Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

A menorah in modern form stands at the entry to the Drobitsky Yar site. The white structure in the distance to the right of the menorah is the large monument seen in greater detail below. The entire area has become an unofficial park, attractive to people out for a walk and to children who like to ride their bicycles along the road leading to the white tower and in a parking area to the right of the monument.



The inscription on the monument under the dates of the shootings at Drobitsky Yar is written in Russian and Hebrew and refers to the Victims of the Holocaust. It pledges that they will never be forgotten. It is one of very few monuments in Ukraine to include the word Holocaust. The monument is in the form of an arch. A Star of David appears on one inside wall, a menorah on the other. Original plans called for a cross to be placed opposite the Star of David; in response to complaints from the Jewish community about the cross, architects replaced it with the menorah (which is in the style favored by Chabad in the post-Soviet states). Tablets with the 10 Commandments stand inside the arch. The base of the monument, seen most clearly in the photo at left contains several rooms that will become a museum. A security guard is stationed in the base 24 hours a day. The actual ravine is located to the left of the monument. Several smaller memorials stand to the side of the arch.

35. Rafael Klausner has been Consul General of the State of Israel and Director of the Israel Cultural Center in Kharkiv for the last two years. Consulates General and Israeli Cultural Centers operate under the direction of Nativ (better known under its former name, Lishkat Hakesher), which is responsible to the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel.74 Mr. Klausner is accredited as an attaché to the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv.

Mr. Klausner was born in Vilnius, Lithuania. He emigrated to Israel with his family when he was eight years old. At the time of the writer’s meeting with him, he was completing his Kharkiv tour and preparing to transfer in June to the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv.

Mr. Klausner thinks that the Jewish population of Kharkiv is about 30,000, according to the Israel Law of Return. In his view, most young Jews are products of intermarriage and even many older Jews have only tenuous connections to the Jewish community. The shrinking Jewish population, he said, is one of the major reasons for the decline in aliyah to Israel from Kharkiv. Current economic problems in Israel, especially in comparison to improving economic conditions in Ukraine, are a further deterrent, he added. In response to a question, Mr. Klausner said that the average monthly salary in Kharkiv is about $70.

In response to another question, Mr. Klausner said that cooperation between various Jewish organizations is improving. Many Jews, he continued, participate in activities of different organizations in the same week; no leader appears to be telling people that they must be 100 percent loyal to one specific group. Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz is perceived by local people, both Jews and non-Jews, as the Jewish leader in the city, said Mr. Klausner. He is very well connected with city officials and with wealthy local Jews.

The best-attended programs of the Israel Culture Center, said Mr. Klausner, are Hebrew-language ulpans and computer instruction in the Center’s 10-station computer classroom. Among the ulpan students are students from a local pedagogical institute who want to become Jewish studies teachers and other students from the Kharkiv branch of International Solomon University. The Center also sponsors a very active youth club that enrolls children age 10 and older, and offers a well-attended Sunday program of lectures, concerts, and special celebrations, such as Jerusalem Day. Not all people who participate in these activities, said Mr. Klausner, are planning aliyah to Israel in the foreseeable future, but all are welcome.

In response to a question about prospects for the local Jewish population in Kharkiv in 2013, Mr. Klausner said that it will be much smaller than it is now, due to the declining birth rate and increasing intermarriage rate. However, he foresees greater participation in community organizations by local Jewish businessmen, who have become much more involved in the Jewish community during the last few years. Six of the eight wealthiest people in Kharkiv, said Mr. Klausner, are Jews. Antisemitism exists, but is not a “serious issue” in Kharkiv, he continued, because local police track down the perpetrators whenever it occurs and stop it.

36. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI; Sochnut) office in Kharkiv supervises JAFI activity in Kharkiv and Kharkiv oblast, in Poltava oblast to the west, Sumy oblast to the north, and Lugansk oblast to the east. Haim Zakman, head of the JAFI delegation in Kharkiv, directs a staff of three other Israelis (heads of education and youth activities, and a director of local aliyah staff) and 13 local professionals; eight of the latter operate small JAFI offices in Shostka, Konotop, Sumy, Poltava, Kremenchuk, Severodonetsk, Luhansk, and Alchevsk.

Haim Zakman has been head of the JAFI delegation in Kharkiv since late 2002. Born in Latvia into a Zionist family in 1961, Mr. Zakman came to Israel with his family in 1972. He speaks fluent Russian, Yiddish, and English. Mr. Zakman is a recently retired officer in the Israel Air Force. His organizational and administrative skills are widely praised; shortly after his arrival in Kharkiv, he initiated major renovations of JAFI premises that were completed on time and on budget. The new interior is admired for its esthetics and efficiency. (See photos next page.)

Although aliyah has decreased during the last several years, JAFI remains very busy, offering many activities and classes. Ulpan classes enroll 560 people. An active program and excellent facilities (see photo, next page) attract 710 young people between the ages of 14 and 22 to the JAFI youth club. Sochnut has recently started a new program for young adults between the ages of 25 and 35 who “are not involved anywhere,” said Mr. Zakman. This group meets on Sundays for “family days” that include many activities for children. The Open University distance learning program enrolls 970 adults; as in other cities, courses in Jewish history appear to be the most popular. Various aliyah clubs enroll a total of 1,784 individuals. The computer room in the center is very active, offering classes to different groups and facilitating e-mail communication between local parents and their children who study in Israel.

Young people continue to be attracted to the different education programs offered in Israel, reported Mr. Zakman. Na’aleh (high school in Israel) enrolls 32 new pupils from Kharkiv, Sela (university in Israel) enrolls 34 new Kharkiv-area students, and A’le enrolls six from the Kharkiv region. (A’le is a new program in Beersheva that accepts graduates of two-year engineering institutes in the post-Soviet states. The Beersheva course is two years in length, combining an ulpan and two years of additional engineering courses that lead to a B.S. degree.)

Soon after his arrival in Kharkiv, Mr. Zakman began renovations to JAFI premises, which are located in the center of Kharkiv. The entryway, seen at left, seeks to create an Israeli atmosphere, incorporating Jerusalem stone and Jewish symbols. Offices also were renovated, creating more open space. The Simcha Youth Club, shown above, is located on the top floor and has ample room for a varied youth program.

JAFI expects to operate a very busy summer camp season in 2003, said Mr. Zakman. Approximately 2100 youngsters are registered for seven camp sessions, each accommodating 300 children and/or youth for seven days. In fact, the camp sessions are oversubscribed. Mr. Zakman noted that no fees are charged; therefore, some families apparently feel no obligation to notify JAFI if they change their minds and decide not to send their child to camp. Mr. Zakman thinks that registration fees, even of modest amount, might encourage families to honor their statement of intent and actually enroll their children in the designated camp session, thus permitting JAFI to develop more valid plans for each encampment. The camp site is located near Kharkiv.

In response to a question, Mr. Zakman said that JAFI absorption of the formal education portfolio probably would lead to an expansion of the JAFI education staff, which currently consists of one professional educator. Both the Chabad and OU day schools are in the Hephzibah program. JAFI will endeavor to offer more professional assistance to the schools and to increase their Zionist orientation.

74. Similar installations, i.e., Consulates General and Israel Cultural Centers, exist in three other Ukrainian cities -- Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odesa. See pp. 33-35 for a record of the writer’s meeting with Ariel Datel, the Israeli Consul General in Dnipropetrovsk.

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