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


II. Independent Travel


64. Betsy Gidwitz left the JDC group on its last evening in Kiev to travel to Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine by overnight train. Because of a communications failure between JDC and Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky of Dnepropetrovsk, JDC and Rabbi Kaminetzky each arranged travel plans for Betsy Gidwitz. Uncharacteristically, the JDC proposal included security measures of a dubious nature so Betsy Gidwitz chose to utilize the procedures initiated by Rabbi Kaminetzky and departed for Dnepropetrovsk without incident.

65. Dnepropetrovsk (known until 1926 as Ekaterinoslav) is a city of some 1.2 to 1.3 million people in east central Ukraine. Its Jewish population of approximately 55,000 is the fourth largest in the post-Soviet Union, following Moscow (200,000), Kiev (110,000), and St. Petersburg (100,000). Most international Jewish organizations consider Dnepropetrovsk their administrative center for a region including at least four other cities with Jewish populations: Krivoi Rog (15,000), Zaporozhe (7,000), Dneprodzerzhinsk (2,000), and Pavlograd (500).17 Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhe, and Dneprodzerzhinsk are all situated on the shore of the Dnepr River. Krivoi Rog is inland to the west, and Pavlograd is inland to the east.

Despite its large Jewish population, the area is less well known even to the informed Jewish public than are many other regions in the Soviet successor states with significantly smaller Jewish population concentrations. Indeed, two large international Jewish organizations—the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Israel—established representations in Dnepropetrovsk only within the last year, long after opening offices in other areas with fewer Jews. Several factors may explain this anomaly: (1) because of its many military industries, Dnepropetrovsk was a “closed city” under the Soviet regime, becoming accessible to foreigners only in 1990; when cities are inaccessible, their existence is often forgotten; (2) the area is fairly remote, not on any conventional tourist itinerary; (3) whereas the name of Ekaterinoslav is familiar to many Jews whose family roots are in that city, the Soviet name of Dnepropetrovsk is much less well known; and (4) many non-Russian speakers find the name of Dnepropetrovsk difficult to pronounce.

The economy of the entire area derives from local deposits of iron ore, manganese, and coal, and is based on mining and heavy industry (metallurgy, armaments, machine tools, chemicals, and equipment for mining, construction, and transportation). Environmental degradation is wide-ranging.

Easiest access to the region is from Kiev by overnight train or by air. Until recently, fuel shortages had limited the regularity of air service, but Air Ukraine is now offering reasonably dependable flights five to six days each week in both directions between the two cities.

Jews have lived in the area, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. Ekaterinoslav/Dnepropetrovsk (whose Jewish population was 62,073 in 1926) was a center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. Jewish losses during the Holocaust were severe, but somewhat less devastating than those in Soviet cities further west because many Jews were evacuated to the east along with the military industries in which they worked.

66. The Soviet Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston decided in 1991-92 to consider development of a “sister-city” or “twinning” relationship with the Jewish population of the Dnepropetrovsk region. In an attempt to explore such a relationship, Betsy Gidwitz and Judy Wolf first visited the area in May 1992 as an extension of a National Conference on Soviet Jewry ‘mission’ to the then Soviet Vaad conference that had convened in Odessa. Dr. Gidwitz subsequently visited the area with Simon Klarfeld (then a Brandeis Hornstein student doing fieldwork at the Boston JCRC) in January 1993, and with a small group from Action for Post-Soviet Jewry (Waltham, MA) in October 1993. The Boston effort, still in an exploratory phase, lacks direction as well as sensitivity to the legitimate interests of other institutional stakeholders in welfare and Jewish education issues concerning post-Soviet Jewry.

67. Sixty percent of the population of Dnepropetrovsk is Ukrainian and most of the remainder is Russian. Unlike several other cities in eastern Ukraine with significant ethnic Russian populations (such as Kharkov and Donetsk), Russian nationalism is muted in Dnepropetrovsk. Economic hardship is an increasingly important factor as heavy industry in the area is unable to adjust to changed political circumstances; according to Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky of Dnepropetrovsk, seventy percent of local industry has closed and some people suffered from hunger during the recent winter. Periodic disruptions of heat and hot water are almost daily occurrences. Streets are riddled with potholes. Although many elderly Jews are seriously affected by rampant inflation that has reduced the value of their monthly pensions to less than ten dollars, other Jews have profited from new opportunities in business. Rabbi Kaminetzky reports heightened antisemitism as frustrated and angry citizens search for scapegoats; his own front door was smeared with excrement in April 1994.

68. Prior to the arrival of Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetzky, a Chabad hasid, in June 1990, the Jewish population of the region had been without a rabbi since 1954 when Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin (1894-1972) left Dnepropetrovsk to become Chief Rabbi of Moscow. Rabbi Kaminetzky is young, energetic, politically astute, charming, and respected by all—even by those not sympathetic to the Chabad movement. He has developed very productive ties with municipal and oblast (region) officials. A native of Israel who has studied in the United States, Rabbi Kaminetzky is strongly Zionist in his outlook. He perceives no enduring future for Jews in any of the Soviet successor states. His wife Chana was raised in the United States and is also held in high esteem. They have two young daughters, Yehudis and Chaya Mushka. The Kaminetzkys say that they have made a long-term commitment to Dnepropetrovsk, intending to remain “until the last Jew leaves.” They themselves hope to settle in Israel someday.

