Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Visit To Jewish Communities In Ukraine And Moldova
April-May, 1994


83. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI, Sochnut) opened a station in Dnepropetrovsk in December 1993. Aharon Nechushtan, assisted by his wife Hadase. is its director. An older couple from Kibbutz Hagoshrim, both Nechushtans were born in Poland, lived in the then Soviet Union during World War II, returned to Poland after the war, and came to Israel in 1950. A major factor influencing their decision to work with post-Soviet Jewry was the positive experience of one of their daughters who had worked for the Jewish Agency as a youth worker in St. Petersburg several years earlier. Prior to the arrival of the Nechustans, Tamara Lvovna Israelit, a local woman, worked for JAFI as an aliyah coordinator for the area; she remains on the JAFI staff as the Nechushtans and others consider her very competent.

While they continue to search for adequate office and program space in the center of Dnepropetrovsk, the Nechushtans work from their rented apartment most mornings (because they have a telephone and fax machine there) and from a small room in the Israel Cultural Center in the afternoon (where they have no telephone, thus requiring them to use the phone of the Israel Cultural Center).

Aharon Nechushtan perceives the major mission of JAFI in the Soviet successor states as promoting aliyah. He also believes that JAFI has a role to play in preventing further assimilation of post-Soviet Jews. Having arrived only within the last six months as the first JAFI representative in the city and not yet possessing adequate office or program facilities, the Nechushtans are still (1) exploring the local Jewish and general political landscapes, and (2) beginning to plan a specific JAFI agenda. They have not yet been able to implement many programs.

Mr. Nechushtan jokingly referred to himself and Hadase as “non-conformists” --- because they get along with everyone. The fact that their temporary office is in the Israel Cultural Center of the Lishkat haKesher shows that the two organizations cooperate in Dnepropetrovsk. JAFI will not open an ulpan in the center of the city because it would only compete with the Hebrew classes offered by the ICC. However, the Agency is considering development of a small ulpan on the other side of the river, where a substantial minority of the Jewish population resides, including a well-qualified Hebrew teacher. Aharon is also assisting Hebrew teachers from the ICC, day schools, and Sunday schools in the area to attend JAFI seminars for Hebrew instructors. He believes that they must constantly replenish the supply of trained Hebrew teachers because many of them emigrate to Israel.

Mr. Nechushtan would like to establish a pedagogical center in Dnepropetrovsk similar to those that JAFI operates in Moscow and Kiev. He has already found a qualified director and suitable site, receiving some assistance in the latter from Boris Pessin of the Jewish Council. Such a center would offer more structured assistance to Jewish day and Sunday schools in teaching Hebrew and Israel-oriented subjects than the Nechushtans have been able to provide. He had been led to believe that JDC would supply the center with various equipment, a Russian-language Judaica library, and some Hebrew textbooks, but an approach to Shimon Strinkovsky on this issue has proved unproductive.42

He has worked with the youth club established in the city by the Lishka in October, but he believes that this endeavor requires substantial improvement. First, he would like to engage a trained JAFI youth leader on a longterm basis. The only Israelis working in the club are two young women from the kibbutz movement who come to the Israel Culture Center for two months, then leave, and are replaced by another two post-army young women who also stay two months and leave. However noble their motives, none speaks Russian and few have had any training in youth work. He has sent one local Jewish youth with leadership potential to JAFI seminars in Moscow, Kharkov, and the Crimea, and another to a seminar in Israel. He has also sent additional local Jewish young people to other seminars. Whatever the progress of local people, he believes that a qualified Israeli with a commitment to stay a year or more should be the primary leader of a Zionist-oriented youth club. A second problem of the current local yourh club is that it is located in an unpleasant area of the city, thus deterring participation. Necessary security is both expensive and offending. Mr. Nechushtan believes that JAFI and the ICC should open a jointly-run youth club in a better area.

Mr, Nechushtan noted that JAFI and the ICC collaborate fully in sponsoring community holiday commemorations and celebrations. They share costs and offer a single program (in contrast to a number of other cities in which each organization may sponsor its own mass festival observing the same event).

JAFI will operate a summer camp accommodating 200 youngsters ages ten through seventeen in each of three two-week sessions. They are leasing a former Pioneer camp from a large factory that no longer possesses the resouces to provide a summer camp experience for the children of its employees. (See sections 80 and 81 above for more information on summer camping in the area.)

More than 600 Jews went to Israel on aliyah from this area during the first four months of 1994. Four hundred forty went by air from Kiev, and over two hundred left by bus for Odessa and then by sea from Odessa to Haifa. The latter route had been popular because emigres were permitted to take more luggage on the ship than is possible on an airplane. No longer operating, the land/sea effort was sponsored by Dutch Christians and, among some individuals, thus controversial.

The Nechushtans would like to engage two more individuals to work in aliyah. They believe that aliyah will continue to increase because of the deteriorating economic situation in the region and because so many Jews from Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe oblasts now have relatives in Israel who provide a support system for new arrivals. JAFI is encouraging its Aliyah 2000 program, which recruits potential olim in specific professions and, while they are still in the former Soviet Union, arranges (further) training and/or employment in Israel, housing, etc. The Nechushtans are also promoting the First Home in the Homeland option, which offers initial settlement and ulpan on a kibbutz for people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five; because they are committed to the kibbutz themselves, this program is especially attractive to them.

