Betsy Gidwitx Reports

 

Commentary

 

 

81.  The Ukrainian economy remains in grave condition with no relief in sight.  Inflation is severe, eroding the value of salaries and pensions almost on a daily basis.  A small group of oligarchs, perhaps ten or so individuals in all, exerts enormous and paralyzing control over the Ukrainian economy.  Corruption is rife.  Taxes continue to rise as the government attempts to generate new revenue.  Fear of new Russian aggression in the east breeds uncertainty.  The necessary development of an effective military force consumes resources that might otherwise spur economic growth.  All of these factors inhibit foreign investment.

 

 

82.  Reflecting their economic clout, oligarchs also wield significant political influence in Ukraine.  They are new feudal lords, according to one observer.  Another said that they had assumed the powers of the old Communist party.  Still others refer to them as "big men."   Many oligarchs, as well as some Ukrainian parliamentarians, lack commitment to democracy.

 

 

83.  Ukrainian demographic decline is severe and is a further hindrance to economic growth.  The Ukrainian population has contracted more than 15 percent from approximately 53 million at the time that Ukraine declared independence in 1991 to approximately 44 million in mid-2015.  The loss of nine million people reflects several realities, not the least of which are poor health care and continuing emigration.  According to Ukrainian state statistics, the population decline has accelerated in the past few years.  Among those who are leaving are many young people with skills in information technology and related fields who can find more remunerative employment elsewhere.  The population loss among younger age sectors will generate a deficit of qualified workers in the Ukrainian labor force.  Further, a shrinking base of productive citizens will be forced to support the mounting pension burden of an aging society.

 

 

84.  The decline of the Ukrainian Jewish population mirrors that of the larger Ukrainian population as a whole, but is even more severe.   Only a minority of those Jews who remain are engaged in Jewish community life.  Intermarriage and assimilation, a lingering apprehension from the Soviet period about openly identifying as Jews, and a sense that Jewish communal life is dominated by seemingly anachronistic hasidic Jews all are deterrents to association with Jewish community institutions.  Within this larger picture of demographic decline is another significant population shift, that of a movement of remaining Jews, especially those in younger age cohorts, from smaller cities and towns to larger Ukrainian cities and to destinations abroad.  Only remnant Jewish populations remain in such smaller municipalities, too small to be provided with services in an economically responsible manner or to generate programs on their own without substantial external subsidy.

 

Unlike Russia, which has only two major Jewish population centers, Ukraine has four cities with significant Jewish population density.  Although Kyiv is the capital of the country and hosts its largest Jewish population, it lacks unambiguous Jewish leader-ship.  Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odesa are other prominent Jewish population centers.

 

 

85.  Most Jews in Ukraine strongly identify with Ukraine and consider themselves Ukrainian Jews.  During the Soviet period, Jewish ethnicity was deemed a nationality; one could be a Ukrainian or a Jew by nationality, but not both.  Russian-backed separatist efforts in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have bolstered Ukrainian identification among Ukrainian Jews.  A by-product of increased Ukrainian identification among Ukrainian Jews is increased tension between Jews in Ukraine and Jews in Russia.

 

 

86.  Antisemitism has existed for many generations in Ukraine; it exists now, and it will exist in the future.  It is particularly strong in western Ukraine, an area in which robust Ukrainian nationalism over many decades has created a toxic atmosphere for many among the small number of the Jews who remain in that area.   

 

Numerous Jews residing in areas outside western Ukraine assert that antisemitism is minimal, certainly not a factor that endangers them or their families.  Some believe that the public involvement of prominent Jewish oligarchs in supporting Ukrainian military forces and caring for wounded Ukrainian soldiers protects all Jews.  Further, there is a tendency among some Ukrainians, Jewish and non-Jewish, to blame Russian provocateurs for instigating antisemitic acts.

 

 

87.  The existing Ukrainian Jewish community infrastructure is complex.  Throughout the 1990's and into the first decade of the 21st century, Ukrainian Jews were perceived as consumers of Jewish products offered by outside Jewish purveyors, principally such large international Jewish organizations as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel.  Although JDC has established nominal lay leadership boards of its heseds (welfare centers) in some cities, these boards have been only modestly successful; board members understand that policy is made elsewhere, in New York or Jerusalem, and have not been eager to participate in pretentious exercises.  The Jewish Agency has been somewhat more successful in raising funds among local Jews for specific programs, especially in recent years, but has not attempted to introduce even nominal local lay governance.

