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


118. Rabbi Chaim and Leah Taub are committed to developing Jewish identity and encouraging aliyah among Donetsk Jewry. They have five young children and live on a high floor in a large apartment building some distance from the synagogue, thus requiring Rabbi Taub to spend all of Shabbat at the synagogue away from his family. They seem quite competent but also somewhat overwhelmed by the tasks that JDC and they themselves have established as their agenda. They are desperate for some assistance, preferably another young rabbinic family who could not only assume some essential responsibilities, but whose children could also interact with the Taub children in a mutually supportive observant atmosphere. Rabbi Taub would also appreciate funding for sending advanced students to programs in Moscow or in Israel for further learning.


119. The level of anxiety within the Jewish populations of Ukraine and Moldova varies markedly from one area to another. Local economic opportunities in comparison with perceived opportunities elsewhere, Russian nationalism, Ukrainian or Moldovan nationalism, antisemitism, age of family members, presence of relatives in Israel or another country, the strength of an individual’s Jewish identity, and environmental conditions all play roles in determining whether a Ukrainian or Moldovan Jew will choose to emigrate or decide to remain in a post-Soviet successor state.

Jewish emigration from Moldova has been in decline for some months, probably reflecting economic and political stability in that country. Jewish emigration from Ukraine has risen significantly in recent months, in both absolute and relative terms, an increase often attributed to severe economic dislocation and, in some areas, ethnic tensions.

120. “Ukrainianization” is proceeding at a rapid pace, with the Ukrainian language displacing Russian in many spheres of public life. Road signs and building markers that had been in Russian for many years are being changed to Ukrainian. The new business cards of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich are bilingual in Ukrainian and English, rather than in Russian and English. Rabbi Bleich also reports that increasing numbers of parents are requesting Ukrainian-language tracks for their children in his Kiev day school instead of the Russian track that was preferred just a year ago. The new building marker on the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Day School is also in Ukrainian. Such displacement of Russian in favor of the native language is consistent with changes that have been observed elsewhere in the post-Soviet successor states, such as the Central Asian republics and Lithuania. With the exception of relatively small Jewish populations in areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus mountain region, the overwhelming majority of Jews in the successor states are much more competent in Russian than in the local language.

121. Competition between the two aliyah-oriented Israeli service agencies, the Lishkat haKesher and the Jewish Agency for Israel, remains a disturbing reality in many locales. The breadth of the Joint Distribution Committee mandate leads to disquiet and misunderstandings. Overlapping and duplicated agendas squander resources and cause acrimony within the Jewish population. When disputes are aired in the presence of non-Jewish authority figures, the stature of all Jews and Jewish institutions is diminished.

It must be acknowledged that interagency conflict is less public now than previously in a number of cities; clearly, most emissaries of the Jewish Agency and representatives of the Joint Distribution Committee are complying with enunciated policies of their respective organizations to refrain from denouncing other organizations. Some in the Lishkat haKesher -- fortunately, not all -- appear to be following a different path. Derision of other organizations and their leadership, ridicule of religious institutions and religious leaders, arrogance, and general coarseness are too often associated with envoys of the Lishka. The role of the Lishkat haKesher in the post-Soviet Union should be examined with much greater rigor than has been the case in the past; the Joint Distribution Committee should also reassess its relationship with the Lishka.

122. Jewish elderly currently constitute about one-third of the Jewish population in Ukraine and, due to continuing emigration of younger age cohorts, are projected (by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) to comprise two-thirds of the Ukrainian Jewish population by the end of the century. In smaller cities and towns, the Jewish population is already overwhelmingly aged as younger Jews have departed in search of opportunities elsewhere. Jewish elderly in the post-Soviet successor states are in weaker condition than their counterparts in the western diaspora and in Israel; lingering effects of World War II, continuing poor nutrition, ineffective medical care, inadequate housing, and various tensions have all extracted a significant toll on their well-being. Rampant inflation has reduced pensions to less than ten dollars monthly.

Many elderly reside in ill-maintained dwellings, some in communal apartments in which individuals and families live in single rooms and share common kitchen and bathroom facilities. Numerous seniors are effectively imprisoned in flats on upper floors in buildings without elevators.57 Able-bodied relatives of some elderly provide a strong support system; other seniors are without family as emigration attracts younger, more adaptable generations. Some aged Jews have compassionate, helpful neighbors who visit and run errands. Others are much less fortunate, living out their days in isolation, often hungry and fearful.

JDC-assisted welfare services, such as Ezrat Avot in Kiev and Shaarei Chesed in Dnepropetrovsk, are well-intentioned and usually staffed by exceptionally caring and committed individuals, many of them trained in JDC seminars. Yet numerous such workers are overburdened with unreasonably high caseloads and inadequate access to essential goods and supplies needed by their clients, such as replacement bedding and personal clothing, food, and basic medications. Surely the American Jewish community can and must do more.

