Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On Jewish Community Life In Kyiv
An Assessment Visit to Kyiv, Zhytomyr, and Korosten

February-March, 2002

The Chicago-Kyiv Kehilla Project


This report reviews a visit to Kyiv and two smaller cities in central Ukraine from February 27 to March 8, 2002. The author arrived in the Ukrainian capital on February 27, followed by Linda Saiger, Director of the Chicago-Kyiv Kehilla Project of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, on February 28, and three social workers on March 1 and March 2. The three social workers were: Tatyana Fertelmeyster, Jewish Family and Community Service; Judy Mann, Council for Jewish Elderly; and Izabela Sheinfeld, Kiryat Gat, Israel.1

The three social workers were enlisted to evaluate several programs focusing on Jewish children and Jewish elderly in Kyiv and two smaller Jewish population centers to the west of Kyiv. Children’s programs included several Jewish day schools, residential facilities for underprivileged Jewish children, a grassroots group of single-parent Jewish families, and informal education programs for Jewish children operated by the Jewish Agency for Israel. The social workers also observed several services for Jewish elderly offered by the hesed, a welfare center under the sponsor-ship of the Joint Distribution Committee, in Kyiv and the other cities visited.

From left, Chicagoans Tat-yana Fertelmeyster, Judy Mann, and Linda Saiger compare notes in Kyiv.

1. The Ukrainian economy experienced a strong growth rate of nine percent in 2001,2 accompanied by an increase in real wages of eight percent. Inflation was six percent, but the early months of 2002 showed a significant decrease in the tempo of rising prices. The government implemented various measures to curb the role of barter in the economy, thus making more cash available for salaries and pensions. Consumer demand increased, and ownership of small businesses also grew significantly. Toward the end of 2001, the Rada (Ukrainian parliament) approved private ownership of land. In international relations, Ukraine strengthened its support for association with the West and affiliation with NATO, designating a large and highly valued range of land in western Ukraine as a NAT0 training center.

However, not all Ukrainian economic and political indicators are positive. Its standard of living remains lower than that of neighboring Russia, which controls the flow of 70 percent of Ukrainian energy needs. Victor Chernomyrdin, a former Prime Minister of Russia, is now Ambassador of Russia to Ukraine, presiding over a relationship in which Ukraine is compelled to seek Russian political and economic favors. Notwithstanding recent economic growth, further economic investment in Ukraine, especially by foreign sources of capital, is deterred by rampant corruption, persistent political scandals, an irrational tax code, arbitrary application of laws, and the lack of an independent judiciary system. The Rada appears unable and unwilling to enact reforms, influenced by competing oligarchies certain to lose power and wealth if Ukraine develops a modern, efficient economy based on the rule of law.

National parliamentary elections, viewed as a rehearsal for later presidential elections, were held on March 31 amidst charges of election campaign abuses, vote rigging, and falsification of results. Journalism and opposition politics continue to be hazardous professions, their practitioners falling prey to unexplained accidents and, on occasion, even murder. Ukrainians, including government officials, continue to be implicated in illegal sale of arms to rogue states and groups, including Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Tension between the United States and Ukraine over these and other issues appears to be increasing.3

2. Estimates differ on the size of the Jewish population in Ukraine, but most observers familiar with Ukrainian Jewry cite figures in the range of 200,000 to 350,000. All whose work is familiar to the writer contend that the number of Jews in the country is decreasing from year to year, due to high mortality, a low birth rate, continuing emigration, and pervasive intermarriage and assimilation of those who remain.4 Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is host to the largest number of Jews in the state, perhaps 70,000 to 80,000 individuals. Other Ukrainian cities with large Jewish populations are: Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv, both in eastern Ukraine, with Jewish populations of 40,000 to 46,000 and about 30,000 respectively. The Ukrainian seaport of Odesa has 24,000 to 30,000 Jewish inhabitants, and approximately 14,000 Jews remain in the eastern city of Donetsk. About 7,500 to 9,000 Jews live in Simferopol (Crimea) and in Lviv (far western Ukraine).5

3. Of the approximately 2.5 million Jews living in territory now within Ukainian borders in September 1941, the time of the invasion of Ukraine by Nazi forces, approximately 1.85 million were murdered in the ensuing Holocaust (also called the Katastrofa by Russian-speakers). Of these, about 80,000 were killed at Babi Yar in Kyiv. The Chicago group visited Babi Yar as a gentle snow was falling, giving the site an ethereal appearance.

Responding to pressure generated by the 1961 publication of a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko about the Babi Yar massacre, the Soviet Union built a monument at the site in 1976. The monument, executed in the style of Soviet realism, shows 11 figures, including a member of the Communist underground, a Soviet sailor shielding an old woman, and various other individuals. Neither among the people portrayed nor in accompanying text was any indication made that the majority of victims at Babi Yar were Jews.6 The menorah shown at right (photographed as snow was falling) was added only in 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the slaughter, when the policy of glasnost facilitated recognition of the Jewish sig-nificance of Babi Yar. The plaque at the center of the base, commemorating a 2001 visit to the site by Israeli President Moshe Katsav, has been vandalized; its left side has been damaged, leaving a jagged edge.