 

A second international actor on the Ukrainian Jewish stage has been Chabad (and, to a much lesser extent, other hasidic groups).   Many Chabad rabbis offer more than spiritual guidance (which is, in any case, irrelevant to most post-Soviet Jews); they also provide material aid in the form of various welfare services, such as nutrition programs for impoverished elderly Jews.    Additionally, Chabad rabbis sponsor day schools that, although not always presenting rigorous academic curricula, almost always offer safe learning environments with free or heavily subsidized hot lunches and transportation between school and home. Claiming to represent the entire Jewish population in the cities of their residence, many Chabad rabbis exert political influence in local governments.  In a number of Ukrainian cities and towns, the Chabad rabbi has been present since the collapse of the Soviet Union or shortly thereafter and remains a constant leadership figure in a time of turbulence. Although most of the veteran Chabad rabbis are respected, their influence in local Jewish life sometimes is resented.

 

 

88.  Also, several Christian or interfaith groups are engaged in assistance to Ukrainian Jews.  Several of the former are European Protestants sympathetic to Zionism.  In general, these groups have been most active in transporting Jews to Israel, often working collaboratively with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the organization designated by most of the international Jewish community as having official responsibility for such a task.  The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews recently began to operate an aliyah system of its own in competition with that of the Jewish Agency.  IFCJ also has been raising funds for some years among Christians in other countries in support of welfare needs of needy Ukrainian Jews; it sometimes provides funding to JDC and Chabad rabbis for their charitable work in Ukraine.

 

 

89.  In the latter part of the 1990's and the first decade of the 21st century, several new benefactors entered the nascent Jewish community scene.  First among them were Jewish oligarchs or "big men," individuals who had grown wealthy under post-Soviet conditions and were willing to share at least some of their riches with the communities in which they prospered or in which they had strong family ties.  Their initial Jewish connection usually was with the local rabbi, who often was the only respected Jewish leader in the area.

 

Some "big men" also established Jewish philanthropic organizations, few of which have been effective in building Jewish community.  The big man philanthropist usually insists on retaining total control over the work of the organization, unwilling to share authority or financial responsibility with others. 

 

Whatever the particular funding vehicle, big men philanthropists often display a style of leadership that is detrimental to building Jewish community.  Further, they may withdraw funding for a specific project because of a quarrel with another oligarch supporting the same cause.  The Philanthropic Fund of the Dnipropetrovsk [Chabad] Jewish Community is one of few contemporary Ukrainian Jewish funds that has had some success in both collecting and allocating community monies, but even it has lost some of its cohesion in the face of economic upheaval, continuing domination by a very small group of principal donors, and business rivalries among the key donors.

 

 

90.  Apart from oligarchs, indigenous individuals and groups of more modest income are forming their own Ukrainian Jewish organizations.  Sometimes, these emerging organizations develop organically from a small local initiative.  Some groups are an outgrowth of a Jewish Agency incubator project or stem from connections made at a Limmud conference, Project Kesher program, or Moishe House.  Some may incorporate both Jewish-focus and general program elements.  It is likely that most will require a period of time in which to evaluate mission and priorities.

 

Some indigenous Jewish organizations may prosper over the years and become effective institutions in building local Jewish community.  Certainly many Ukrainian Jews have developed skills enabling them to operate health and human services organ-izations, Jewish education ventures, and Jewish culture programs.  To be successful in developing their own Jewish community structures, they will require initial financial support and perhaps modest professional assistance from overseas Jews who are committed to Ukrainian Jewish independence.  Continuing foreign domination in the management of welfare and other services for the Jewish population is anachronistic.  A consequence of the emergence and empowerment of indigenous Ukrainian Jewish leadership will be a reduction in influence of Ukrainian Jewish "big men" and some powerful rabbis.

 

 

91.  For now, the departure of educated Jewish young adults is likely to continue, leaving behind an increasingly older Jewish population still dependent on international support.  The Jewish middle class, in common with the Ukrainian middle class in general, has almost disappeared and is unlikely to recover until Ukraine itself recovers.

 

 

 

 

Betsy Gidwitz

Chicago, Illinois

May 10, 2016

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs and translations are by the writer.

Modified Ukrainian orthography generally is favored over Russian orthography.


 
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