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


42. Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner hasid from New York, arrived in Kiev in mid-1990 and quickly became the dominant figure in post-Soviet Kiev Jewish life. Now the Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, he is closely associated with numerous Jewish institutions in the city and beyond, including the largest synagogue in Kiev, day schools, the Kiev Jewish Community, Ezrat Avot welfare society, a matzot factory (that supplies all of Ukraine and Moldova), and the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine. He presides over the last-named group, an association of some fifty-two orthodox congregations throughout Ukraine. Rabbi Bleich receives significant funding from abroad, most notably from the Reichmann family of Canada. The JDC group met with Rabbi Bleich on several occasions.

43. Rabbi Berel Karasik, a Chabad hasid from Israel, also claims to be Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, having received that designation from a different Ukrainian government ministry than that which had earlier conferred the titles upon Rabbi Bleich. Rabbi Karasik presides over the former Brodsky synagogue, a centrally-located facility that still serves as a municipal puppet theater in which Chabad has access to several rooms. Rabbi Karasik is also associated with a day school, welfare society (Ezrat Achim), and an organization of Chabad rabbis in Ukraine. Rabbi Karasik is perceived as ineffective by many observers, including individuals affiliated with Chabad. The JDC group had no scheduled meetings with Rabbi Karasik; however, he saw the mission group at Babi Yar and spoke briefly with us. A supporter in his party boarded the JDC vehicle and asked the JDC delegates for funding, much to the discomfort of all in the JDC mission.

44. The Hatikvah Congregation, affiliated with the World Union of Progressive Judaism (Reform), is the third synagogue in Kiev. Rabbi Ariel Stone, an American, was the spiritual leader during 1993-94; she has returned to the United States and is unlikely to resume her responsibilities in Kiev. Hatikvah, which attracts from sixty to well over one hundred people to Friday night services, is attempting to acquire the former Karaite synagogue as its permanent home. Undeniably one of the more successful Reform efforts in the post-Soviet successor states, the Hatikvah Congregation was weakened during 1993 by the emigration of several of its most effective lay leaders. Further, the appointment of a woman rabbi may have been inappropriate, considering the sexist views of even the most progressive elements of post-Soviet society.

45. The Kiev Jewish Community was established in October 1993 by a broad spectrum of organizations and individuals as an encompassing community-wide Jewish organization. Rabbi Bleich is its acting president, and Alexander Zevelev (who was in New York during the JDC visit) serves as administrator. An elected council of fifty individuals and an executive committee of ten people establish policy. Its major priorities are education, youth activities, religion, and welfare. Among its direct service agencies are/will be: a women’s group, Makor, a Jewish press agency, a club for ‘intelligentsia’, and Ezrat Avot. (See below for additional information on some of these agencies.)

46. The Kiev Jewish Cultural Society, led by Ilya Levitas as president and Arkady Monastirsky as administrator, focuses on social events related to International Solomon University (see below) and on Babi Yar memorial commemorations. Some of its activities overlap those of the Ukrainian Jewish Congress, also headed by Ilya Levitas. (See below.)

47. The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Ukraine is an umbrella association affiliated with the Vaad. Its president is Yosif Zissels and its vice-president is Boris Bashin, who is also a member of the Kiev City Council. Mr. Zissels frequently represents Ukrainian Jewry in various international Jewish fora. Its agenda is quite broad, addressing issues in Jewish education, Jewish history (including preservation of Jewish sites, monuments, and landmarks), recovery of Jewish communal property, welfare, leadership training, and services to small communities. This organization is strongly service-oriented, more so than the post-Soviet Vaad, with which it is associated. It works well with Rabbi Bleich and with JDC, and has received funding from Ukrainian Jewish donors and from outside foundations. The JDC group met briefly with Mr. Bashin in a setting that did not encourage substantive discussion.

48. The Ukrainian Jewish Council, established in October 1992 at a Congress of Ukrainian Jewry, has a much more limited agenda. Its president is Ilya Levitas, and its vice-president is Arkady Monastirsky. The JDC delegation met Mr. Monastirsky in circumstances unfavorable to serious deliberations. Among the projects of this organization is a Holocaust documentation effort co-sponsored by JDC and Lohamei Hagetaot Museum in Israel. It also maintains a data base on Jewish cultural organizations in Ukraine. This group is nominally competitive with the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Ukraine, but generally less service-oriented and less successful in attracting political and financial support.