In at least one city, Kiev, JDC has succeeded in persuading a limited number of elderly Jews who live in suitable apartments to deed those residences to JDC in their wills so that other aged could reside there subsequently. To the extent that such arrangements can be made, the housing issue for seniors may be resolved. However, because the potential for like transactions seems to be limited -- and they would not necessarily address the problem of isolation for Jewish elderly -- it may be appropriate to consider the development of residential programs, e.g., community-owned and -subsidized apartment buildings, group-living facilities, and longterm institutional care settings. Doubtless, such an approach would require a major commitment of funds, both for construction and operation and for the inevitable complexities of dealing with post-Soviet bureaucracies and nascent legal systems, but the Jewish community may have few alternatives if Jewish elderly in the successor states are to live in dignity.58

Transportation is another critical problem for many elderly. In some areas, public transportation has been curtailed in response to fuel shortages. Even when available, access to public transportation is difficult for many seniors suffering the various infirmities associated with aging. Another major expenditure may be required for appropriate vehicles to transport Jewish elderly to hot lunch programs, other social events, clinics, etc.

123. As has been reported in the Western press, the former Soviet medical system is close to collapse. Among its most distressed components is the pharmaceutical industry. Many basic medications, e.g., aspirin and insulin, are available only at exorbitant prices in foreign currency or through the goodwill of foreigners who carry in supplies (medications and medical equipment) whenever they can. Some established international welfare organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, have been reluctant to engage in the systematic distribution of pharmaceutical goods in the post-Soviet successor states. A number of concerns are cited for such policy: complexity and cost of collecting appropriate medications; anxiety that inadequately trained physicians in the post-Soviet Union will use medical supplies inappropriately; apprehension that some post-Soviet Jews might become dependent upon diaspora or Israeli medications and worry that political or other international tensions might disrupt essential supply lines; possible diversion of medicines into the black market; potential legal liability; and fear that international Jewish supply of medical goods might generate another “Doctors’ Plot,” the Stalinist accusation that Jewish physicians were plotting to murder Kremlin leadership and the subsequent severe persecution of Jews that was ended only by Stalin’s demise.

As valid as these concerns are, JDC has begun to reconsider its policy. The medical needs of post-Soviet Jewry are so critical that a new approach is required. Development of Physicians Councils in the successor states that are legally separate from Jewish welfare organizations, additional training for medical personnel, provision of pharmaceutical reference manuals, enlistment of foreign Jewish medical personnel and institutions as advisors (perhaps through ‘sister-city’ linkages), and other measures may mitigate potential difficulties. The dearth of medicines and medical goods is of such magnitude that development of a new policy is essential.

124. Jewish day schools in the successor states not only educate Jewish children, but also restore the Jewish identification of many Jewish parents and hence entire families. Here too transportation is a major problem as schools cope with inadequate transportation capacity to bring children to school and return them to their homes. Lacking funds for appropriate vehicles, a number of schools are served by vintage conveyances of dubious safety. Overcrowding on school buses (because the schools lack enough buses) only increases the danger to which children are exposed. Again, a significant allocation of funds will be required to provide adequate, safe transportation. Obviously, school buses can be used for other purposes as well.

125. Both day schools and Sunday schools remain burdened by the absence of textbooks, particularly series of textbooks, in Judaic subjects. Appropriate texts are vital to any formal educational process, but in the post-Soviet successor states their availability is especially crucial because so few teachers are adequately trained in Judaism. It has been reported that a coordinating committee of Israeli-based agencies active in post-Soviet Jewish education has been unable to agree upon a common approach to textbook development. Here too diaspora and Israeli Jews extend their conflicts into the territory of a deprived Jewish population hungry for Judaism and unencumbered by denominational and political self-righteousness. A ‘universal’ or ‘unified’ series of textbooks in each major Judaic subject would do much to expand the accessibility of Judaism to post-Soviet Jewry; those organizations finding such common texts inadequate could publish their own supplementary materials.

57.  An enduring image in the memory of Betsy Gidwitz is that of an elderly, distraught woman encountered in the center of Kiev by several in the JDC group on an early spring evening. A few of the Americans offered her money, which she accepted, but she remained distressed. Subsequent conversation with the woman elicited the information that she knew that it was time to go home, but she was reluctant to return because she lived on the fourth floor of a building without an elevator and she was unable to climb so many stairs.
58.  As in Kishinev, communities may be able to recover one-time Jewish hospitals or comparable buildings for rehabilitation into residential facilities for Jewish seniors.

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