Ukrainian Jewish museum is critical.[108]  However, he noted, the municipality of Kyiv has not yet allocated land for such an institution.  Second, as soon as current economic difficulties are overcome, Mr. Dolinsky observed, Jews of Ukraine should strive for Jewish self-sufficiency, that is, support of, and control over, local Jewish institutions.  Third, Mr. Dolinsky would like to see more connections between Ukrainian Jews and Jewish populations in other countries.  A good place to start, he said, is the development of more twinning relationships between Ukrainian Jewish population centers, especially smaller Jewish population centers, and Jewish population centers in other countries. 

 

Regarding antisemitism in Ukraine, Mr. Dolinsky stated that it is at the same level as previously, but that this level is higher than many people are willing to state publicly.  Some people, he said, are so isolated from day-to-day life that they really do not know what is happening at street level.[109]  Mr. Dolinsky said that antisemitic comments are  commonplace in the streets, markets, and other public places.  He has heard many antisemitic slurs himself.  Notwithstanding Iosif Zissel's efforts to monitor antisemitism, he and his staff miss many antisemitic  incidents.  Jewish cemeteries and Holocaust monuments frequently are vandalized.  No central authority has a good system of monitoring and reporting these episodes.  As in the Soviet period, some antisemitic actions are reported as "hooliganism."  Other people, Mr. Dolinsky continued, may be well-informed about the extent of antisemitism, but appear to think they should just keep quiet about it.  Mr. Dolinsky also observed that government officials will meet with foreign visitors to discuss - and deny - antisemitism in Ukraine, but will not discuss this topic with Ukrainian Jews themselves.

 

Responding to a question about the general mood (настроение) in Ukraine, Mr. Dolin-sky said that economic distress and the war in the east create substantial pressure to leave the country.  He thinks that most Ukrainians, including Jews, would prefer to go to the United States.  However, many Jews will go to Israel, and many non-Jews will settle for such neighboring countries as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.

 

 

International Jewish Organizations

 

 

77.  The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI, Sochnut) is a Jerusalem-based organization that works to build Jewish identity and enhance ties between diaspora Jews and Israel.  JAFI offers a number of programs designed to encourage aliyah (immigration to Israel) of local Jews and their family members.  The writer met with Ilana Shpak, who directs JAFI operations in Kyiv, central, and western Ukraine.  Ms. Shpak stated that JAFI focuses on four specific strategies in its work in the area: (1) camping, including counselor training and follow-up youth activities; (2) Israel experience programs, including Taglit, Onward Israel [summer programs], and the longer Masa programs; (3) grassroots activity and leadership development; and (4) aliyah encouragement and facilitation and absorption in Israel. 

 

Ilana Shpak previously directed JAFI operations in eastern Ukraine, but was transferred to Kyiv when an earlier Kyiv emissary proved unsuited to the position.  Ms. Shpak retired from JAFI in mid-2015.

 

Photo: the author.

 

The Jewish Agency enrolled 210 youngsters in its summer camps in 2014 and expected to enroll about 250 in 2015, said Ms. Shpak.  Another 135 would participate in day camps during school vacation periods in November, January, and May; the day camps were held in Kyiv, Cherkasy, and Vinnytsia, all in cooperation with local Jewish organizations. 

 

Allocations from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and private individuals enabled JAFI to operate several Kyiv-based school-year programs for JAFI summer campers, including a Bar and Bat Mitzvah experience engaging about 30 adolescents.  Parents and siblings were included in some of these programs.  Youth Clubs enrolling a total of 130 youth were offered in Cherkasy and Vinnytsia.

 

JAFI Taglit (birthright Israel) trips attracted 110 participants from Kyiv, central, and western Ukraine in 2014, and similar numbers were expected in 2015.[110] Some of the Taglit groups included special modules for discrete professional groups, such as physicians, IT specialists, and artists.  The Masa Israel Journey, which offers an Israel experience of up to 12 months in general, special interest, or professional tracks, enrolled 150 Jewish young adults in 2014 and was expected to draw 160 in 2015.  Because Masa often is a precursor to aliyah, some Masa programs are integrated with aliyah and absorption procedures.

 

A total of 35 JAFI ulpan groups instruct approximately 480 adults in the Hebrew language, said Ms. Shpak.  Many of these groups also include a Jewish identification component, which familiarizes students with Jewish tradition and customs.  So great is the increased interest in aliyah that six new ulpan groups opened during the current academic year in Kyiv alone, Ms. Shpak continued.  JAFI also operates Sunday schools in Kyiv, Bila Tserkva (Belaya Tserkov), Cherkasy, Chernihiv, and Khmel'nyts'kyi.  The Sunday schools usually are multi-generational and include both formal and informal Jewish education programs.