49. Makor - the Centre for the Support and Development of Jewish Youth Activities coordinates the Kiev Jewish Youth Council, which includes Beitar, Bnei Akiva, Shahar (sponsored by the Jewish Agency), Hatikvah (sponsored by the World Union of Progressive Judaism), and two Jewish student unions. It provides programmatic services to these organizations and also sponsors activities for unaffiliated youth. It supplies technical equipment and services (such as photocopying, computers, electronic apparatus) to the entire Jewish community. It receives funding from British and American sources, including JDC. Rabbi Bleich supports its endeavors. Its director is Alik Shteinsvet.

50. Established as a welfare service for Jewish elderly in 1992, Ezrat Avot serves approximately 6,000 Jewish seniors and other needy individuals throughout Kiev. The JDC group was briefed on Ezrat Avot by Charles Hoffman, the JDC director in Kiev, and later met senior staff members Ella Shishko and Lazar Shabshaikes as well as several paraprofessional social workers.

Ezrat Avot employs sixteen paraprofessional social workers, each one responsible for a specific city district. These workers (‘inspectors’) assess the requirements of people within their districts and coordinate appropriate services, such as household cleaning, shopping, financial subsidy, intervention with housing authorities, medical care, medicines, government entitlements, socializing opportunities, etc. Each inspector controls some funding resources and supervises five or six home care workers.

In small groups, each member of the JDC mission visited three clients of Ezrat Avot. Reports to the larger delegation indicated that all of the clients were elderly, most lived alone with little or no family support, many resided in communal apartments (sharing kitchen and bathroom facilities with three or four other tenants, including entire families), most were housebound (many were mobile within their units, but lived on upper floors in buildings without elevators), many lacked access to necessary medications, and all had suffered some degree of impoverishment due to rampant inflation and erosion of pension benefits. Many of the clients and ‘inspectors’ had developed mutual affections, and all of the clients were effusively grateful for the support provided by Ezrat Avot. Most seemed aware that JDC is a primary sponsor of Ezrat Avot, probably because Ezrat Avot has distributed JDC supplemental food parcels in packaging bearing the JDC logo and containing messages of JDC sponsorship.15

JDC is working with Ezrat Avot to strengthen its staff—to engage additional personnel and to enhance their professional training. Inspectors and some home care workers participate in seminars of the local Institute of Gerontology and also benefit from consultations by visiting Israeli specialists.

JDC believes that many more Jews in the city—perhaps as many as 20,000 -- require some services from Ezrat Avot. Research has shown that elderly individuals account for approximately twelve percent of the population in most western countries, but about eighteen percent of the Ukrainian population is past retirement age (according to the Institute of Gerontology). JDC estimates that an even greater proportion of the Ukrainian Jewish population—twenty-five to thirty percent—is elderly, and that this percentage may grow to fifty to sixty percent as younger Jews continue to emigrate. The existing social service network in Kiev is weak and deteriorating; it cannot possibly meet all of the needs of the local elderly population.

51. Three Jewish day schools operate in Kiev:

  • The Jewish Gymnasium, closely associated with Rabbi Bleich, enrolls approximately 600 students, none from observant families, ages seven through seventeen in separate facilities for boys and girls. All pupils participate in three Judaic classes daily and a strong general studies program. They study four languages - Hebrew, English, Russian, and Ukrainian. The JDC group visited the girls school and found it well-equipped and thriving. The school has a good computer laboratory with about twelve stations.
  • The Israeli Maavar school enrolls about 200 youngsters ages six through sixteen. The school is managed by the Lishkat haKesher in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Education. Because it shares premises with a public school, its flexibility is limited.
  • The Chabad movement sponsors a day school enrolling about 200 students between the ages of eleven and sixteen. It also shares premises with a public school.

52. Four organizations sponsor Sunday schools in Kiev: Rabbi Bleich’s synagogue (approximately 100 pupils); the Lishkat haKesher Mechina program (100); Jewish Cultural Society (45); and Congregation Hatikvah (20).

53. Both Chabad and Rabbi Bleich operate pre-schools. The Chabad school enrolls about one hundred children; Rabbi Bleich’s pre-school enrolls twenty children this year and will accommodate sixty next year.

54. Chabad and Rabbi Bleich sponsor yeshivot enrolling approximately ten and twenty-five students respectively.

15. Subsequent to these visits, several in the JDC group expressed frustration at the failure of JDC to notify them earlier of the great needs of elderly Jews in Ukraine. Had they been so informed, the tour participants would have brought clothing and other goods for Ezrat Avot.

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