Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003
(continued)


30. Rabbi Levi Raices supervises Jewish education for Chabad in Kharkiv, focusing on the yeshiva for boys and the machon for girls. As is the case in Dnipropetrovsk, the yeshiva and machon offer more intensive Jewish education than is available in the day school. In earlier discussions, Rabbi Raices stated that a major attraction of these programs to local Jewish parents, few of whom are knowledgeable in Judaism, is that they offer an extended day program, an option that is especially appreciated by single mothers. Other enticements for yeshiva and machon pupils are additional class hours in computer skills and in English instruction.

 

Rabbi Levi Raices, a native of New York, has been in Kharkiv for nine years.

 

Fifty boys and 48 girls are enrolled in the yeshiva and machon respectively, said Rabbi Raices. Both currently are open to youngsters in grades five through 11; expanding the program to accommodate younger children probably will be possible as soon as more classes in the yeshiva program are transferred to the second synagogue.63 Both the yeshiva and machon are now located in the choral synagogue, which cannot accommodate additional pupils. In the future, Chabad also hopes to renovate a building in back of the choral synagogue to serve as a dormitory for girls in the machon.

In response to a question about teaching staff, Rabbi Raices said that he and two other rabbis teach all of the religious studies classes for the boys in the machon. One of the other rabbis is from New York, and the second is a native of Kharkiv who attended yeshivas in Moscow and Israel. Rabbi Raices is now seeking two yeshiva students to live in the boys’ dormitory in the second synagogue as dormitory counselors; he would prefer that they remain in Kharkiv for an entire school year, said Rabbi Raices, but if they will come only for shifts as short as two months, that will be acceptable. The yeshiva students also would have some teaching responsibilities. The biggest problem in finding students for this work, he continued, is that he is unable to offer attractive compensation. He is calling different yeshivas in the United States and Israel in search of appropriate candidates who are willing to come to Kharkiv under existing conditions.

In response to a question, Rabbi Raices said that four of the five boys who graduated from the yeshiva high school this spring will enroll next fall in a Moscow yeshiva for further religious studies. The fifth graduate, who is a member of a family with severe financial problems, will go to work in Kharkiv to help support his family. Rabbi Raices said that he tries to keep in touch with all boys who leave the yeshiva for whatever reason, including emigration. The yeshiva publishes a monthly bulletin entitled Навстречу Мошиаху (Toward Moshiach), which is distributed to current pupils and sent to graduates and all others who have attended the yeshiva at any time; the bulletin contains articles on religious themes, a list of boys with birthdays in the coming months, and a Chabad-oriented crossword puzzle. Other than the crossword puzzle, most of the articles are Russian translations from English publications.

In addition to the regular day school, yeshiva, and machon, Chabad operates three summer camps in or near Kharkiv. The yeshiva operates its own day camp for three weeks; the Chabad community as a whole sponsors separate three-week residential camps near the city for boys and for girls.

31. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU; New York) operates a multi-faceted Zionist-oriented program in Kharkiv that focuses on Jewish adolescents and young adults. Rabbi Shlomo Assraf, the first OU representative in Kharkiv, continues to direct the project from Israel, where he now resides. Rabbi Assraf was in Kharkiv for the re-opening of the Chabad choral synagogue, where he and the writer met for several minutes, but he had returned to Israel before the writer visited Lycée Sha’alvim, a private school in Kharkiv operated by the OU and Kibbutz Sha’alvim in Israel.

The writer met at the lycée, which is located some distance from the center of Kharkiv, with Evgeny Persky, the principal, and Eran Platzky, an Israeli native of South Africa who represents the OU in Kharkiv. Mr. Persky has been principal of the lycée for five years; prior to his employment as principal, he had worked as a biologist. Mr. Persky said that the main goal of OU operations in Kharkiv is “to preserve (сохранить) Jewish children for the Jewish people.” Echoing comments that the writer has heard elsewhere in Ukraine, Mr. Persky said that many local Jews feel no ties to any ethnic group at all; they discern no difference between Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews. Three generations of life under the Soviet Union, continued Mr. Persky, have obliterated any sense of Jewish identity. The lycée, he said, aims to educate children in the philosophy that they can be both Orthodox Jews and active participants in the wider world, that no contradiction exists between Orthodoxy and advanced education.

The lycée is tied very closely to the OU, said Mr. Persky. These ties are strengthened by frequent visits from OU leaders and activists from the United States and from Israel. Jewish studies classes are taught by six Israeli teachers (three couples), three of whom are paid by the Hephzibah program of the Israeli government. Additionally, 15 madrichim (counselors, youth leaders) come to the OU program in Kharkiv for different periods of time after they finish army service in Israel

Current enrollment in the lycée is 156, said Mr. Persky, a reduction from 200 at the beginning of the school year. About one-third of the pupils make aliyah every year, he said, some with their parents and some in the Na’aleh program. A smaller number go to Germany. Rabbi Assraf maintains very close contact with most former lycée pupils in Israel, a situation that has a very positive impact on their absorption in Israel. About 900 such young people are “very connected” with the OU in Israel, said Mr. Platzky. Rabbi Assraf arranges excursions and other activities for them. Very few lycée “alumni” return to Kharkiv, Mr. Persky observed.