 

JAFI observes Israeli and Jewish holidays, usually in collaboration with other groups, such as the Reform and Conservative movements, Hillel, the Israeli government, and/or ORT.  When appropriate, such as on Chanukah and Israel Independence Day, major community-wide celebrations are held.

 

Regarding aliyah, Ms. Shpak said that aliyah had increased 126 percent from Kyiv alone in 2014 over the previous year (from 403 to 912 individuals).  Overall, the increase in aliyah for all of Ukraine was 239 percent; obviously, these figures reflect the severely depressed economy in the country and displaced Jews from the fighting in the eastern sector.   JAFI arranges special seminars every year for specialists in certain fields who are considering aliyah; for example, 90 people with strong backgrounds in IT had just completed a seminar about opportunities in that field in Israel.  Sometimes, recruiters from Israeli companies participate in these seminars and offer employment to qualified individuals while they are still in Ukraine. 

 

Many internally displaced people, including Jews, from the eastern part of Ukraine have come to Kyiv, Ms. Shpak said.  Cars with license plates from these areas can be seen all over the capital, she noted.  Some IDP's have connections in Kyiv, stated Ms. Shpak; other just believe that Kyiv, as the capital and largest city in the country, offers more opportunities than other Ukrainian cities.  The Kyiv JAFI office, Ms. Shpak, has advised many IDP's who might have gone to closer JAFI offices in Kharkiv or Dnipro-petrovsk; pro-Israel Christian groups help prospective IDP olim find temporary housing while waiting for visas and other paperwork to be completed.[111]

 

 

78.  Nearing the end of a long career working on issues concerning Soviet and post-Soviet Jewry, the Consul General of Israel in Kyiv was somewhat pensive about both Ukraine and Russia.   He had visited Russia recently and commented, as observers often do, about the many palaces,  both historic and contemporary, that stand in Moscow and St. Petersburg almost next door to urban slums in which buildings are severely overcrowded, as well as grimy and grubby.  A few kilometers outside the city limits, he continued, local villages appear as vestiges of the 19th century, with modest lodgings devoid of plumbing.

 

Many people in Russia, he continued, seem to have no hope.  Jewish emigration is increasing, even from Moscow.  Jewish emigration from Ukraine also is substantial, but the atmosphere is different.  Ukrainians identify with Ukraine; they leave due to economic necessity and fear of war.  After many years, the consul general stated, he has concluded that Ukrainians are nicer people, friendlier and warmer. 

 

Aliyah from both countries will continue, said the consul general.  Young families will leave for the sake of their children.  Apart from the "real war" in eastern Ukraine, corruption and the perceived lack of opportunity for children will push people out.  Echoing his colleague in Kharkiv,[112] the Kyiv consul said post-secondary education has declined in rigor throughout Ukraine.  The best young scientists and other academics have left the country.  Some foreign funders wishing to maintain science and technology standards throughout the post-Soviet bloc provide grants to various education and research institutions, said the consul, but these funds seem to disappear before they ever reach the intended scientists.  Most grant money is stolen, he stated, and whatever isn't stolen, is lost in the vast bureaucracy.  The Soviet system had many faults, the consul continued, but Soviet policy developed science and technology of the highest standard.  Three generations were required to build this strong knowledge base, but it has been destroyed in two decades.

 

Not everyone who consults with the Consulate about aliyah is ready to leave in the immediate future, averred the Consul.  However, they want to be certain that all of their paperwork is in order and that their visas are ready if they decide to leave quickly. 


[107] Mr. Feldman also has reduced his previous very generous philanthropy to the Jews of Kharkiv, his hometown. See page 17.

[108] The development of a Jewish museum in Kyiv has been discussed for some years.Initially, JDC took a leading role in advocacy for such an institution, but its failure to include serious discussions with local leaders in these efforts led to rancor and the eventual collapse of the project.  The opening of the Museum of Jewish Holocaust and History in Ukraine within the Menorah Center in Dnipropetrovsk revived a sense among Kyiv Jews that a similar (and more comprehensive) Jewish museum should be built in the Ukrainian capital.

[109] He cited Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich as an example of someone who rarely is out among the general public.

[110] The numbers include only participants on Jewish Agency Taglit trips. The Hillel student organization sponsored its own Taglit trips, as did several smaller groups.

[111]  As an aside, Ms. Shpak noted that it has been more difficult to find conference and camp sites this year because IDP's are being housed in sites often used by camps.

[112]   See page 17.

 
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