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


55. The International Solomon University is unique in the Soviet successor states. Unlike the Jewish University of St. Petersburg, which focuses on Judaic studies, the Kiev institution is conceived as a broadbased university under Jewish auspices; currently in its first year of operation, it is offering four-year undergraduate degrees and two-year masters’ degrees in humanities, Judaic studies, engineering, and natural sciences, and graduate programs in medical technology and law. In a meeting with the JDC group, senior faculty stated that the aim of the university is twofold: (1) to revive Jewish culture in Ukraine, and (2) to provide educational opportunities for Jews who face severe antisemitic discrimination in Ukrainian institutions of higher education. Three hundred students are enrolled in this initial year, half of whom are Jews and half of whom are Russian or Ukrainian. Because it is dependent upon visiting professors for some courses, it requires that entering students speak English.

The JDC group met with Grigory Useem, Vice-President for Administration, Dr. Yochanan Petrovsky, Acting Chairman of the Judaic Studies Department, several other faculty members, and a number of students. The University is the only private university in Ukraine; tuition is $120 annually, a major sum in that country. When asked why non-Jews would pay tuition to study secular subjects in an unproved institution, faculty and students offered the following reasons: (a) many Russians and Ukrainians believe that Jews are more intelligent than others and, therefore, that a university under Jewish auspices would provide a superior education; (b) a private university is deemed better than a public university; and (3) novelty.

The University lacks its own premises; its classes meet in a public high school after high school classes end for the day and in other buildings. It also lacks computers, teaching and laboratory equipment, textbooks and a library for the secular curriculum, and office space and supplies. It receives financial support, textbooks, library books, equipment, and training for its Judaic studies program from JDC. It also receives some funding from the Rich Foundation and the Ukrainian Jewish Council.

Rabbi Bleich teaches a course in Jewish tradition at the university, but it is very difficult to find qualified instructors for other Judaic courses. Because the current economic climate has forced other institutions to constrict their operations, the university has been able to attract some excellent professors in secular subjects. (Students with whom the JDC delegation spoke offered varying evaluations of instructor competence.)

56. The Jewish Collection and Archive in the Vernadsky Library of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences includes 160,000 books, journals, manuscripts, volumes of communal history, and other written material (in several languages) that were confiscated during the Soviet regime. Political conditions now permit a staff to be assembled that is sorting, classifying, and attempting to preserve this material. The Joint Distribution Committee has arranged for staff to study Yiddish and is providing other assistance in this project. The JDC mission visited the library collection, meeting with Irina Sergeevna, director of the Collection/Archive, and with Oleksei Onishenko, the head of the Vernadsky Library.

57. The Department of Jewish History and Jewish Culture in the Institute of Ethnic Relations and Political Science of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences is conducting research on various topics. JDC has provided reference books and equipment, and subsidized the first publication of this unit, proceedings of a conference on Jewish life during the Stalin era.

58. The Joint Distribution Committee office in Kiev is responsible for JDC activity in northern Ukraine, an area that includes Kiev, several smaller but still significant Jewish population centers in western and central Ukraine, and a number of small Jewish communities inhabited by fewer than one hundred souls. The organization is active in several fields. In Jewish education, it provides pre-schools, day schools, and other educational institutions with cash grants, Russian-language Judaica libraries, textbooks, equipment, and teacher training opportunities. In Jewish culture, it assists artistic groups (such as Jewish dance ensembles), Jewish newspapers, and Jewish cultural institutions. It also provides libraries and equipment to the Jewish Agency and Israel Information and Cultural Center installations in Kiev and to summer camps operated by JAFI and other groups.

Responding to the large number of elderly Jews in need of assistance, JDC has made a major commitment to welfare services. It is a principal sponsor of the Kiev Jewish welfare association, Ezrat Avot (see above), and has arranged for the Jewish Braille Institute of New York to provide “talking books” (in Russian and Yiddish) to elderly Jews in Kiev and Lviv (as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg) who encounter difficulty in reading. Holding a 25-year lease on a building in Kiev currently being remodeled to serve JDC needs, JDC is developing a facility whose primary daytime use will be as a day center for Jewish elderly. The center will accommodate approximately 150 seniors at a time, and will offer socializing opportunities, lectures, health-enhancement activities, and hot, nutritious meals. Its facilities will permit operation of both a meals-on-wheels service to the homebound and a medical equipment loan program. The building will also accommodate a pre-school, kosher restaurant, community library, and meeting rooms. It is anticipated that the center will serve the broader Jewish community in the evenings.

