Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

Mr. Kagan met the writer on the ground floor of the building, the largest section of which is occupied by an ORT-designed computer center. The center consists of two large classrooms, each with 14 workstations, a resource laboratory with various sophisticated peripherals and accessories, and an office. The rooms are pleasant and well-furnished. The center offers courses in basic computer skills, graphics, Internet programming, word processing, and data base applications. At the time of the writer’s visit, late on a weekday afternoon in May, a class for eight to ten adults was being conducted in one of the classrooms. The remainder of the facilities appeared unused.

The ORT computer center, said Mr. Kagan, operates separately from the rest of the JCC. It is used only for instructional purposes, and it charges fees for its various classes. It is not open to recreational or communications use by JCC clients.60 Beit Dan itself, he continued, has one computer room with eight workstations that is available for general use.

A tour of the facility included visits to an auditorium seating 70 people, a library, small café, a small dance studio, a computer room, an early childhood center for the Mazel Tov program, a kitchen for cooking classes and a small café, and club rooms for various groups.61 The building is attractively decorated with murals by a local artist depicting Ukrainian Jewish folk life and Israeli scenes.

Although numerous JCC personnel were in the building, the only visible clients were six university-age young women who were practicing a dance routine in the dance studio. The other rooms were empty, except for staff members and a few youngsters who were children of staff members and were waiting for their parents to finish work. Because the visit of the writer occurred at about 5:00 p.m., she asked Mr. Kagan about use of the facility by children after school. Mr. Kagan responded that few schoolchildren use the JCC because transportation to the building is difficult and because the JCC has no sports facilities. The busiest times at the center are evenings, when adults come for dance lessons, and Sundays, when families with young children come for various activities.62

Boris Kagan, director of the Beit Dan JCC, is at left, standing in the JCC lobby in front of a photograph of Shaike Dan, the Israeli hero for whom the facility is named. Mr. Kagan was educated as an architect and worked as a city planner before being employed by the Jewish community. He now paints landscapes in watercolors in his spare time.


In addition to programs inside the building, said Mr. Kagan, Beit Dan will operate two family summer camps in 2003, one near Kharkiv and the other on the Black Sea. Each will accommodate 150 persons. Participants and JDC will share the cost of these camps.

Mr. Kagan said that the operational costs of Beit Dan were very high. JDC provides about 90 percent of their budget.

In response to a question about the greatest needs of Beit Dan, Mr. Kagan said that increasing the professionalism of the staff is paramount. The budget permits him to pay instructors for dance, computer instruction, and other activities only about $80 per month. It is very difficult to find qualified professionals willing to settle for such a salary, he said. Additionally, the local culture is such that people already on the staff recommend their friends, whether qualified or not, for any position that is open. The professional skills of the computer instructors who work in the ORT center far exceed those of the computer instructors who work in Beit Dan, he said.

Regarding the future of the Jewish population in Kharkiv, Mr. Kagan said many more Jews will leave, but that many others will remain in Kharkiv. Those people who are successful in life will stay, but those who are poor will look for opportunities elsewhere. The local Jewish community, he continued, must prepare for a Jewish population that is both smaller and more successful. The Jews who remain will be well-educated and will be in business or in the professions. Therefore, the community needs to offer professional-level activities in music, art, and other intellectual endeavors. Participants should be required to pay for such programs, he said.

Beit Dan, said Mr. Kagan, is one of many different Jewish interest groups in the city. These unite only in celebration of Jewish and major Israeli holidays, then each goes its own way.

29. The writer met with Grigory Shochet, the principal of School #170, in the building of the upper school. Mr. Shochet said that the enrollment of the school, which operates under the auspices of Chabad, is stable. It currently enrolls 502 youngsters, compared to 496 during the previous academic year. Grades one through three, as well as pre-school classes, are held in another building. School #170 shares the upper school building with a public school that is losing enrollment; when it closes, as it probably will in another two years, then the entire building will be assigned to Chabad. Mr. Shochet believes that the additional space will enable School #170 to enroll about 200 more pupils.


