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


10. The Gemilus Chesed society, directed by Vladimir Goldman, began operations two months previously as a consolidation of several smaller welfare groups that had worked within the Jewish Cultural Society. The organization assists approximately 200 homebound elderly through visits by nurses and paraprofessional social workers. It has distributed 300 JDC food parcels and given vouchers for free meals to ninety individuals. It sponsored a welfare seminar for physicians, nurses, paraprofessional social workers, and others. The Joint Distribution Committee is its principal benefactor; it has also received donations of cash, food, and furniture from local Jews.

11. The Migdal Jewish supplementary school meets on Sundays and three times during the week. It currently enrolls 150 children and is directed by Kira Verkhovskaya. Parents of students constitute the primary membership group of Beseda, a club for Jewish ‘intellectuals’ that meets periodically to discuss Jewish cultural topics.6 Igor Merkoulenko directs this organization.

12. No Jewish day school exists in Odessa, an anomalous situation for a post-Soviet city with a sizable Jewish population. The primary factor in the absence of such an institution to date is probably the lack of a respected Orthodox rabbi in the city until very recently who might have organized such a school. The cosmopolitan outlook of much of Odessa’s Jewish population may also be a deterrent to day school education.

Reports have circulated about the projected opening of a day school affiliated with the Tali schools in Israel, an effort of the Masorti (Conservative) movement. However, supporters of this venture are encountering difficulties in obtaining suitable premises.

13. The Migdal Or Jewish musical theater was established in 1991. Its repertoire includes music in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Sponsored by JDC, the group has performed in Ukraine, Moldova, Europe, and Israel. Kira Verchovskaya directs the theater. Migdal Or was the host organization for a Jewish dance seminar in late 1993 that attracted sixty teachers and students from various regions of the former USSR.

14. Ishaya Gisser, the Chabad spiritual leader in Odessa, is a native of the city who settled in Israel some years ago and returned to Odessa to lead its synagogue, most of which collapsed in ruins in 1992. Mr. Gisser is not a qualified rabbi and suffers recurring health problems. Rabbi Pinchas Vishetsky of Chabad has arrived recently to assist Mr. Gisser in several areas. Shimon Chichelitsky, an Israeli, is president of Shomrei Shabbos, the Chabad congregation.

Shlomo Baksht, an Israeli rabbi affiliated with Aguda, arrived in Odessa in December 1993. He and a group of older men are attempting to recover the main synagogue in the center of the city, which is now used as a sports hall. (Rabbi Baksht was out of town during our visit.)

15. The Israel Information Center (Lishkat haKesher) in Odessa is directed by Dr. Philip Slobodsky. In common with similar centers in other cities, the Odessa unit offers a Hebrew ulpan (for 300 students who study in courses of two to three months duration), a Russian-language Judaica library, computers programmed with information about Israel, and holiday commemorations. Dr. Slobodsky reported that relations between the Center and the local JAFI office are good, that the two groups coordinate their activities, and that enough work exists in Odessa for both organizations.

16. Zvi Killiman, who previously directed the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) office in Kishinev, now heads JAFI efforts in Odessa. JAFI operates an ulpan with approximately 600 students, an Israeli dance group, holiday celebrations, a youth club, a summer camp, and other activities. It supervises the departure to Israel of 250 to 300 immigrants from the region each month (120 from Odessa itself), Mr. Killiman finds that local Jewish young people are very assimilated “because their parents are very assimilated” and thus are difficult to reach. According to Mr. Killiman, the Jewish Agency “works in harmony” with the Israel Information Center and with JDC.

17. A periodic Jewish newspaper, HaMelitz, which adopted the name of a pre-revolutionary Jewish newspaper that began publishing in 1861, has recently printed its third issue. Its sponsors are the Jewish Cultural Society, the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish Religious Society (Chabad).

