Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

Expansion of its portfolio to include formal Jewish education further enhances the image of the Jewish Agency, an agency perceived as dynamic and eager for collaborative endeavors. At the same time, the future of Nativ is questioned. Its role and presence are significantly diminished by the transfer of formal Jewish education activity to the Jewish Agency.10

Although located in Kyiv, a project concerning Babi Yar has attracted considerable attention across Ukraine, no less so in areas visited by the writer. Several years ago the American Jewish Joint Distribution Community (JDC; known in most areas of the post-Soviet-states as Joint) announced the forthcoming development of a Jewish community center near the site of the Babi Yar September 1941 massacre of Kyiv Jews.11 The new center, said Joint, would feature cultural activities designed to show a Jewish renaissance in an area associated previously with death and destruction of Jews; further, it would accommodate new Holocaust research and education facilities. Opposition emerged almost immediately, focusing on: (1) proximity of the proposed structure to the remains of Holocaust victims; (2) insensitivity to the fact that non-Jews also were murdered at Babi Yar, thus causing a potential community relations problem; (3) intrusion of a new structure into the existing park-like setting surrounding current monuments at Babi Yar; and (4) failure of JDC to involve local Jews in substantive discussions about such a major project. The controversy has escalated in recent months following the formation in April 2003 of a group of high-profile Kyiv intellectuals opposed to the community center; their major objections appear to focus on Jewish ‘appropriation’ of a tragedy with multiethnic aspects and perceived JDC arrogance in its consideration of the issues involved.

Although local Jewish populations across Ukraine have established monuments at local Holocaust sites, many also are concerned about development of appropriate national Holocaust monuments in Kyiv, which is both the capital of Ukraine and the location of Babi Yar, the largest Holocaust site in the country. Jewish community leaders in eastern Ukraine with whom the writer spoke all were familiar with the dispute in Kyiv. All favored a JDC withdrawal from its original plans and a new orientation toward development of a dedicated Holocaust research and educational center and a conventional Jewish community center on separate sites elsewhere in Kyiv.12


1. Founded in 1778 on the banks of the Dnipr River, Dnipropetrovsk was known until 1926 as Ekaterinoslav in honor of Catherine II (Catherine the Great) whose troops conquered the territory. As the Soviet Union consolidated its power in the 1920’s, place names associated with the tsarist period were changed to reflect Communist control.13  Currently the third largest city in Ukraine, following Kyiv and Kharkiv, the population of Dnipropetrovsk is about 1.1 million. It was a closed city until mid-1990 due to its extensive military industry, particularly Yuzhmash, an enormous installation manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missiles, booster rockets, and related products. Historically, the city has been an important source of leadership for the former Soviet Union and for post-Soviet Ukraine. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko, and current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma all spent significant portions of their careers in important leadership positions in the city.

Dnipropetrovsk presents contrasting and conflicting images to the visitor. On one level, its politicians and businessmen continue to wield significant political power in the country. Evidence of new prosperity is highly visible. New shops and new upscale apartment buildings attest to the availability of discretionary income in Dnipropetrovsk. Private vehicles clog the streets. However, Dnipropetrovsk is located in the economic rustbelt area of Ukraine, much of its heavy industry base obsolescent and many of its citizens unemployed. One indicator of its economic distress is the reality that the rate of Jewish emigration from the city is among the highest in the country.

2. Jews have lived in the area, part of the old Pale of Settlement, since the late eighteenth century. By 1897, the Jewish population of Ekaterinoslav had reached 41,240, more than one-third of the entire city at that time. Pogroms occurred in 1881, 1882, and 1905; the last was the most devastating, killing 67 and wounding more than 100 people. Prior to the consolidation of Soviet authority in the 1920s, the Jewish community was highly organized, maintaining a diverse network of Jewish religious, educational, and cultural institutions. It was an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. A small Karaite community had its own prayer house.

A decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, Dnipropetrovsk is once again an important center of both Zionism and the Chabad movement. Its economic circumstances, as noted, stimulate aliyah; however, the departure of local Jews to Israel should not be viewed merely as a response to adverse local economic conditions. The State of Israel has a strong image in the city, reflecting the Zionist views of Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the presence of many Israelis as teachers and other community professionals, ties between local Jewish and Israeli institutions, a stream of capable shlichim (emissaries) of Israeli organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and Nativ (formerly Lishkat Hakesher), and continuing bonds between local Jews and their family members and friends in Israel. Between 30,000 and 35,000 Jews are believed to reside in contemporary Dnipropetrovsk.