A three-day aliyah fair was scheduled for Dnepropetrovsk in late May. Twelve delegations from Israel (six employment programs and six student programs) had rented an entire floor in a local hotel to promote various aliya options. The event was being advertised in newspapers and on television and billboards. Aharon Nechushtan expressed some concern over the timing of the fair, fearing that it might be confrontational so soon after an element within the Ministry of Justice in Ukraine had publicly criticized JAFI for encouraging large-scale emigration from Ukraine of Jews (who, in general, are highly educated and possess skills deemed essential to developing a viable independent Ukraine).

Mr. Nechushtan meets periodically with small groups of local Jewish intellectuals in their own homes to discuss Israel, Zionism, Jewish history, and other matters. He also is in frequent contact with the local Jewish Council; although its president, Boris Pessin, has been helpful to JAFI in specific situations, Mr. Nechushtan shares the view of other observers that the Council is ineffective as an organization. Mr. Nechushtan believes that the Council should be a representative and coordinating enterprise among Dnepropetrovsk Jewry; instead, Council members are constantly quarreling among themselves and are unable to initiate any significant collaborative action.

In common with Shimon Strinkovsky of JDC, the Nechushtans find the general atmosphere in Dnepropetrovsk to be comfortable. People are pleasant, even warm, which is not the case in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Mr. Nechushtan fears that he will not have enough time to implement all of the programs that he believes are essential for the JAFI mission in the area. Their tenure is uncertain; whereas he might want to stay two years, Hadase is eager to return to family and friends in Israel after one year.

Aharon Nechushtan is perceived as a “gentleman,” cultured and well-educated. Though secular, he is at home in Jewish tradition, able to quote widely from Torah and Talmud. Rabbi Kaminetzky refers to him with respect and affection as “Reb Aharon.”

84. The Israel Cultural Center in Dnepropetrovsk is one of thirteen such centers operated by the Israel Fund for Culture and Education in the Diaspora, the ‘public’ name of the Lishkat haKesher, a department of the Prime Minister’s office that has long managed Israel government policy toward Jews in the (former) Soviet Union. The Israel Cultural Center occupies recently renovated premises in the center of the city that house an extensive Russian-language Israel information library (including ten computers with Israel-related programs), an activity room, classrooms, and offices. The ICC sponsors: Sunday schools in Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhe, Krivoi Rog, and Dneprodzerzhinsk, and Nikopol; the Zaporozhe day school; a large ulpan offering Hebrew classes at several different levels; an Israeli-focused story hour and a puppet theater for small children; and a Friday evening observance. It is a resource center for Jews throughout Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe oblasts. The director of the center is Zvi Gruman, a soft-spoken Israeli of Soviet origin.43

Assisting Mr. Gruman and his wife Mina are several local people and teams of two Israeli post-army women who serve in the Center (and Sunday school) for two-month terms.

Unlike the situation in many other post-Soviet cities, the relationship between the Israel Culture Center and the Jewish Agency station in Dnepropetrovsk is productive and friendly. As noted in the preceding section, the two organizations work collaboratively with each other. Although each agency perceives and projects its primary mission as encouraging aliyah, the directors of both are sensitive to other concerns within the local Jewish population.

85. Whereas the Lishka and JAFI representations work well together, some observers perceive “no harmony” and persistent “underlying tension” between the Joint Distribution Committee office in Dnepropetrovsk and the other two organizations. “No public wars” exist (because the heads of each mission know better than to criticize their counterparts in public), but relations between JDC and the aliyah-focused groups are seen as somewhat strained. That JDC engages in community-building, which could be understood as challenging the Zionist missions of the Lishka and JAFI, may be a less important factor than initially imagined; as noted, both the Grumans and the Nechushtans seem to be sensitive to a broad range of concerns within the Jewish population. Instead, the following observations are advanced: (1) the JDC agenda is seemingly never-ending, a perception that is intimidating to others with more specific goals and more limited resources; (2) JDC supplies the other groups with various equipment and materials, thus having the power to proffer and withhold goods, that is, to ‘reward’ and ‘punish’ for reasons that it does not seem obligated to explain; (4) JDC provides ‘glitzy’ equipment and supplies, such as video cassette recorders and single titles of glossy books instead of the more mundane items that schools and other Jewish institutions require for basic operations, e.g., school buses and graded series of textbooks necessary for a curriculum progressing from first grade through high school; (5) local JDC representative Shimon Strinkovsky frequently shows frustration, suggesting to some that he has yet to make the transition between dealing with Dnepropetrovsk on periodic visits from Moscow, to which he returned after a few days, and a continuous presence in the city that does not permit respite from quotidian problems.

42. Mr. Strinkovsky’s lack of enthusiasm for supporting a JAFI pedagogical center may reflect the reality that JDC is operating its own pedagogical center, a circumstance that may have been unknown to Mr., Nechushtan See Section 82 above.
43. Mr. Gruman’s name was incorrectly noted as Gorman in previous reports by this writer. Although he was a member of the Lishkat haKesher delegation that conducted themselves in a coarse manner while attempting to secure permission to establish a Lishka day school in Dnepropetrovsk, some individuals familiar with the episode believe that it was initiated and led by officials from Lishka headquarters and Mr. Gruman was little more than a bystander throughout its duration. See Section 78 above.

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