18. Spurred by an existing “sister-city” relationship between the municipalities of Odessa and Baltimore, the Jewish communities of the two cities have established their own partnership. Baltimore-area Jews have sent three shipments of food parcels to needy Jewish families in Odessa, and Baltimore participants in the Wexner Heritage program have prepared a collection of Judaica items (candlesticks, talitot, seder plates, tzedakah boxes, etc.) for educational use in Odessa. A chupah sent by Baltimore Jews has been used in several local Jewish weddings. JDC has played a major role in this project.

Bendery (Moldova)

19. Although its Jewish population is small (1,500 to 3,000), the Bendery Jewish community receives a large amount of attention — simply because it is located on the main highway between two much larger Jewish population centers, Odessa and Kishinev. Bendery is split by the Dneister River and is a major city in Pridneistroviya (Transdneister), the self-declared independent republic that has seceded from Moldova and has a political and military relationship with Russia.

20. Notwithstanding the area’s political secession from Moldova, the Bendery Jewish community submits its budgetary requests to the Moldovan Vaad, which discusses such matters with JDC. JDC provides nearly the entire annual Jewish community budget of $3,600.

21. Jewish communal life centers around the synagogue, which also accommodates the offices of the Bendery Jewish Religious Association, the Bendery Jewish Cultural Association (which includes welfare services), and a Sunday school. The building, whose outer walls still bear bullet holes from the 1992 fighting, contains a sanctuary, library, classroom, and activities room. All groups work closely together.

22. In common with many other small Jewish communities in the post-Soviet successor states, the majority of Bendery Jews are elderly. Welfare activities are extensive, directed by two volunteer physicians. The major problem encountered in welfare work is acquisition of medicine, especially insulin. Admission to hospitals is usually contingent upon the patient supplying his/her own medications. The welfare program serves more than 100 people.

23. The Sunday school enrolls 126 children between the ages of six and sixteen. They meet in four groups according to age for classes and a broad range of youth activities.

24. A Hebrew ulpan attracts about 100 individuals. Participants are assigned to one of one of three groups for instructional purposes.

25. Because of its small size, the community has no rabbi or resident representative of any Israeli or other foreign group. A local individual does repatriation work on behalf of the Jewish Agency, and other organizations serve the community from their Kishinev offices.

26. A relationship with a Miami synagogue has yielded some assistance for welfare and educational programs. JDC has supplied the community with a Russian-language Judaica library, ritual items, educational materials, supplemental food parcels for needy elderly, and access to seminars and training courses for lay and paraprofessional leaders.

27. JDC, JAFI, and the Israeli government assisted Jews in Bendery, Tiraspol, and other cities/towns in the Transdneister region during the severe armed conflict in summer 1992. Many chose to make aliyah during this period, and others evacuated temporarily to Odessa or Kishinev.


Kishinev (Moldova)

28. Kishinev is the capital of newly independent Moldova. Approximately 30,000 Jews live in the city (of a total city population of 700,000). Kishinev achieved notoriety early in the twentieth century as the site of two devastating pogroms in 1903 and 1905; the most severe was the first. resulting in forty-nine deaths and nearly 600 injuries as well as extensive damage to Jewish property. The violence generated substantial Jewish emigration to the United States.

29. The principal Jewish umbrella organization in Kishinev is the Jewish Cultural Association, which includes a women’s aid group, the Ezrat Holim medical assistance service, a youth group, and a Maccabi sports group.

30. A synagogue, under Chabad direction, is led by Rabbi Zalman Abelsky.

31. Two day schools operate in Kishinev. A Chabad school enrolls 180 children from ages seven to seventeen. A secular day school sponsored by the Lishkat haKesher Maavar program has about 300 students. Separate kindergartens are affiliated with each day school.7

6. ‘Intellectuals’ or ‘intelligentsia’ are terms broadly used in (post-) Soviet society to describe individuals who have completed an undergraduate education and work in science, humanities, or a profession.
7. The JDC delegation visited the secular day school and kindergarten.

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