Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine
March, April, 1997

(continued)


Rabbi Gottlib spoke movingly of the great personal distress afflicting many local Jews. People approach him frequently with requests, most of them legitimate, for assistance. He had been warned before his arrival not to become too entangled in individual tragedies as he would become overburdened with the misery of others and would be unable to fulfill his obligations to his family or to the Jewish community at large. However, it is difficult to remain unmoved by those who have suffered so heavily. People come and request money for medication for themselves or for small children. “I give.” More come. “I give.” They need money for heating. “I give.” Parents seek financial assistance to enable their children to participate in a Jewish camp or other activity. “I give.” Just as he had been warned, his own funds were depleted rapidly. He has had to reconsider his approach to tzedakah.

52. Chabad operates a children’s Sunday school and several youth clubs in Nikolayev. Rabbi Gottlib would like to open a day school for pre-school classes and early elementary grades in fall 1997. However, municipal authorities have informed Rabbi Gottlib that no local government subsidy will be available for the school and, therefore, that it should be registered as a lycee or private school; thus, Rabbi Gottlib will be responsible for raising all necessary funds.37 Rabbi Gottlib had not yet made decision about the day school when we left Nikolayev. An alternative would be to accept the offer from close Chabad colleagues in nearby Kherson to enroll Nikolayev children in their school

A summer day camp will enroll about 100 children in 1997.

53. At least four community celebrations are held on each holiday: (1) for children; (2) for young adults; (3) for elderly; and (4) for families. Rabbi Gottlib tries to be visible in the city and to meet as many Jews as possible.

54. Two Chabad yeshiva students from Israel assist Rabbi Gottlib in his many activities. They were quite visible in local Jewish youth and welfare programs, and also appear to have an excellent relationship with Rabbi and Mrs. Gottlib. Another Chabad rabbi and his family will come to Nikolayev from Israel later in the year as Chabad expands Jewish education and other communal activities in the city.

55. As in other post-Soviet cities with fewer than 10,000 Jews, the Nikolayev Sochnut office is managed by local people who have completed various Sochnut training courses. Ludmila Micheslavskaya, the director of Nikolayev Sochnut, and associate Olga Itzkovskaya, appear very professional and enthusiastic in the exercise of their responsibilities. Their relationship with Rabbi Gottlib appears excellent. Sochnut has its own three-room office suite in a house, but also holds many activities at the synagogue.

Aliyah from Nikolayev is heavy, generally between 40 and 60 people every month. An unusually high number, 144 local Jews, emigrated to Israel in December 1996. The high departure figures reflect high unemployment in Nikolayev and general economic depression caused by drastically reduced activity in local navy yards following disintegration of the USSR.

The Sochnut ulpan enrolls 250 adults in 12 groups. Ten groups meet at the Sochnut three-room office suite, and the other two groups meet at the synagogue. A club entitled Evreyskoye samoznaniye (Jewish Awareness) convenes on Shabbat to discuss various issues concerning Jewish identity. Sochnut also co-sponsors Jewish holiday celebrations with the synagogue.

Ms. Micheslavskaya and Ms. Itzkhovskaya hold numerous consultations with potential olim, show videos, and distribute various materials. They seemed very well informed about the different absorption programs offered by Sochnut, such as First Home in the Homeland.

Sochnut sponsors a youth club enrolling over 100 adolescents that meets every week on Shabbat. It makes arrangements for youngsters to attend Sochnut summer camps, and it assists young people in finding placements in such youth-oriented Israeli ab-sorption programs as Na’aleh 16, Sela, and Chalom. Two Bnei Akiva emissaries stationed in Odesa are very helpful; one comes to Nikolayev period-ically for one-week stints to energize local youth activity.





These adolescents in the Nikolayev Sochnut office hope to enroll in the Na’aleh 16 program in Israel.


Both Ms. Micheslavskaya and Ms. Itzkovskaya have close relatives in Israel and plan to make aliyah in the future. They noted that Israel is five and one-half hours away from Nikolayev -- three hours by road to Odesa and two and one-half hours by air from Odesa to Israel.

Kherson

56. A city with a population of about 400,000, Kherson is located on the right bank of the Dnipr River about 20 miles north of the point where the Dnipr flows into the Black Sea. In common with Nikolayev, it is an important protected seaport. Its principal industries had been shipbuilding, agricultural machinery, and textiles, but major plants in the latter two sectors employing over 35,000 people have closed, and shipyards that once employed 15,000 are now employing 1,500. The local economy is severely depressed.

