Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

According to Dr. Boris Elkin, formerly a mathematics professor at a leading Kharkiv institute and now director of Kharkiv ISU, the current enrollment of the institution is approximately 200 and is expected to grow to 300 or 400 within the next two years. About 70 percent of Kharkiv ISU students are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return, said Dr. Elkin. Some of the 89 students in Jewish studies, which is the largest of the departments, are non-Jewish; Dr. Elkin and others welcome the enrollment of non-Jews in Jewish studies because the exposure of non-Jews to Jewish subjects should help to reduce antisemitism. All students, including those in other course concentrations, are required to study Jewish history and tradition. Several local universities, noted Dr. Elkin, have very strong history departments, but none teaches Jewish history; the ISU Jewish history concentration fills an important gap and the strength of history disciplines in other Kharkiv institutions should encourage a high level of Jewish history study at ISU.


Dr. Boris Elkin is active in the Jewish community. Although not a practicing Orthodox Jew, he is a past lay leader in the Orthodox Union program in Kharkiv and is the current chairman of Beit Dan.


ISU is graduating its first class this spring. In response to a question, Dr. Elkin outlined the employment plans of the seven graduates who are majoring in Jewish studies: one each will be attending graduate school in Kharkiv, working in a Kyiv library, working in a regional (oblast) education authority, working as an English translator, working as a television journalist, and staying at home with a newborn baby. Six of the seven are women; the television journalist is the only male.

The ISU summer school was about to convene for its fourth summer. The junior level of the program will enroll 45 individuals, most of whom are university students from eastern Ukraine; the senior level also will enroll 45 people, all of whom are post-graduates from throughout the post-Soviet states. Eighteen lecturers from Israel, the United States, Russia, and Ukraine will teach during the eight-day summer school session. After summer school ends, ISU will sponsor its third annual expedition to sites believed to be associated with Khazar history. To date, participants in these expeditions have found many artifacts, including coins, weapons, saddles, dishes, and jewelry.66

ISU also convened several conferences during the recently completed academic year, said Dr. Elkin. An international conference was held on the Khazars in fall, leading to the publication of an almanac containing numerous articles on this group. A forum was held for Jewish studies teachers in universities; JDC and Sochnut joined ISU in organizing and supporting this event. A winter seminar on Jewish history was held for 50 older high school and first-year university students in eastern Ukraine.

ISU is embarking on significant new projects in the 2003-2004 academic year. It is renting its own large building in the center of the city, quite close to the choral synagogue.67 Not only will ISU be housed in this structure, but ISU will open its own lycée in these premises. The lycée will be a secular Jewish high school (grades 9 through 11) offering a rigorous curriculum in general subjects, Hebrew, Jewish history, and Jewish tradition. Dr Elkin has asked Rabbi Moskowitz to teach the tradition classes, but he has not yet responded.68 The lycée will accept pupils who are Jewish according to the Israeli Law of Return, i.e., who have at least one Jewish grandparent. Parents will pay some tuition, but Dr. Elkin is trying to obtain grants to cover some costs. The building in which ISU and the lycée will be located requires major renovation, said Dr. Elkin. He needs at least $50,000 for this work, but has not yet obtained the necessary funds. However, not withstanding the necessity of tuition payments and uncertainties about renovations and certain operational aspects of the school, the lycée already had received applications from 69 potential pupils.

Another new development, said Dr. Elkin, is the forthcoming establishment in Ukraine of an organization similar to Sefer, the association for Jewish studies in Russia. The new organization will have a different name, but will collaborate with Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as does Sefer. More than 10 universities and other institutions of higher education in Ukraine now offer Jewish studies courses.

Continuing a discussion that Dr. Elkin had initiated with the writer in 2001 about conflicts within the Kharkiv Jewish community,69 Dr. Elkin said that tensions had abated, but that the many Jewish groups in the city need to communicate with each other more often. Each group goes its own way, he said, but they all came together to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) earlier in the month.

33. Yulia Pototskaya has directed the Hillel student group in Kharkiv since its inception five years ago. According to Ms. Pototskaya, the organization has more than 400 members between the ages of 15 and 30,70 including students at nearly all of the more than 25 institutions of higher education in the city. Participants include almost equal numbers of males and females.71 Ms. Pototskaya estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of Hillel members are Jewish according to halakha, 20 percent to 30 percent are Jewish according to patrilineal descent, and about 10 percent are not Jewish at all. Most of the non-Jews, said Ms. Pototskaya, are spouses of Jewish members. About ten members of Kharkiv Hillel emigrate each year, most to Israel.

In an effort to accommodate young families, Hillel operates a family club that plans activities in which families can participate as family units. All holiday celebrations have events for children.