In addition to serving the elderly in Kiev, JDC has mounted emergency winter relief operations to assist Jews living in smaller towns and villages in central and western Ukraine. Most such Jewish populations are overwhelmingly elderly as younger Jews have departed to seek greater opportunities elsewhere. JDC has organized distribution of supplemental food parcels, gas balloons, and/or coal to thousands of needy Jews living in small towns and scattered settlements where supply of food and fuel is irregular at best. Where possible, JDC has worked with existing municipal or regional Jewish organizations. It has also provided some humanitarian aid on behalf of local Jewish communities to hospitals and other institutions affected by the Ukrainian economic crisis.

JDC also works with local Jewish communities in recovery of Jewish communal property confiscated by Communist authorities and in repairing and remodeling such structures after their return. The Ukrainian government has been more cooperative in such matters than several other post-Soviet governments.

JDC develops partnerships with other funding sources that assist the Kiev Jewish community. For example, it supervises projects supported by the Rich Foundation (International Solomon University), Community Development Fund (Makor, Ezrat Avot, welfare operations in smaller population centers), Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (renovation of a community library), and the Jewish Braille Institute (‘talking books’ program).

The JDC Kiev office appears to be somewhat less active than other JDC stations in fostering community-building initiatives, such as leadership training courses and collaborative ventures involving several different organizations or institutions. This limitation may reflect: (1) a conviction within JDC—shared by many others as well—that most of the Ukrainian Jewish population will emigrate in the foreseeable future; (2) deferral to the dominating presence of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich; and/or (3) the professional style of Charles Hoffman, the director of the JDC Kiev office.

A skilled journalist by training and vocation, Charles Hoffman is unusual among JDC post-Soviet area directors in that he does not speak Russian. He commutes between Jerusalem and Kiev, relying on an older full-time Russian-speaking resident assistant, Zev Sali, to manage day-to-day affairs and to communicate with local Jews on a regular basis. Handicapped by language barriers and perhaps also maintaining a journalistic ethic of detachment from local politics, Mr. Hoffman often hesitates to interact with community leaders. Believing that Mr. Sali is a mere “messenger” for Mr. Hoffman, many local leaders consider the approach of the Kiev JDC station to be remote and indifferent; they are aware that JDC directors in other post-Soviet cities communicate easily with local Jews in a consultative manner and attempt to engage them in collaborative planning efforts. Some JDC staffers elsewhere arrange programs that bring contentious community groups together for a common purpose. (Such discomfort with the professional style of the Kiev office does not diminish the gratitude of local Kiev Jewish leaders for the material support and other services that JDC provides.)

Given the professional approach of the Kiev JDC station, it is understandable that the agenda for the JDC mission group in Kiev included only superficial meetings with community leaders. Further, the Kiev office did not provide mission members with the type of written information about the community that had been presented to each in Odessa and Kishinev.16

Whereas Mr. Hoffman’s approach to community work may be unusual, his journalism skills have generated a number of exceptionally lucid reports about JDC activity in Kiev and the surrounding area. Appropriately, some have been distributed to JDC board and committee members.

59. As it does in other cities, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI; Sochnut) installation in Kiev focuses on promoting aliyah. It sponsors Hebrew classes, seminars for students and adults, a pedagogical center, youth clubs (Shahar), summer camps for adolescents, counseling on aliyah, and technical services related to emigration. JAFI organizes aliyah flights from Kiev every week for Jews from various points in Ukraine; about 200 olim are on each flight. According to Shifra Safra, an education specialist at the JAFI office with whom the JDC group conferred, the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, Zvi Magen, organizes monthly meetings of representatives from JAFI, the Lishkat haKesher, and JDC to exchange information and coordinate activities.

60. The JDC delegation did not meet with any representative of the Israel Information and Cultural Center in Kiev, which is operated by the Lishkat haKesher. These units usually offer Hebrew classes, a JDC-supplied Russian-language Judaica library, and a computer facility programmed with information about Israel.

61. Three Jewish newspapers are published in Kiev: Hadashot (Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine), Evreiski vesti (Kiev Jewish Cultural Society), and Vozrozhdenie (independent). Each is distributed throughout Ukraine, although not always in a systematic manner. (A Yiddish newspaper, Einikeit , ceased publication recently when its editor emigrated.)

62. Several Jewish song and dance ensembles have been organized in Kiev.

63. A “twinning” or “sister-city” relationship exists between the Kiev Jewish population and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. To date, the only substantive outgrowth of this relationship is a commitment by the Chicago federation to contribute $5,000 toward renovation of a Jewish community library. The contribution is being channeled though JDC. A ‘mission’ of the Chicago Jewish United Fund (the campaign arm of the federation) visited Kiev in April 1994.

16. Much of the information about Jewish community structure in Kiev and Ukraine that was included in the JDC briefing book for tour members is inaccurate. When a tour member asked Mr. Hoffman about the number of Jewish organizations in Kiev, Mr. Hoffman responded that JDC has never made a “comprehensive survey” of Jewish organization life in the city.

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