Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

Among the most popular aliyah programs, said Ms. Shapiro, are Na’aleh and Sela, i.e., high school and university in Israel. Planned absorption programs also are well-liked, she continued, referring to municipal absorption systems. In many of these programs, representatives of various Israeli municipalities come to Donetsk in search of qualified employees for specific industries in their cities. The Israeli emissaries interview candidates, refer them to particular workplaces, and assist families in resettlement, entering the Israel workforce, etc.

JAFI in Donetsk will operate six one-week camp sessions in the summer of 2003, said Ms. Shapiro. These will include two sessions for adolescents between the ages of 14 and 17, and one each for children 8-10, children 10-12, university students, and young people recruited by Betar.

JAFI and the Chabad synagogue cooperate closely in several endeavors, continued Ms. Shapiro. The two groups publish a joint monthly newspaper and organize common community celebrations of all Jewish and Israeli holidays. Jewish identity courses organized by JAFI are open to all Jews, not just those who are planning to emigrate to Israel.


44. The city of Zaporizhya (known until 1921 as Aleksandrovsk) is the administrative center of Zaporizhya oblast, which lies immediately south of Dnipropetrovsk oblast. The cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhya are about 50 miles apart. Zaporizhya was established in the late sixteenth century by roving bands of local Cossacks known as Zaporizhya Cossacks. Their descendants remain in the area today, although they are less numerous and less well known than the Don Cossacks to the east and Kuban Cossacks to the southeast.

Extensive deposits of lignite as well as electricity generated by a hydroelectric station on the Dnipr River supported development of an economy based on metallurgy, chemicals, and transportation equipment. Agricultural production (especially winter wheat, corn, and potatoes) in the oblast sustains a food processing industry.

The current population of the city of Zaporizhya is approximately 880,000, including 6,000 to 8,000 Jews. Jewish emigration, predominantly to Israel, is substantial, reflecting the economic distress afflicting the city.

45. Rabbi Nochum Ehrentroi, a Chabad hasid from Israel, came to Zaporizhya in 1996 in a dual capacity of community rabbi and JDC representative in the city. JDC had renovated a large synagogue building, which includes a spacious prayer hall, several smaller halls and classrooms, offices, a kitchen, and a dining hall accommodating 100 people. In 1998, JDC abruptly terminated payment of Rabbi Ehrentroi’s salary in response to budgetary pressures. However, Rabbi Ehrentroi remained in the city and continued to work on behalf of the local Jewish community, dependent upon the salary of his wife, a teacher at Gymnasia Alef, then the only Jewish day school in the city. After several months, the Federation of Jewish Communities (Chabad) assumed responsibility for Rabbi Ehrentroi’s salary, as JDC doubtless assumed that it would.

46. Gymnasia Alef was established in 1992, an early project of the Israeli Ministry of Education, which was then developing secular Jewish schools in the post-Soviet states in the hope that such institutions would build Jewish identity and encourage aliyah of pupils and their families to Israel. The school now is at capacity enrollment of 350 youngsters in grades one through 11. Middle and high school classes convene in a traditional school building, and lower school classes meet in a nearby small former preschool building.

Outlining Jewish studies classes for the writer, Principal Dolina Shalmina said that youngsters have three classes weekly in Hebrew and one in Yiddish, two in Jewish history, and one each in Jewish tradition, geography of Israel, and Jewish literature. Additionally, the school sponsors Jewish dance classes and a children’s choir that sings many Jewish songs. Three Israeli teachers employed under the Israeli Ministry of Education Hephzibah program are responsible for the Jewish studies curriculum.


Dolina Shalmina is Principal of Gymnasia Alef in Zaporizhya. Not-withstanding a reputation for anti-Zionism, Israeli flags, banners, and other symbols of the Jewish state are highly visible in the school.


Over the years, said Ms. Shalmina, more than 220 youngsters from the school have emigrated to Israel, some enrolling in the Na’aleh high school program and others entering the Sela pre-university program. In response to a question, she estimated that “five or six” graduates of the class of 2003 would enroll in post-high school programs in Israel.

Ms. Shalmina said that Gymnasia Alef admits all youngsters who are eligible for aliyah to Israel under the Israel Law of Return. She acknowledged that “many” pupils are not Jewish according to halakha. Many children in the school, she continued, are from broken homes. She estimated that as many as 85 percent of the pupils have health problems, in some cases nervous and digestive disorders that can be traced to home tensions and general impoverishment.