Of the 21 eleventh graders who are finishing the Kharkiv lycée this year, said Mr. Persky, six will go to Israel, either to the Sela (pre-university) program of the Jewish Agency or to a yeshiva or seminary. Most of the rest will remain in Kharkiv; in previous years, more graduating pupils went to Israel. Originally, Mr. Persky noted, the class had 32 members. However, nine of them left for Israel (in the Na’aleh program) or for other countries (Germany or Russia, with their parents) prior to eleventh grade.

Mr. Persky said that enrollment, which reached its peak at 220 several years ago, is not growing because there are fewer Jewish children than before. Further, the lycée has fewer boarding pupils because one of its major sources of boarding pupils, the city of Poltava, now has its own day school. Whereas 40 to 50 youngsters used to live in the two OU dormitories, only 30 boys and girls are in these facilities this year.

The level of learning at the lycée is very high, both in general studies and in Jewish studies, said Mr. Persky. Pupils do very well in both academic and sports competitions. School reforms now underway in Ukraine may lead to a reduction in science standards, he said, but the lycée will strive to retain its traditional high standards. Because the lycée is a private school, it has greater flexibility in arranging its curriculum. Fully one-third of all classes are in Jewish tradition, Jewish history, and the Hebrew language.

Older pupils from the lycée sometimes attend shabbatonim or other events with their counterparts from other non-Chabad religious day/boarding schools in Ukraine, particularly Rabbi Bleich’s school in Kyiv and the independent school in Odesa. Mr. Persky and Mr. Platzky think that these are very worthwhile activities for the youngsters.

Mr. Persky expressed concern about the demographic situation of the Jewish population, which he termed “catastrophic.” He noted Ukrainian government statistics for the population at large that conclude that only ten to 15 percent of all children in the country are healthy. Mental health problems are Increasing, he said. The OU, he continued, tries to find “wild” (дикие) Jewish youngsters and help them. He described one Jewish family with whom the OU is in contact. Both parents are invalids, he said; one has tuberculosis. They try to survive on a welfare income of about five dollars per month. Their four children slept on the floor because they had no beds. The government placed the two older youngsters in a non-Jewish internat or boarding school. The younger two did not go to school at all because they had no appropriate clothing for school. The OU purchased beds and clothing for the children. However, the family claims that they need no help and has rejected any further assistance. Many other families in comparable situations, continued Mr. Persky, also claim that they need no aid.

Other sources of concern, said Mr. Persky, are Ukrainian nationalism and Christian missionaries. Strongly nationalistic sentiments can be found in Ukrainian literature textbooks used in schools. Such an outlook may not constitute antisemitism in a confrontational sense, but it does suggest exclusion from Ukrainian life of those who are not Ukrainians of Orthodox Christian background. Regarding Christian missionary efforts, even youngsters enrolled in the OU school, he related, are lured to Christian missionary summer camps by good conditions in these camps. One lycée pupil who had attended a missionary summer camp extended Christmas greetings to Mr. Persky, the latter said, using a common phrase welcoming the birth of Jesus Christ (С рождеством Христовым!). Mr. Persky expressed great frustration, wanting to deal with such issues in a forthright manner, but wishing to avoid confrontation.

Regarding the forthcoming transfer of Israeli authority for formal Jewish education from the Israeli Ministry of Education to the Jewish Agency, Mr. Persky said that he had had no prior experience in working with the Jewish Agency, so he does not know what to expect. However, he continued, he views the Israeli Ministry of Education as “not entirely successful” in their work in Ukraine; they have been preoccupied with details, such as the number of desks in the school or the number of lycée school buses, rather with real issues of Jewish education, he said.

The Orthodox Union also maintains a facility in the center of Kharkiv, which includes a synagogue, several meeting rooms and activity rooms, a dining room and kitchen, dormitory rooms for out-of-town boys attending the lycée,64 and apartments for the Israeli staff. Various clubs and programs are operated from this building, which the writer did not have time to visit this year.

32. International Solomon University was founded in 1992 as a commercial undergraduate and graduate degree-granting institution in Kyiv. It opened its first (and, so far, only) branch in Kharkiv in 1998. Its curriculum offers academic concentrations in Judaic studies (focusing on Jewish history), economics, computer science, and law.65



63. See p. 42.
64. A dormitory for girls is in another building.
65. A description of courses suggests that the economics concentration might more appropriately be designated as a business administration degree.

 
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