Grigory Shochet is one of the senior and most respected Jewish day school principals in the post-Soviet states.

Mr. Shochet said that almost all of the youngsters in School #170 are Jewish according to halakha. However, at the request of the mayor of the city, the school enrolls “five or six” pupils whose mothers are not Jewish. If School #170 permitted open enrollment of youngsters who are Jewish only through patrilineal descent, its census would reach 1000, he continued.

Mr. Shochet spoke with great pride of the academic achievements of School #170 pupils, noting that youngsters do well in city-wide competitions in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. Their success, he said, is due to the excellent teachers employed by the school.

School #170 pupils have between six and 11 class hours in Jewish studies each week, including instruction in Hebrew, Jewish tradition, and Jewish history. The school employs eight teachers for these subjects; three are paid by the government of Israel through the Hephzibah program.

One of the major deficiencies of the school, said Mr. Shochet, is that it has no sports hall. He trains some boys in boxing, he said, drawing on his experience as a past national boxing champion of Ukraine. However, this training is done separately, outside of school, and the majority of pupils do not participate in sports on a regular basis.

In response to a question about the destination of graduates of School #170, Mr. Shochet said that most remain in the city and attend local universities and other institutions of higher education. About 15 percent leave Ukraine, going to Israel, Germany, or the United States as émigrés. Emigration to Israel has been declining for the last several years, he continued; in the mid-1990’s, perhaps 100 families left the school each year to settle in Israel. Now only about 15 families go to Israel during the year. More families go to Germany. The most important factor in influencing such decisions, he believes, is economics. Most people who have satisfactory jobs and apartments in Kharkiv will remain in Kharkiv; if they decide to emigrate, they will retain their local apartments so that they can return if things don’t work out well in Israel or in Germany.

When asked to envisage the Jewish community in Kharkiv ten years from now, Mr. Shochet said that the situation in ten years will depend on political and economic developments in Ukraine and Israel. Regarding local conditions, there are very few opportunities for work in the city. Real unemployment is more than 40 percent. People live without hope. They have only one child, and they are easily enticed by Germany, where they will receive many benefits. Teachers in School #170, noted Mr. Shochet, receive salaries of $40 to $45 monthly. He also recalled his own recent experience when he required surgery; the operation itself cost about $500, well beyond the means of most people in Kharkiv, and he also was required to bring his own medicine, bandages, bed linens, and food to the hospital.

The writer asked Mr. Shochet if School #170 parents send their children to the school primarily because they want a good general education for their children or whether a Jewish education was the most important factor. Mr. Shochet responded that parents want a good general education plus a Jewish education. He added that he is very pleased to see that School #170 pupils readily acknowledge their enrollment in a Jewish school when they meet peers from other schools in city-wide academic competitions.

60. The restricted use of the ORT center is ironic in view of the history of the program. ORT had agreed in the mid-1990’s to install the center at School #170 (the Chabad school, which is described below), where it would be used in much the same manner that a similar facility is used in the Chabad school in Dnipropetrovsk. (See pp. 22-23.) However, under pressure from JDC, the Kharkiv computer center was re-directed to Beit Dan, where, according to JDC, it would be used by a broader segment of the population than would be the case at the school. George Rohr, who contributed so generously to the reconstruction of the synagogue in Kharkiv, purchased computers and related equipment for School #170.
61. Among the club rooms is one for a student group. This activity is an attempt to duplicate the Hillel student organization, which moved out of an earlier JCC building after the regional director of JDC attempted to fire its director, an action that exceeded his authority and embittered Hillel members. Hillel remains in separate quarters in the center of Kharkiv. See pp. 55-56.
62. Questions were raised during planning for the building, a pre-existing structure that was renovated for JCC use, about its inaccessibility to public transportation, its lack of an elevator, and its lack of sports facilities. Nonetheless, JDC proceeded with its development.

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