Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

Many clients currently on hesed lists require additional services, said Mr. Khasin, but JDC has imposed stricter standards and the hesed cannot fulfill peoples’ needs. The only sector of the hesed budget that has increased is for purchase of medicines, which are very expensive. Western charitable groups send some medications to the hesed, he added, but the customs duties on these are very steep. Many people employed by the hesed work “from their hearts,” receiving salaries of only $50 monthly. He cannot afford to pay them more.

40. School #99, Ohr Menachem, is the only Jewish day school in Donetsk. Located in a large former public school building on ample grounds, the school enrolled 324 pupils at the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year and 300 when it closed for the summer. All who left between September and June had emigrated with their families to other countries.


As a tool to attract new pupils, current pupils distributed 1500 copies of the flyer shown at right. The flyer encourages families “not to miss your chance” to do the right thing for their child. The Ohr Menachem Donetsk Jewish School is accepting youngsters in grades 1-11. The school offers free transportation, two kosher meals each day, a high standard of education, computer and English classes from first grade, and a well-rounded education including creative and artistic activities and physical education. The flyer also mentions the school choir and dance groups, and notes that the school curriculum is accepted by institutions of higher education in Israel. Applicants must present proof of Jewish heritage. The school also advertises in local newspapers and recruits youngsters who attend the Chabad summer camp.


Most grades offer three sections in each subject in order to accommodate youngsters of various skill levels. The school has done very well in local and national competitions in mathematics, chemistry, and computer technology.

Almost all pupils participate in social projects, which focus on visiting elderly Jews. Young children often are accompanied by their parents on such visits. Older pupils also clean an old Jewish cemetery that is located near the school.

In addition to its conventional curriculum, which offers nine classes in Jewish studies (including four in Hebrew language) each week, School #99 also offers a more intensive machon program that enrolled 29 girls in grades 5, 6, and 9 in 2002-2003. The machon will expand over time. A yeshiva for boys is operated in the boys’ dormitory, which is described below.

Having grown on an incremental basis, the school graduated its first class of eleventh grade pupils in June 2003. The majority of the 24 graduates will enter institutions of higher education in Donetsk, said school administrators, but two will go to Israel in the Sela program and three are planning to emigrate to Germany with their parents.


School #99 has an active creative arts program. Its halls are decorated with well-designed and colorful displays on Jewish themes. The mural seen at left is prominently located in the school lobby and depicts the exodus from Egypt. Faces of local Jewish leaders and school officials have been painted on several of the figures.


41. The boys’ residence in Donetsk is in a newly remodeled building close to the synagogue. It currently accommodates 27 boys in grades five through 11; five are residents of Donetsk and 22 live in smaller cities and towns throughout Donetsk oblast. All boys in the residence are enrolled in a yeshiva program that is centered in the dormitory building.

Two to four boys live in small, austere rooms that seem unnaturally neat. One shower room and one toilet facility are located on each of two residential floors. The building also contains classrooms for general and religious subjects, a dining hall, and limited recreational space. The school has made arrangement for rental of physical education facilities at a technical institution located next door, and specialists come into the school for classes in art, music, and other subjects. Boys also attend concerts and participate in various excursions.

The residential program is coordinated by Yulia Efimovna Magunova, a vivacious psychologist whose goal, she said, is to make the residence seem like a good, warm home. In fact, the residence is called a warm home (теплы дом).

The photo at top shows yeshiva katana boys at lunch in the dormitory. The women at the front of the room are (left to right) Yulia Magunova, Rebbitzen Dina Vishedski, and the writer.

The room shown at right is in the boys’ dormitory. It is used for ritual circumcisions of boys and men.

42. The girls’ dormitory is temporarily located in a wing of an old house that belongs to a Jewish woman who emigrated to the United States. The facility currently accommodates seven girls between the ages of 11 and 15. Girls live in two upstairs bedrooms, three or four girls in each of two rooms. As in the boys’ home, the rooms are austere with few decorations. Mattresses are framed in old iron bedsteads that appear to have been in the building since its construction.

Plans are in place to purchase a former kindergarten building in the same neighborhood, which is close to the synagogue, for conversion into a modern dormitory structure for girls. The sale is expected to close in September 2003. Renovations will require six months, say community officials. The new facility should accommodate 35 to 40 girls.

Rabbi Vishedski hopes that George Rohr of New York and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who provided substantial funding for renovation of the boys’ dormitory, will be forthcoming with support for the new dormitory for girls as well. Rabbi Vishedski also will look to Rabbi Sholom Duchman of Colel Chabad in New York and to local donors for financial assistance.

A wing of an old house (photo at left) houses the girls’ dormitory. Five of the seven girls in the dormitory gather after school in the living room (photo above); two are working on a project at a rear table, and three are in the foreground, chatting with one of Rabbi Vishedski’s daughters (wearing glasses and a striped shirt), who is a school friend.


43. Alex Shapiro, head of the Donetsk JAFI office, was in Israel at the time of the writer’s visit. In his absence, the writer spoke with his wife, Lena Shapiro, who also is employed by the Jewish Agency in Donetsk.

Ms. Shapiro said that the rate of aliyah to Israel from Donetsk oblast has decreased. She attributed the decline to: the situation in Israel, both the violence and economic hardship stemming from the violence; diminution in the aliyah pool, reflecting demographic decline; and some improvement in the Donetsk local economy, which made local Jews less eager to leave Ukraine. She said that she is confident about future aliyah from the region, especially from smaller cities and towns where the Jewish Agency is able to do considerable outreach work.

JAFI premises in Donetsk consist of several ulpan classrooms, a computer classroom, one large multi-purpose room, and staff offices. The center has videoconference capabilities, which facilitates ongoing communications between parents in Donetsk and their children who have resettled in Israel.

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