Betsy Gidwitx Reports

September 2000

This report reviews a two-part visit to Ukraine from September 8 to September 19, 2000. The first segment was a five-day period in eastern Ukraine, principally in Dnipropetrovsk. In the evening of September 13, the writer flew by commercial air transport (Dniproavia) to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, where she would begin the second segment of the journey as leader of a nine-person delegation representing the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The Federation group would embark upon a ‘site visit’ to explore possibilities for further development of a sister-city or kehilla relationship between the Jewish populations of Chicago and Kyiv.

Ukraine is comparable to France in both territorial size and population. However, the population of Ukraine has decreased from 52 million at the time that the country declared independence from the then Soviet Union in 1991 to about 49.5 million people in mid-2000. Economic distress and emigration -- with the former fueling the latter -- are considered the principal reasons for Ukrainian population decline. [1] The economic situation remains dire, although industrial production has grown by about 12 percent in the first three quarters of 2000 compared with the same period in 1999. Pension arrears have been paid; however, the pensions themselves are inadequate for the sustenance of basic life. Failure to implement basic reforms, undue influence by oligarchs and others in conflict-of-interest situations, a parliament (Rada) paralyzed by partisan hostilities, destructive competition for resources between different levels of government and society (national, oblast, and local), and wasteful use of expensive energy assets are among the most serious factors impeding economic development in the country. [2]  Another issue, readily apparent to many visitors, is corruption; in September 2000, Transparency International, a non-governmental organization monitoring corruption around the world, rated Ukraine the third most corrupt country of 90 included in the survey, surpassed only by Nigeria and Yugoslavia. [3]

On a superficial level, signs of increased economic activity could be seen on the streets of both Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk. However, such observations may be misleading as Kyiv is favored as the nation’s capital and Dnipropetrovsk has long received special attention as it is the home base of many prominent Ukrainian politicians, including President Leonid Kuchma. More indicative of the nation’s economics, perhaps, was Zaporizhya, a large industrial city south of Dnipropetrovsk, in which no hot water had been available for three months and the municipal telephone sys-tem was unable to provide Inter-net access in large areas of the city. (See below.) Com-parable prob-lems afflicted Kharkiv, an even larger city to the north of Dnipropetrovsk.
Map: Encyclopedia Britannica

Economic distress has had a severe impact on both health care and education in Ukraine. Family breakdown is a further outcome of current conditions. The number of abandoned children continues to increase as many caregivers are unable to cope with the demands of daily life. Elderly are unable to live in dignity as their meager pensions are inadequate for the provision of basic food and medicine. Those Jews who continue to live in smaller cities are especially disadvantaged due to even more severely debilitating economic circumstances and general isolation.

Credible estimates of the Jewish population in Ukraine range from 200,000 to 300,000 individuals concentrated in four cities: Kyiv (70,000 to 100,000 Jews), Dnipropetrovsk (40,000 to 45,000), Odesa (30,000 to 36,000), and Kharkiv (30,000 to 34,000). Ukrainian Jewry is losing 30,000 to 35,000 individuals annually due to heavy emigration. [4] The mortality rate of those who remain is high. The average age of Ukrainian Jewry is about 56 and the annual death to birth ratio is estimated to be between 10:1 and 13:1, i.e., between ten and 13 Jews die for every Jew who is born. Economic conditions and concern for the future of children in the family usually are the most important factors in generating aliyah to Israel. Family reunification is another key issue stimulating emigration.


1. The Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk is reviewed in all of the writer’s previous reports about Ukrainian Jewry. Dnipropetrovsk (formerly Ekaterin-oslav, in honor of Catherine the Great) is the third largest city in Ukraine, following Kyiv and Kharkiv; its current population is about 1.1 million. It was a closed city until mid-1990 due to its extensive military industry, particularly Yuzmash, an enormous installation manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles, booster rockets, and related products. Historically, the city has been an important source of leadership for the former Soviet Union and for post-Soviet Ukraine. Leonid Brezhnev, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Valery Pusto-voitenko, and current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma all spent significant portions of their careers in important leadership positions in the city.

Several nationally prominent contemporary Jewish businessmen also are from Dnipropetrovsk. Viktor Pinchuk, Gennady Bogolubov, and Igor Kolomoisky are active in the Jewish community.

Jews have lived in the area, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. By 1897, the Jewish population of Ekaterinoslav had reached 41,240, more than one-third of the entire city at that time. Pogroms occurred in 1881, 1882, and 1905; the last was the most devastating, killing 67 and wounding more than 100 people. Prior to the consolidation of Soviet authority in the 1920s, the Jewish community was highly organized, maintaining a diverse network of Jewish religious, educational, and cultural institutions. It was an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. A small Karaite community had its own prayer house.

2. Contemporary Jewish communal activity in Dnipropetrovsk is led by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk and the central Jewish figure in eastern Ukraine. Rabbi Kaminezki is one of the most respected rabbis in all of the post-Soviet successor states. Politically astute and perhaps the first rabbi in the successor states to be successful in major local fundraising, he has built an unparalleled network of local Jewish institutions. One measure of the scope of his operations in Dnipropetrovsk is the presence of 17 additional Chabad rabbis in the city, each of whom is engaged in Jewish communal endeavors.[5] Rabbi Kaminezki also is developing local Jewish leadership in the Philanthropic Fund of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish Community (Благотворительный фондДнепропетров-ского еврейского общины).


Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, shown outside the newly-renovated Golden Rose Choral Synagogue in September 2000, came to Dnipropetrovsk in 1991. Since then, he has developed a network of Jewish institutions in the city unequaled elsewhere in the post-Soviet states.

3. The central event in the Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk in 2000 has been completion of the renovation of the Golden Rose Choral Synagogue. The site on which the synagogue stands has a long history of use by the Jewish community. A wooden synagogue was erected at this location in 1800. After the wooden building was destroyed by fire some 50 years later, the current synagogue was constructed in 1854. Following the Soviet revolution, the synagogue was used as a warehouse by an adjacent clothing factory. The Jewish community recovered the building in 1996 after a long and acrimonious dispute with the operators of the factory.

Initial fundraising efforts in support of renovation failed following the collapse of the Russian ruble in August 1998 and subsequent economic difficulties in Ukraine. A $500,000 gift from a New York family with roots in Dnipropetrovsk/Ekaterinoslav revived the project.

Because no photographs or drawings exist of the interior of the synagogue before its conversion into a warehouse, architect Alexander Dolnik, a member of the local Jewish community, employed a modern design in its renovation. With the exception of imported furnishings and some artwork, local materials were used in its construction.

1. The same demographic phenomena also are present in Russia, which has declined in population from 148.7 million at the beginning of 1992 to 145.5 million at the beginning of 2000.
2. An oblast (область) is an administrative region in Ukraine (and Russia) with authority between that of a county and a state in the United States. Ukraine contains 26 oblasts, two of which are cities with oblast status; these are the capital city of Kyiv and the military district/seaport of Sevastopol. Kyiv oblast refers to territory around Kyiv, not the city itself. (Crimea has the status of a republic within Ukraine.)
3. See full report and index at “Corruption Perception Index,” available online at
4. The same demographic phenomena also are present in Russia, which has declined in population from 148.7 million at the beginning of 1992 to 145.5 million at the beginning of 2000.
5. Several of these rabbis also are employed in private ventures on a part-time basis.

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