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


71. The Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Council, whose development into a representative decision-making community organization has been urged by Bostonians active in the sister-city relationship, is generally perceived as ineffective. Whereas both Bostonians and JDC had hoped that it would be a unifying and representative force, the major activity of the Council appears to be squabbling over irrelevant issues. The organization lacks direction and support. Local observers noted that its only real champion is its president, businessman Boris Pessin, who, some believe, is interested more in his own image than in the well-being of the larger Jewish community. Whatever his motives, Mr. Pessin has committed his own funds for the rental of a two-room office, subsidy of the newspaper Shabbat Shalom in the name of the Council (see below), and several specific Council projects. Betsy Gidwitz met with a small ‘leadership group’ of the Council in its new office.

The Council’s Shaarei Chesed welfare society, with whom a Boston group met last October, is now associated with the new Joint Distribution Committee office. A smaller group of welfare activists remains with the Council. The Council asked Betsy Gidwitz that all medical aid sent by Boston Jewry to the city be directed to their office; when asked if any physicians served on their welfare committee, they responded that an (obviously elderly) individual who had trained as a psychiatrist but had retired from another profession some years ago was a member of their general governing body. The Council did not mention that Dr. Alexander Friedkis, chief of surgery at a local hospital and also vice-president of the synagogue, holds occasional office hours at the Council premises. Mr. Pessin commented that “some people” in the Jewish community believe that the entire container (of welfare items, including a large amount of medicine and medical goods) then enroute to Dnepropetrovsk from Boston be delivered to the Council. Dr. Gidwitz avoided telling the group that the container was addressed to Rabbi Kaminetzky (at the suggestion of JDC), but did give the Council a small portion of the over-the-counter medicines, clothing, and food that she had brought to the city in duffel bags. A secretary recorded the receipt of each item, asking Betsy Gidwitz for explanations of unfamiliar articles.

Dr. Gidwitz attempted to initiate a discussion about the goals and objectives of the Council. Those present seemed more interested in the mechanics of establishing a North American-style large-city federation and soliciting large sums of money from recalcitrant wealthy individuals. After considerable effort, Betsy Gidwitz elicited the following as goals and objectives of the Council: (1) raise the level of Jewish culture in Dnepropetrovsk; (2) combat antisemitism; (3) expand their welfare activities; (4) work collaboratively with other Jewish organizations; and (5) increase the circulation of Shabbat Shalom so that it is read in every Jewish home in the region. Designation of the last objective led to a discussion of Shabbat Shalom, which is summarized below.

In an earlier discussion with Shimon Strinkovsky, the JDC representative in Dnepropetrovsk, Mr. Strinkovsky expressed exasperation with the Council, which he has been attempting to nurture. He noted its inability to focus, its lack of direction, its domination by Mr. Pessin, its endless bickering, and its lack of support and influence within the larger Jewish community. Similar views were later expressed by Aharon Nechushtan of the local Jewish Agency office.

Despite these concerns, which she shares, Dr. Gidwitz believes that further effort should be directed toward developing a representative governing council that will serve the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish population. As noted in a previous report:

In common with many other voluntary structures in the post-Soviet successor states, the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish Community Council is constrained by the legacy of the Soviet era; individual initiative, civil debate, tolerance of differing political and spiritual views, consensus-building, planning and priority-setting, and accountability are attitudes and skills notably lacking in the experience of most post-Soviet Jews. The development of the Council into a pro-active representative, and credible decision-making community organization will require substantial time.19

72. Prior to the commitment of funds to Shabbat Shalom by the Jewish Council (with a generous contribution from Boris Pessin), the newspaper was published irregularly, whenever financial resources permitted. Since its inception, the newspaper has been edited by Mikhail Karshenbaum who, observers note, lacks any professional qualifications for such responsibilities. Less a chronicle of ongoing events in the Jewish world than a collection of (1) reprints of lengthy chapters from books on Jewish history, antisemitism, or some other generic topic, and (2) reprints of brief handouts from the Jewish Agency or Lishkat haKesher, Shabbat Shalom is tedious and generally uninteresting. Many post-Soviet Jewish newspapers share such characteristics; good editors -- and good business managers—are difficult to find in contemporary Russia and Ukraine. Further, as readers in other countries can attest, high-quality journalism on Jewish topics often seems elusive in more developed Jewish communities as well.

After a discussion of the shortcomings of the newspaper, which Mr. Karshenbaum acknowledged, he asked Betsy Gidwitz to send in some Jewish newspapers from the West. Dr. Gidwitz complied, preparing a packet of Jewish papers (including the Boston Jewish Advocate, the Baltimore Jewish Times, the Forward, The Canadian Jewish News, the London Jewish Chronicle, and others) for the group from Boston that went to Dnepropetrovsk in mid-May.