The school has no kitchen. A non-kosher lunch is prepared by a commercial company that brings the food to the school in individual metal containers. Additionally, a candy and soft drink table is close to Ms. Shalmina’s office; its products are available to those who can afford to buy them.

47. Rabbi Nochum Ehrentroi and Mrs. Dina Ehrentroi opened a Chabad school in Zaporizhya in 2000.77 The school began the 2002-2003 school year with 160 youngsters in grades one through eight, and plans to add ninth through eleventh grades as the current eighth graders progress through the school. By the end of the recently completed 2002-2003 school year, only 145 of the 160 pupils enrolled in September remained in Zaporizhya. The others had emigrated with their families, most to Israel. Mrs. Ehrentroi stated that an enrollment of more than 160 youngsters is expected in September 2003. Ninety percent of the pupils are Jewish according to halakha, said Mrs. Ehrentroi, and most of the non-Jewish parents are interested in pursuing conversion.

Strongly Zionist in orientation, the Chabad school is known in the city as the “Israeli school,” notwithstanding the reality that only Gymnasia Alef receives Israeli government funding. The school building is large and attractively furnished. A new kitchen and dining room, which has the capacity to prepare meals for the school population as well as 500 additional people, opened during the 2002-2003 school year. Already operating two JDC-subsidized dining halls for elderly Jews (in the synagogue and in the school), the Ehrentroi’s would like to expand the existing nutrition program for Jewish seniors to include more school-based meals as well as home-delivered meals. However, JDC will not provide any funding for expansion of food service to additional Jewish elderly, so the Ehrentroi’s are seeking other sponsors.

Beginning in September 2003, the school will accept boarding students in a new dormitory wing of the school. The dormitory has a capacity of 36 youngsters, with most children and teens assigned to rooms of four. Each resident has his or her own bed, desk and chair, and built-in personal drawer and cabinet space. Each room also has a closet and an attached full bathroom. The dormitory also has a common room. The facility is very attractively furnished.

At the time of the writer’s visit in late May, 2003, the Ehrentroi’s said that 12 youngsters already had registered for the dormitory program that would begin in September. They do not expect, and do not want, a full dormitory in September because they would like to start small and learn from their experience before operating at full capacity. They have advertised the school on local television in the past, they said, and now are advertising the dormitory as well. In addition, they have signed a contract with local authorities to accept Jewish children in distress in to the dormitory.

The Ehrentroi’s expressed hope that transfer of the Hephzibah Jewish school program from the Ministry of Education in Israel to the Jewish Agency will enable them to engage at least one Israel-trained Jewish studies teacher subsidized by the Israeli government. Ideally, they would like to engage a working couple under this program.78

In addition to strengthening the Jewish studies staff, the Ehrentroi’s would like to construct an additional building on school grounds. The new building would include a large sports hall and other recreational facilities. The current building has a small gymnasium that is inadequate for older pupils. However, the physical fitness program can be enhanced within the current building if the school had the funds to purchase fitness equipment. A specialist has developed plans for a fitness room; the necessary equipment would cost about $10,000, said Rabbi Ehrentroi.

Chabad also operates a preschool in another location. Approximately 45 children are enrolled in this program.

48. World Jewish Relief, a British organization with a mandate similar to that of the Joint Distribution Committee, is active in this area of Ukraine. Working with JDC, WJR has obtained funding from a private donor in England for the construction of a Jewish community building that will accommodate both the current hesed (see below) and an existing Jewish community center. The new facility is to be developed in an existing structure that is centrally located and easily accessible. However, only after scheduling an opening date for winter 2003 and beginning renovations on the structure did JDC realize that the structure’s foundation is too weak to accommodate the planned facility. After great embarrassment, construction plans were changed and renovations are proceeding. In response to a question about the planned occupancy date for the new building, an employee of the hesed responded to the writer, “Один Б-г знает” (“Only G-d knows”).

77. Upon the opening of the Chabad school, individuals associated with Gymnasia Alef mounted a campaign to force closure of the Chabad institution and to provoke a demand for revocation of the Ukrainian visas of Rabbi and Mrs. Ehrentroi. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, flew into the city with 14 other rabbis in a chartered aircraft in a show of support for the Ehrentrois and the new school. Rabbi Kaminezki in neighboring Dnipropetrovsk applied additional pressure on behalf of the Ehrentois. The attacks ended.
78. Mrs. Ehrentroi, who is a certified teacher, teaches many of the Jewish-studies classes for older children, and the school employs several graduates of the Beit Chana seminary in Dnipropetrovsk to teach younger pupils. Additionally, Chabad young women from an Israeli teachers’ seminary come to the city for their student teaching assignments.

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