Shmuel Kaminetzky has brought two additional Chabad rabbis to Dnepropetrovsk. Rabbi Chaim Ber Stambler administers and teaches in a small Chabad yeshiva (see below) in the city. Additionally, he has recently assumed responsibility for managing a small construction company that Chabad has formed to (1) plan and implement major additions to the summer camp that is owned by the (Chabad) synagogue, and to (2) plan and implement extensive renovations to the large choral synagogue that Rabbi Kaminetzky has recovered from a factory that was using it as a warehouse. (Both of these projects are described below.) Chaim Ber Stambler is from a wealthy family, works in Dnepropetrovsk without salary, and has provided financial support for several Chabad projects in the city. Rabbi Meir Stambler, a nephew of Chaim Ber, teaches in the local yeshiva high school (see below) and performs various other tasks.

In addition to the Stamblers, Rabbi Kaminetzky has asked Rabbi Chaim Greenberg of Great Britain to open a synagogue in the Pobeda (Victory) district of the city, an area in which many young Jewish families reside. Rabbi Greenberg has arrived in Dnepropetrovsk, has an apartment in the Pobeda district, and is looking for synagogue premises there.18

Rabbi Kaminetzky is a “strong rabbi,” comparable to Rabbi Yaakov Bleich of Kiev in many ways. Each is a hasid (Kaminetzky is Chabad and Bleich is Karliner-Stoliner), each is twenty-nine years old, each is politically astute and has developed close working relations with political authorities in his city, each realizes that few contemporary Jews in the post-Soviet successor states will ever feel comfortable in synagogue and thus has encouraged the establishment of various secular Jewish institutions that might encourage Jewish identification as well as address substantive needs, and each is the dominant Jewish presence in his city. Kaminetzky has stronger Zionist sympathies, and Bleich appears to be more tolerant of other philosophies of Judaism.

Rabbi Bleich is more prominent internationally and has been more successful in outside fundraising. He derives significant advantage in both areas from his position as Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kiev; Kiev is a frequently visited national capital that is well-known in the Jewish world. Each Jewish community has a “sister-city” relationship with an American Jewish community, but neither relationship is well-developed (although the Dnepropetrovsk-Boston relationship does enjoy the commitment of a small number of dedicated activists in Boston).

69. As noted above, the large choral synagogue has finally been restored to the Jewish community after several years of legal wrangling with the factory that has been using it for decades as a warehouse for its manufacture of clothing. With the acquiescence of Rabbi Kaminetzky, the departure of the factory from the synagogue is progressing at a moderate pace; Rabbi Kaminetzky hopes to mitigate their anger as the owner of the factory has already said that he will not permit the synagogue to utilize the electricity and water connections that pass through the factory to the synagogue.

Rabbi Kaminetzky has expansive dreams for the synagogue, hoping to use it not only as a sanctuary for worship, but also as a community center that would include activity and meeting rooms as well as a small cafe. JDC has already agreed to assist in the extensive repair and renovation work that will be required. No firm plans have yet been developed.

Rabbi Kaminetzky has offered the current, much smaller synagogue to JDC for use as a senior adult center or some other community service facility. JDC has not communicated its intentions regarding this building.

70. Rabbi Kaminetzky reported some confusion within the local Jewish population caused by the occasional visits of Rabbi Alexander Eisenshtadt, a militantly anti-Zionist rabbi allied with Rabbi Eliezer Shacht of Israel and financed by Rabbi Soloveichik of Zurich. Rabbi Eisenshtadt attempts to recruit Jewish students to an anti-Israel yeshiva that he has established outside Moscow, offering them fifty dollars (in addition to transportation and tuition costs) simply to attend a seminar at his yeshiva and then fifty dollars a month thereafter to study at the yeshiva. The offer of American currency is enticing in the current economic environment and few students are sufficiently sophisticated to understand the ramifications of Rabbi Eisenshtadt’s proposal. In general, the visiting rabbi has not been successful; Shmuel has heard that the yeshiva can accommodate up to three hundred students, but no more than forty have ever been enrolled. Shmuel was so alarmed by Rabbi Eisenshtadt’s recruiting efforts that he placed advertisements in several Dnepropetrovsk newspapers, urging students to consult with him before making a commitment to any yeshiva program.

17. All demographic figures are from Gur, op. cit.. A fifth city, Nikopol, also has a small Jewish population, but is not listed in the Gur study. Nikopol is south of Zaporozhe, on the Dnepr River.
18. Rabbi Kaminetzky describes Rabbi Greenberg as “modern Orthodox.” However, it is possible that Rabbi Kaminetzky’s interpretation of that term is different from that usually understood among American Jewry. Rabbi Kaminetzky has opposed efforts of Bnei Akiva, a modern Orthodox youth group, to establish itself in the city, apparently finding them threatening. Betsy Gidwitz has not met Rabbi Greenberg.

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