73. A new Jewish organization in Dnepropetrovsk is the Association of Jewish Intellectuals of Dnepropetrovsk (AID - pronounced ah-eed). Frustrated by the paralysis of the Jewish Council, Shimon Strinkovsky of JDC has focused attention on this group. To date, its major activity has centered on discussion of JDC-supplied videos and Russian-language Judaica books, but it is looking ahead to a lecture series and formation of a section for pensioners. Many in the group—its size is not clear to the writer—are enrolled in courses at the local Open Jewish University. JDC organized a Pesach seder and also a commemoration of Jerusalem Day for groups of AID members. Mr. Strinkovsky has managed most of the logistical matters for AID and is encouraging AID members to be responsible for governance issues.

74. The Open Jewish University continues in its first year of operation, offering courses to about 130 adults in Jewish tradition, Jewish history, Jewish music, and other topics. This institution is also trying to develop a response to increased activity by Christian missionary groups targeting local Jews. JDC provides audio-visual equipment for its classes, helps obtain the high-quality Russian-language Judaica books that it needs, and is arranging consultations with specialists in adult education who will assist the university in charting its future. Professional assistance in planning seems essential; faculty members meeting with a small group from Boston in late May requested funding for vastly increased programming, including expansion of the curriculum to include courses in computer technology and business management.

Currently meeting in evenings and on Sundays at the day school, the university has received requests to offer courses in several other cities, including Dneprodzerzhinsk, Pavlograd, Zaporozhe, Krivoi Rog, and Nikopol. Some lectures have indeed been given in other cities, but logistical and financial problems deter expansion. According to Rabbi Kaminetzky, operation of the university costs “several hundred dollars” every month.

75. Rabbi Kaminetzky reports that he has begun to offer weekly classes in Jewish tradition to small groups of Dnepropetrovsk Jewish businessmen in their offices. He notes with some satisfaction that the businessmen themselves have requested that he teach such classes.

76. Rabbi Kaminetzky has also organized classes for students in the local university and other post-secondary schools. Informally referred to as Yeshiva University,20 the classes meet once weekly in the synagogue from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. Thirty young men are enrolled in the cost-free program.21 They study Hebrew and tradition during the first hour, listen to a lecture on Judaic topics during the second hour, and study English (often using English-language Judaic texts) during the third hour. Instruction during the first and last hours is in small groups of two to five students to permit participation at appropriate ability levels. The teachers are rabbinical students from the main Chabad seminary (in Morristown, NJ) who are in Dnepropetrovsk for a work-study program. (See below.) Enrollment is attracted through advertisements in Dnepropetrovsk newspapers; Rabbi Kaminetzky readily acknowledges that the principal appeal of the program is instruction in English. Despite the early evening meeting hours, no refreshments are served. Betsy Gidwitz visited the classes (which were meeting in small groups around tables in various areas of the synagogue) and spoke with five or six students in the program; they represented a variety of academic majors and all seemed quite pleased with the curriculum. In addition to classwork, the program includes holiday celebrations and social evenings, including dances.

77. Ten students from the Rabbinical Seminary of America in Morristown, NJ, are participating in a work-study program supervised by Rabbi Chaim Ber Stambler; eight of the young men are in the first year, and two had been invited to remain for a second year. They usually learn in the morning, teach in the yeshiva high school (see below) in the afternoon and in ‘Yeshiva University’ in the early evening, and also plan and implement special events. (When Betsy Gidwitz was in the city, she participated in a Lag B’Omer festival at the day school that the Morristown students had organized.) The majority of students are Americans, but Dr. Gidwitz has also met Britons and Swiss in the program.

Rabbi Kaminetzky enlists the young men himself, relying on recommendations from the current group to establish a roster of candidates for the following year whom he himself interviews in Morristown. He looks for students who work well both collectively and on their own initiative under less-than-ideal conditions (long winters with uncertain supply of heat and hot water, extended separation from family members, etc.). He also seeks to assemble a group of students with complementary skills and interests that enhance his various programs in Dnepropetrovsk; in every group, at least one student will be skilled in music, another in drama, several in working with children, etc. He excludes any young man deemed to be “fanatic”—which he defined as being publicly vocal in support of the ‘Moshiach now’ faction within Chabad. He spoke with some bitterness about “surprises” on this issue, i.e., a student who conceals his views on the question until after his arrival in Dnepropetrovsk and then agitates among other students or insists on erecting ‘Moshiach now’ banners in the day school or elsewhere. In response to a question, Rabbi Kaminetzky said that prominent individuals within Chabad sometimes attempt to persuade him to accept a particular candidate whom he feels is unsuitable; however, he controls the eventual selection because it is he who arranges visas, plane tickets, etc. Most of the students arrive in Dnepropetrovsk immediately before or after Sukkot and remain during the summer to serve as counselors in the Chabad camp.

19. See Betsy Gidwitz, Dnepropetrovsk Kehilla Project: Background Information (Cambridge, MA: the author, 1994), p. 6.
20. Well aware of the existence of Yeshiva University in New York City, Rabbi Kaminetzky regards his appropriation of the name with great humor and hopes that the larger and older Yeshiva University feels the same (if it is even aware of its Dnepropetrovsk namesake).
21. Separate classes for young women are taught on Sunday mornings by female student teachers from a Chabad teachers seminary in Israel.

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