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


105 Mr. Dokter himself is the head teacher in a Sunday school and the leader of a youth group, each of which enrolls about twenty-five members. A pensioners club meets frequently in the home of Bassa Moiseyevna Rechter, a pleasant one-story residence with a yard.54 A welfare group organizes delivery of hot meals to the homes of housebound elderly.

106 In common with Jewish activists in other area cities, Dneprodzerzhinsk Jewish leaders avail themselves of Jewish resources in Dnepropetrovsk. Because the small Dneprodzerzhinsk Jewish community is perceived as competent and pleasant, it readily attracts the attention and services of foreign organizations. JDC, JAFI, and the Lishka are all active and supportive of Aviv and its various activities.


Betsy Gidwitz visited Donetsk, a city located about 120 miles east of Dnepropetrovsk, for approximately twenty-four hours. The trip required a journey by car of about five hours in each direction.

107. Donetsk is a large industrial city with a population of 1.2 million people; it is the administrative center of Donetsk oblast, which lies immediately to the east of both Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe oblasts. The city was established in 1870 by a British citizen named Hughes and subsequently became known as Hughesovka or, in Russian, Yuzovka. It was called Stalino from 1924 to 1961.

Donetsk is the largest city in the Donbas, the Donets River Basin, which is the most heavily industrialized region in all of Ukraine. It is a center of Ukrainian coal mining and heavy engineering (huge metallurgical and chemical plants) with a mass working class severely aggrieved by the economic crisis in Ukraine. Fiscal concerns have been exacerbated by ethnic tension associated with a large Russian population (approximately 45 percent of the total population). Repeated incidents of industrial unrest, usually in the form of miners’ strikes, have been reported in the Western press.

108. The Jewish population of the city is estimated at 15,000 to 18,000. Approximately 2,000 more Jews live in the area, perhaps half of them in Makayevka, a city to the east.

109. Jewish communal life in the city has been dominated by a rift within the activist element of the population. In common with many other conflicts, the friction continues even after its immediate cause is no longer present in the city. A Jewish Cultural Society established in the early 1990s was directed by a domineering, contentious woman who managed to alienate a significant proportion of its membership. The offended individuals subsequently withdrew and formed their own Jewish cultural society; the two groups -- Jewish Cultural-Educational Society “Alef” and Jewish Cultural Society “Bet” -- continue to regard each other with bitterness, even though the difficult woman has left the city, emigrating to the United States. Each group sponsors its own adult society and children’s Sunday school. The Bet group, which is also known as Techiya, is more active, a situation causing some consternation in Alef, which was the original association.

Shortly after Rabbi Chaim Taub, a JDC-sponsored modern Orthodox Israeli rabbi arrived in the city in August 1993, he convened the two groups in an attempt to initiate a peaceful resolution to their conflict. Called out of the room for a few minutes, he returned to find the warring parties engaged in a brawl. (“Men in their fifties and sixties!” exclaimed Rabbi Taub, who is substantially younger, in recounting the event.) Rabbi Taub has since adopted a different strategy in his mediating efforts; he has nominated himself as the head of a non-existent association, the Union of Jewish Organizations of Donetsk,55 in the hope that such a group may come to exist in the near future. He speaks in the name of the Union so that the belligerent parties grow accustomed to hearing about it. He believes that reconciliation will be fostered by the forthcoming aliyah of the leader of one group and a serious illness afflicting the leader of the other. (One doesn’t want to speak favorably of another’s misfortune, but . . .)

110. Ezra, a Jewish welfare group headed by Anna Kuvychko, assists about 250 elderly clients, of whom approximately forty are in serious straits. Rabbi Taub believes that additional elderly Jews require Ezra services. A volunteer physicians council provides some medical expertise, and one physician is compensated by JDC to make house calls. Two young women clean house and bring food to those most in need. The effectiveness of Ezra has been weakened in recent months by the aliyah of three of its most committed volunteers.

Ezra receives assistance from JDC and from the Kiev-based Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (Yosif Zissels), which extends special efforts to reach Jewish population centers in outlying areas. Occasional help is also provided by synagogues in London and in Evanston, IL, which have “adopted” Donetsk Jewry.

Rabbi Taub would like to develop a soup kitchen or similar service, but lacks the facilities to do so. He has investigated the possibility of starting a meals program in the synagogue, but local officials have discouraged him, declaring that the synagogue cannot meet (unspecified) local health requirements. He may try to expand the food services of a new Jewish preschool or a planned day school to accommodate a nutrition program for the elderly, but such possibilities are not yet plans.

111. Other Jewish organizations in the city include: a Jewish Scientists Club; a JDC-supplied Jewish library; and a Repatriation Committee. The Jewish Cultural-Educational Society “Alef” publishes an occasional newspaper, Alef.