Mrs. Chana Kaminezki cuts the hair of her son, Reuven, during the child’s upsherenish (traditional hair-cutting on a boys’ third birthday). Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki and Rabbi Abraham Lipskier (father of Chana Kaminezki) stand on the other side of their son and grandson respectively in June 2003 in front of the ark at the Golden Rose Choral Synagogue in Dnipropetrovsk.

(Photo: from the website of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community, posted June 16, 2003. The site is available in both Russian- and English-language versions.)

Dnipropetrovsk is the center of the Chabad movement in Ukraine. Honoring the lengthy tenure as rabbi and subsequent persecution by the KGB of his father in the city, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson appointed Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki to the post of Chief Rabbi of Dnipropetrovsk in 1990. Rabbi Kaminezki is widely recognized as one of the most effective community rabbis in all of the post-Soviet successor states. The head office of the Chabad umbrella group for Ukraine, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Ukraine, is located in the city.

3. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, a native of Israel who holds both Israeli and American citizenship, has been the guiding force behind the development of a comprehensive system of Jewish education (preschool, day school, yeshiva katana and machon for boys and girls respectively, special education programs, yeshiva, teachers’ college), residential programs for children in distress, the first home for Jewish aged in the successor states, and restoration of a choral synagogue. Additionally, he works collaboratively with other organizations in establishing further institutions, such as the best organized Holocaust research and education center in Ukraine.14

The development of Jewish institutions continues, although the most recently completed installations are relatively small in scale. A small kosher café (three tables and a counter) has been opened on the ground floor of the Jewish community center attached to the synagogue and is doing well. A store featuring kosher food, Jewish books, and various other items, some imported from Israel and some manufactured in Ukraine, is located in the JCC basement and also is doing well. The growing Chabad community in the city requires such services.

Construction of a new preschool is proceeding and should be completed by the beginning of the school year in September 2003; it will accommodate approximately 160 children, replacing the current facility, which is unable to accommodate the large number of local Jewish children whose parents wish to enroll them in the school. A local donor has come forward with a lead gift of $1.5 million for construction of new and expansive facilities for the Tkuma Holocaust Scientific-Educational Center;15 additional funding will be required from the Joint Distribution Committee and several foundations for its construction. A new mikveh will be built near the synagogue in a separate building with its own private entrance. Beit Baruch, the home for Jewish aged, requires additional funding; however, it is likely that this program will accept ten new residents, mainly emergency cases, before the end of the summer.

10. Nativ currently manages four Israeli consulates and Israel Cultural Centers in Ukraine, as well as similar entities in Russia. The four Ukrainian consulates and ICC’s are located in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv, and Odesa. See pp. 33-34 and 58-59 for reports on these institutions in Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.
11. Approximately 33,000 Jews were shot at Babi Yar during 36 hours on September 29-30, 1941. At least 100,000 people, the majority (perhaps 70,000) of whom were Jews, were killed there during World War II. In all, approximately 1.85 million of the 2.5 million Jews living within the borders of contemporary Ukraine in 1939 were killed by German forces and local collaborators during the Holocaust. Germany invaded Ukraine in June 1941.
12. Some individuals were strong in their condemnation of JDC, referring to the matter as a “scandal” or predicting that “heads will roll” (within JDC). Several small Jewish community centers exist in Kyiv, but none offers the comprehensive array of activities available in modern American JCC’s. The absence of community sports facilities is cited frequently as a major problem for the Kyiv Jewish community. The JCC planned for the Babi Yar site would not include significant sports premises.
13. Grigoriy Ivanovich Petrovsky (1878-1958) was prominent local pre-revolutionary political agitator, exile, and subsequent political figure. He is buried in the Kremlin wall in Moscow.
14. Most of these institutions are described below and/or in previous reports by the writer.
15.  See the writer’s Jewish Community Life in Eastern Ukraine, April 12-28, 2002, pp. 12-14, for a description of this project. For more information on current Tkuma programs, see pp. 30-32 in this report.

Prev | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | Next

Click here to view/download a PDF version of this report.
To view/print the above file you must have the free Adobe Acrobat reader. Click here to download the reader.
  Copyright 2007 Baecore Group