In response to a question, Ms. Pototskaya said that the most popular activities for students are volunteer programs. Hillel members help to maintain Drobitsky Yar, the site of a Holocaust massacre in 1941 (see below), and an old Jewish cemetery. The latter work is done in cooperation with the Chabad synagogue; Hillel members have repaired 45 damaged tombstones in this cemetery, said Ms. Pototskaya. Some Hillel members visit lonely older Jews on a regular basis as another volunteer activity.

In addition to volunteer work, Hillel observes all Jewish holidays and organizes various social events. Approximately 20 percent of Hillel members are also active in the Sochnut student group, said Ms. Pototskaya. Hillel maintains a close relationship with the choral synagogue and with School #170, the Chabad school from which many of its members graduated.

Hillel premises consist of two rooms, one of them a large activity hall, in a downtown office building. Until mid-2000, the group had been based in a Jewish community center (predecessor of Beit Dan), but it left the JCC after a dispute erupted between the Joint Distribution Committee, which controls the JCC, and Kharkiv Hillel. The regional representative of JDC had attempted to fire Ms. Pototskaya, an action that exceeded his authority and embittered Hillel members.

JDC continues to act as the pass-through agent for funding from Hillel International; sometimes these funds are received on time, said Ms. Pototskaya, and sometimes they arrive late. Nonetheless, tension between JDC and Kharkiv Hillel has lessened because JDC now is quiet about the situation. Although Hillel International continues to be the main source of funding, Kharkiv Hillel also receives support from the Jewish Community Development Fund (through American Jewish World Service), the Hillel organization at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.,72 and local businessman Boris Feldman. Ms. Pototskaya expressed gratitude for the strong moral and programmatic support received from Rabbi Yossi Goldman, the Jerusalem-based director of Hillel in the post-Soviet states. Rabbi Goldman and International Hillel have defended and encouraged Kharkiv Hillel in its ongoing conflict with JDC. Rabbi Goldman came to Kharkiv to join Kharkiv Hillel in celebration of its fifth anniversary.

34. Drobitsky Yar is a ravine outside Kharkiv where approximately 16,000 Jews were massacred in December 1941 and January 1942. The writer was accompanied on a visit to the site by Leonid Leonidov, who chairs the Drobitsky Yar Committee.73

The site is exceptionally well-marked by a large menorah and by a white arch that is visible from a considerable distance. Although commemorative work on the site was started by local Jews, responsibility for construction and subsequent maintenance was later assumed by the municipality of Kharkiv with some support from the national government in Kyiv. According to Mr. Leonidov, Drobitsky Yar is included in the itineraries of most official visitors to the city.

The writer also stopped with Mr. Leonidov at the site of a temporary ghetto that had been constructed en route to Drobitsky Yar. Nothing remains of the structures that offered temporary and flimsy shelter to Jews on their way to their deaths in the winter of 1941-1942. However, the Drobitsky Yar Committee and several other groups have erected monuments at the location, which is now vacant land with trees, shrubs, and footpaths between a nearby apartment complex and a major road.

66. Khazars are an ethnic group of Turkic origin who inhabited the Caucasus-Volga area and even beyond to the Dnipr between the sixth and tenth centuries CE. Many leading Khazars professed Judaism during part of this period. The Khazars were conquered by Russians in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
67. To date, the ISU program has been housed in rented space in a large public high school.
68. In discussions with the writer, both Rabbi Moskowitz of Chabad and Evgeny Persky of the OU school expressed apprehension about the opening of the ISU high school, fearing that it would attract pupils away from their own schools. Several others with whom the writer spoke, both in Kharkiv and in Kyiv, welcome the ISU initiative, asserting that an alternative to Orthodox schools is needed because many youngsters have no exposure to Judaism at all and their families consider Orthodox schools unacceptable. As a city with a strong intellectual base, Kharkiv may be an excellent site for an academically rigorous secular Jewish school, said one observer in Kyiv.
69. See the writer’s Notes on Jewish Community Life in Ukraine, May 2001, p. 56.
70. The broad age range is not unusual for Hillel groups in the post-Soviet states. It reflects, in large part, the absence of other Jewish organizational options for adolescents and young adults in the current environment.
71. Membership in some post-Soviet Hillel groups is overwhelmingly female.
72. Several groups of students from GWU Hillel have visited Kharkiv and engaged in cooperative projects with Kharkiv Hillel, such as conducting Pesach seders in small towns in the Hillel region.
73. The writer visited the Kharkiv Holocaust Museum during her 2002 stay in the city. See her report Jewish Community Life in Eastern Ukraine, April 12-28, 2002, pp. 53-54.

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