57. Jewish settlement in Kherson dates from the late eighteenth century. According to Zoya Solomonova Arlova, a historian working in the municipal archives, Jews were active in trade associated with the Dnipr River, flour milling, food processing, woodworking, machine-building, and general commerce. Some Jews also participated in city politics and governance. By the end of the nineteenth century, Kherson was home to almost 18,000 Jews (one-third of the city population). The city had 23 synagogues and had become a center of Zionist activity. The Jewish population was attacked during the 1905 pogroms and by Admiral Denekin’s forces in 1919 during the Civil War. From the late nineteenth century into the 1920s, Kherson oblast was the principal center of government-sponsored Jewish agricultural settlement. Agro-Joint was very active in the area.

About 15,000 Jews were slaughtered in Kherson during the Holocaust, most in 1941. Other Jews managed to flee the city.

The current Jewish population of Kherson is considered by many to be about 8,000, but some think it is as high as 12,000.

58. Rabbi Avrum Wolf, a 27-year old Israeli follower of Chabad, is the Chief Rabbi of Kherson and Kherson oblast. He is assisted by his younger brother, Rabbi Yosef Wolf, and by Rabbi Moshe Weber. The wives of all three men are active in the Jewish community, most visibly as teachers of Hebrew and Jewish tradition in the local Jewish day school.

Avrum Wolf first came to Kherson in 1992 as a yeshiva student, eager to renew Jewish life in the city and to recover community-owned property that had been confiscated during the Soviet era. With his own hands, he began to restore a former Chabad synagogue that was built in 1895 and had been appropriated by the old regime in 1924; it had been used first as a dormitory and later as a hospital for cancer patients.38

The synagogue now accommodates about 120 people in its sanctuary. Also on the ground floor of the building are a kitchen, dining room, and storage rooms for food and other supplies.

Communal offices, a small day care center for the young children of rabbinic families, laundry facilities, and a guest room for visitors are located on the second floor. A 7,000-volume Russian-language library occupies two rooms; it contains a collection provided by JDC, books donated by emigrants, and additional titles obtained by the rabbis. Rabbi Avrum Wolf has also donated four copies of his own wedding album so that local Jews can view scenes from a traditional Jewish wedding. The albums appeared to be well-thumbed; Rabbi Wolf commented that some couples have asked that various wedding customs visible in the album be incorporated into their own weddings.

A large and pleasant walled courtyard provides space for summer weddings. Across the courtyard from the synagogue is a modern, attractive mikveh.

59. Rabbi Avrum Wolf said that Kherson was unusual in its Jewish communal organization. All four “branches” of the community -- religious, cultural, education, and welfare -- are united and work as one, each sharing a religious direction. Establishment of a “secular Chabad” group pre-dated Rabbi Wolf’s arrival in the city; a group of secular Jewish men had begun to meet in the synagogue and, aware that the synagogue had been affiliated with Chabad, referred to themselves as a Chabad organization -- but without any religious orientation. When Rabbi Wolf asserted the primacy of Judaism in Jewish communal activity, a “большая война” (big war) broke out. Rabbi Wolf prevailed, insisting that all activities in the Jewish community include some Jewish religious dimension.

Rabbi Wolf acknowledged that some Jews in Kherson thought he was a dictator. He further said that non-religious groups may be at a disadvantage because the community would not sponsor cultural activities on Saturdays; however, it is better to have a large concert on Sunday that everyone is able to attend.

That a Jewish communal organization (община or obshchina) rooted in Jewish tradition can be an effective representative even for secular Jews is clear from the central role played by the Kherson synagogue. The synagogue has the names and addresses of some 2,500 local Jewish families in its computer; each family receives a subscription to L’Chaim, a Chabad monthly of general interest that is published in Moscow. Other mailings include information about holidays and local holiday celebrations, welfare services, the day school, and other concerns. Rabbi Wolf said that the synagogue is a source of general Jewish information; people call to ask about the working hours of the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv, telephone numbers of other Jews in Kherson, and various other secular matters.



37. As is the practice in many west European countries, Ukraine has provided financial support for the secular segment of public religious schools. Local governments have provided funding for physical plant and other services. Increasingly, government subsidies have failed to keep pace with inflation, thus forcing many rabbis in Ukraine to find additional sources of support.
38. Notwithstanding its use as a hospital, the building had no water supply or any other utilities, a not uncommon situation for Soviet medical institutions.

 
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