112. A new Jewish preschool opened in Donetsk during Betsy Gidwitz’ visit. A festive opening ceremony was held on a Sunday afternoon and included mezuzah-nailings, speeches, toasts, and ribbon-cutting. Various dignitaries attended, including Boris Adamov, a district mayor and a Jew, who was campaigning for election to the Ukrainian Rada. The event was filmed for local television news.

The preschool consists of two very spacious activity rooms, a nap room, and various service facilities. It is well-furnished and well-supplied with toys, books, and Judaica. A fenced-in playground adjoins the building. Twenty children are currently enrolled, a number that will increase. It is supported by the municipality and assisted by JDC. Transportation of children to and from the preschool is a major problem.

113. Each Jewish cultural society in the city operates its own Sunday school. Each enrolls 130 to 150 pupils and receives some support from the Lishkat haKesher Mechina program.

114. Rabbi Taub recently received permission to open a day school -- he was so informed during the opening of the nursery school -- and hopes to begin with classes in a few grades in September 1994. Rabbi Meir Schlesinger, visiting the city at the time in his capacity as director of the JDC rabbinic program, gently reminded him that it was already early May, thus necessitating some swiftness in resolving “logistical” issues, such as finding appropriate premises, hiring a principal and teachers, enrolling pupils, etc. Rabbi Taub was confident that he could succeed.

115. Rabbi Taub would also like to open a Jewish club for students enrolled in city educational institutions. As yet, no firm plans exist for such an undertaking.

116. Leah Taub, wife of Rabbi Taub, directs a large ulpan enrolling 600 adults and offering classes in three locations. Twelve teachers are employed. The ulpan is strongly aliyah-oriented, but Rabbi Taub worries that neither he nor Leah has the time to properly prepare local Jews for aliyah. He would like to provide counseling services and more Zionist activity in Donetsk, believing that such programs would facilitate absorption in Israel. Between seventy and one hundred local Jews leave for Israel every month.

117. Rabbi Chaim Taub and his family arrived in Donetsk in August 1993 under the auspices of a JDC program that places modern Orthodox Israeli Zionist rabbis in Jewish population centers of fewer than 20,000 individuals. Such rabbis, who are trained at Yeshivat Sha’alvim in Israel, are charged with implenting the entire JDC agenda.56

In addition to fostering the educational, welfare, and community-building activity noted above, Rabbi Taub officiates and teaches at a large synagogue located in an unpleasant area of the city. The structure contains a sanctuary, several classrooms, and office space. With assistance from Ezra, a religious Zionist youth movement, Rabbi Taub has succeeded in teaching the fundamentals of modern Orthodoxy to about twenty young adults. Eight men in their twenties and thirties, joined by an equal number of older men, participated in a Sunday morning Shaharit service attended by Betsy Gidwitz. When some of the younger men encountered difficulty with Hebrew text, they were assisted in an unobtrusive manner by Rabbi Taub or Rabbi Meir Schlesinger, the director of the JDC rabbinic program, who was visiting the city at the time, (The synagogue uses a bilingual Hebrew/Russian siddur published by a Chabad-affiliated group in Israel and distributed in the post-Soviet successor states by JDC.) When Betsy Gidwitz expressed her surprise after the service that so many men, particularly younger individuals, were familiar with ritual, Rabbi Taub responded that fifteen additional young people who usually participate in religious activity were out of the city that day, participating in a JAFI seminar in Kharkov.

54.  A small group from Boston met with about forty local Jews in Mrs. Rechter’s house in October 1993. At that time, Mrs. Rechter said that she enjoys having guests in her home.
55.  In Russian, Ob’yedineniye yudeiskikh organizatsii Donetska.
56.  Three cities in Russia -- Samara and Saratov -- both on the Volga River, and Perm, in the Ural Mountains -- are also served by rabbis in this program. Candidates are being sought for approved positions in Nizhniy Novgorod (formerly Gorky; also on the Volga River in Russia), Zaporozhe (in Ukraine, to the south of Dnepropetrovsk), and undecided locations in Siberia (Omsk or Irkutsk) and Belarus. The JDC rabbinic program is directed by Rabbi Meir Schlesinger, who founded Yeshivat Sha’alvim. (Many graduates of Maimonides School in Brookline, MA learn in Sha’alvim’s overseas student program.)

Although supported financially by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the Joseph K. Miller Torah Center in Kharkov, Ukraine, is also affiliated with Yeshivat Sha’alvim. This program has stationed a Sha’alvim-trained rabbi (an Israeli of Moroccan origin) in Kharkov and operates a Sunday school, yeshiva for men, ulpana for women, summer camp, seminars, and holiday celebrations for Kharkov Jews. At least 47,000 Jews live in Kharkov; its Jewish population is among the most fragmented in the entire post-Soviet Union

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