Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

This report reviews a visit by the writer to eastern Ukraine from May 20 to June 1, 2003. The cities visited include three of the five largest in Ukraine -- Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk.1 Other cities visited were Zaporizhya and Krivyy Rig in the same region.2

Collectively, more than 100,000 Jews live in this area, a number larger than that of the Jewish population living in Kyiv and the region surrounding the Ukrainian capital. Although estimates of the size of the Jewish populations in these and other Ukrainian cities vary, many observers believe that the Jewish population of Dnipropetrovsk is between 30,000 and 35,000, second in Ukraine only to that of Kyiv (perhaps 70,000 to 80,000). The Jewish population of Kharkiv may number 25,000 to 30,000, and that of Donetsk may be 14,000. The Jewish populations of Zaporizhya and Krivyy Rig probably are between 7,000 and 8,000 each.

The general population of Ukraine continues to decline, from approximately 53 million at the time of independence in 1991 to 47.8 million in mid-2003. Causes of population loss are aging of the population, low fertility, high mortality, significant substance abuse (alcohol, narcotics, tobacco), poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, impoverishment, and environmental degradation. Fully one percent of the Ukrainian population is believed to be HIV-positive. Life expectancy of men and women is 62 and 73 years of age respectively.

The Jewish population in Ukraine is declining even more precipitously than the general population. The “core” Jewish population, i.e., the number of individuals who declare themselves as Jews to census takers, is reported by both the Ukrainian government and academic specialists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem to be slightly more than 100,000. The “extended” Jewish population, i.e., core Jews as well as Jews who do not identify as Jews to census takers and non-Jews related to Jews, is believed to be between 200,000 and 300,000.3 All such individuals are eligible to immigrate to Israel under provisions of the Israeli Law of Return.

Economic conditions in Ukraine are complex and appear to be deteriorating. The gross domestic product of Ukraine was growing at an annual rate of between five and six percent at the time of the writer’s visit. However, observers estimated that the middle and upper classes together constitute only about ten percent of the entire Ukrainian population. According to Ukrainian government statistics, about 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, a cohort including most elderly people and many children. The average salary is about $52 monthly, and the average household income is about $70 monthly. Real unemployment in many large urban areas may be as high as 40 percent, and fully 75 percent of the population derives a major portion of its income from a “second” or “grey” economy. The dominance of the grey economy extracts a major toll on rural and elderly populations, neither of whom have opportunities to engage in secondary economy activity. A growth in inflation places a further burden on pensioners and others dependent on fixed incomes.

The combination of an unusually harsh winter, a hot and dry spring, and an invasion of locusts in spring of 2003 has created expectations of a 2003 grain harvest 40 percent lower than that of 2004. One press account described “frantic consumer hoarding [in late June] of flour, sugar and other basic foods amid fears of shortages in Ukraine.”4 Consumers across Ukraine were further reported to be “snapping up flour, buckwheat, sugar and pasta – sometimes intercepting it as it is unloaded from trucks . . .”. Retail prices for flour were reported to have doubled and prices for other basic staples to have risen “dramatically” in late June. The Ukrainian government promised to release grain from state reserves and to purchase food abroad in an effort to stabilize prices.

Politically, Ukraine is tense as politicians and commentators look to 2004 when President Leonid Kuchma is required by law to step down after completing two five-year terms in power. Speculation is rife that he will try to find some way of extending his authority. Should retention of office be impossible, Mr. Kuchma and his associates are actively engaged in preventing reformist candidates from winning the presidential election. President Kuchma and the business elite enjoy substantial, even overwhelming, financial and media resources as well as support from Russia, which is apprehensive of any Ukrainian nationalism and unpredictability that might emerge in a major change of government.

Freedom House, the respected American oversight organization, lowered Ukraine’s status in 2003 from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.” Its report stated:

Freedom of the press [in Ukraine] declined under the continued weight of political pressure and government censorship. Article 34 of the constitution, and a 1991 law on print media, guarantee freedom of expression and the press, but journalists do not enjoy these rights in practice. Official influence and de facto censorship are widespread. The Administration issues regular instructions . . . to mass media outlets directing the nature, theme, and substance of news reporting.5

Most observers believe that Mr. Kuchma will fail in attempts to extend his term of office, but predict an ugly contest for succession. Opposition parties in Ukraine have few legal rights and are poorly organized. The usually coarse political scene is further complicated by conflicts and competition between rival business/media clans based in different cities, particularly in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk.