Two new monuments have been added to the site since the writer’s last visit in September 2001. The first, with figures of three children on a circular base, is a memorial to the children killed during the Holocaust. The second, presumably temporary, marks an area near the Soviet site where a Jewish community center focusing on Jewish heritage will be constructed with funds raised by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

4. The Chicago group visited the hesed (Hesed Avot, a welfare center) operated under the auspices of the Joint Distribution Committee for almost an entire day. According to Natan Gomberg, Executive Director of the hesed, the hesed program in Kyiv is now six years old. Assisting 7,000 clients initially, it now serves 17,000 people in the Ukrainian capital and surrounding areas, including elderly and handicapped Jews as well as righteous gentiles, i.e., those who helped Jews during the Holocaust. About five percent of hesed clients, said Mr. Gomberg, are disabled younger people. The majority are between the ages of 55 or 60 and 75, and about ten percent are 80 years old or older.7

Mr. Gomberg explained that the hesed operates five major program blocs. The first concentrates on food. It distributes food parcels at specific intervals to needy persons and delivers seven meals per week to 650 homebound clients.8 It serves hot lunches to numerous individuals three times per week in eight dining rooms in Kyiv and 11 additional facilities in the oblast surrounding Kyiv. It also operates 37 warm homes in Kyiv and eight more warm home programs in smaller cities near Kyiv.9

The second program bloc, said Mr. Gomberg, focuses on the medical needs of clients. Thirty-five volunteer physicians provide consultations and referral services (but do not conduct examinations, prescribe medicines, or admit clients to hospitals). The hesed also distributes non-prescription medicines and medical implements (such as walkers and wheelchairs) and provides financial assistance to individuals requiring medical tests and surgery. In response to a question, Mr. Gomberg said that 150 to 200 hesed clients are hospitalized every month.

Social services constitute the third program bloc, continued Mr. Gomberg. Between 330 and 340 patronage workers visit approximately 1300 clients in their homes in Kyiv at least once a week to clean, wash, shop, cook, and perform other tasks. More than 200 additional clients receive similar care in small towns near Kyiv. Another service is adult day care at the hesed, offered to groups of 28 individuals each day. Each individual in the day care program is picked up at his or her home by a hesed bus once every six weeks and brought to the hesed for breakfast and lunch, medical consultations, Jewish cultural activities, and other services, and then returns to his or her home by hesed bus at the end of the day.

1. The Jewish Family and Community Service and the Council for Jewish Elderly are beneficiary agencies of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Ms. Sheinfeld works in an Israel Ministry of Education program focusing on troubled youth, many of whom are of Russian or Ukrainian background, in Kiryat Gat, which is associated with Chicago in the Project 2000 program that links North American Jewish communities with Israeli cities and towns. Both Ms. Sheinfeld, who was born and raised in Kishinev, and Ms. Fertelmeyster, who was born and raised in Moscow, are Russian-speaking. The Jewish Children’s Bureau, another beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation in Chicago, was asked to send a social worker or other qualified professional on this trip, but declined to do so.
2. The most significant economic growth occurred in the areas of agriculture, food processing, leather-working, and textiles.
3. One of the main issues of tension is Ukrainian failure to observe international copyright regulations and laws on intellectual property. The United States has imposed trade sanctions on Ukraine for illegal reproduction of American software.
4.  The average age of Ukrainian Jewry is believed to be close to 60, the death to birth ratio is thought to be about 10 to 1 (13:1 in Kyiv), and the intermarriage rate is at least 70 to 80 percent (90 percent in Kyiv).
5.  The general population of Kyiv is about 2.6 million. Other Ukrainian cities with general populations of more than one million are Kharkiv (1.5 million) and Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Odesa, each with about one million inhabitants. The population of Ukraine is just under 49 million; in common with Russia, its population has been in decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 2001.
6.  See also Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, of June 23, 1976, for an article and photo about the monument that ignore the reality that 70 to 80 percent of the individuals buried at Babi Yar are believed to have been Jews
7.  Most women are forced to retired at age 55, most men at age 60. This early retirement policy is a holdover from the Soviet period.
8.  All seven meals are delivered at the same time in flash-frozen form.
9.  The warm home program provides hot meals and socializing experiences in private apartments for groups of eight or more individuals with compatible interests, such as individuals retired from careers in science and engineering or people with lifetime professional experience in cultural fields.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Next

Click here to view/download a PDF version of this report.
To view/print the above file you must have the free Adobe Acrobat reader. Click here to download the reader.
  Copyright 2007 Baecore Group