Jewish community activity continues to expand, especially in areas under rabbinic or Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut) purview. Two of the most significant developments in mid-2003 have been the opening of the newly renovated Choral Synagogue in Kharkiv6 and the transfer of responsibility for formal Jewish education from the government of Israel to the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The government of Israel established secular Jewish/Zionist day schools in Jewish population centers in the post-Soviet states during the early 1990’s, intending that such institutions build Jewish identity and encourage aliyah of children and their families to Israel. After an initial period of confrontation with day schools opened by the growing number of Orthodox (principally Hasidic) rabbis in many of the same cities, the Israeli government Tsofia system embraced many of the rabbinic-sponsored schools as well. The program was operated jointly by Nativ7 and the Israeli Ministry of Education. By the late 1990’s, it provided assistance to 44 Jewish day schools and 180 Jewish Sunday schools, enrolling approximately 11,000 and 10,000 pupils respectively. The major form of assistance was compensation for 91 Israeli Hebrew-language and Jewish studies teachers and provision of some teaching materials for the day schools. Some aid also was provided to Sunday schools, whose teachers are local residents. Budgetary pressures limited expansion of the program, rendering it unable to extend assistance to newer day schools later in the decade and in 2000-2003; by 2003, 56 new Jewish day schools had opened their doors in the post-Soviet states that is, a larger number than the established schools receiving Israeli assistance. In 2003, the Ministry of Education announced that it was unable to continue full funding for its existing post-Soviet program, now called Hephzibah, and asked the Jewish Agency Department of Jewish Zionist Education to join in its management and support. The Jewish Agency agreed, eager to expand its existing post-Soviet education portfolio, which included informal education and some work with preschools and post-secondary institutions. Although the Ministry of Education will continue to compensate teachers, the Jewish Agency will absorb management responsibilities, including selection and training of teachers and other educators, curriculum development, development of educational materials, programs and operations, and other tasks.

Individuals in eastern Ukraine with whom the writer spoke were enthusiastic about transfer of the formal education portfolio to the Jewish Agency, perceiving it better qualified to work with diaspora Jewish populations than the Ministry of Education, whose primary responsibilities are within the State of Israel. Many people, particularly those associated with newer schools currently not receiving assistance through the Hephzibah program, also were hopeful that Jewish Agency participation in Hephzibah would lead to an infusion of additional funds, some of which could be used to support Hebrew-language and Jewish studies programs in these schools.8 Individuals with a broad communitywide view of Jewish life in Ukraine also see benefits of consolidating most Jewish education efforts under one system, generating synergies among various programs and multiple use of existing (and new) education facilities.9

1. The capital city of Kyiv has the largest general population, estimated at 2.6 million. Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Donetsk rank second, third, and fourth with populations estimated at 1.5 million, 1.1 million, and 1.0 million respectively. Odesa, which the writer did not visit on this journey, also has a population of about one million. The general populations of Zaporizhya and Kriviy Rig are estimated at 875,000 and 715,000 respectively.
2. The writer also visited Kyiv for one day on June 2. Meetings held in that city are not recorded in this report.
3. The estimate of 100,000+ Ukrainian Jews shows a steep decline from the last Soviet census in 1989, which listed a Ukrainian Jewish population of 487,000. The reasons for the decline are well-known: an aging Jewish population (average age close to 60), high mortality rate, low fertility rate, high assimilation, and massive emigration. The current intermarriage rate is believed to be about 90 percent in Kyiv and many other larger Jewish population centers, and the emigration rate over the last 12 years is estimated by some as 560,000, a number that includes members of the extended Jewish population as well as core
4. Associated Press, June 30, 2003, as reported in Kyiv Post Daily, July 1, 2003 [online]. See also Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2003.
5. Thomas Dine, “Free Press in Russia and Ukraine: A Key to Integration in Europe,” in Freedom of the Press 2003 (New York: Freedom House, 2003), p. 150. The report cited the following as characteristic of Ukrainian media: state censorship of television broadcasts, harassment and disruption of independent media, and failure of authorities to investigate attacks against journalists. Kyiv Post Daily, June 12, 2003, reported the stabbing of a journalist on June 11 in Dnipropetrovsk, a key Ukrainian political center and stronghold of Kuchma support.
6. See pp. 38-41.
7. Originally known as Lishkat Hakesher (Liaison Bureau) or Lishka, this entity was created in 1952 to coordinate and manage Israel government operations in the then-Soviet Union. It is attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, bypassing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
8. It is unlikely that such funding will become available through the Jewish Agency in the near future. Continued exclusion of newer day schools from Israeli funding may constitute a major community relations problem for the Jewish Agency.
9. Among the many issues facing the emerging Jewish community in the post-Soviet states is a serious lack of communal property in which to hold programs. Jewish day schools under Nativ/Hephzibah auspices generally stood empty during weekends and holiday periods, inaccessible to other community organizations seeking space for programs.

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