Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

55. Approximately 10,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust in the Krivyy Rig area, many of them shot at the edge of old iron mines so that their bodies tumbled into the pits. A small museum in the local hesed (Hesed Chana) chronicles the history of Jewish life in the region, including the Holocaust. Additionally, said Rabbi Edri, pupils in the day school go on expeditions to different Holocaust sites.

On Victory Day (May 9), the community invited all Jewish World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors to a commemoration at the day school. Some participants were so overwhelmed at the attention that they received that they cried.

56. Rabbi Edri has established a Jewish community philanthropic fund. In all, he said, about 100 local Jews contribute funds to the community. Of these, between 30 and 40 are “serious” donors. He is very surprised and pleased by the extent of this local support. Rabbi Edri said that the Jewish Agency, Joint Distribution Committee, and Global Jewish Assistance and Relief Network also have provided significant assistance to the Jews of Krivyy Rig.


57. The evolution of the Jewish Agency for Israel in the last several years from a “travel agency to a truly Jewish agency.”79 is one of the most significant developments in contemporary post-Soviet Jewish life. The transformation began several years ago when JAFI introduced Jewish identity modules into its standard Hebrew-language ulpan courses. Recognizing that seven decades of Soviet suppression of Jewish identification had produced a nominally Jewish population that was highly assimilated and disinclined to bond closely with the Jewish people or with the state of Israel, JAFI developed programs designed to bring post-Soviet Jews closer to their Jewish heritage. Wisely, it engaged local rabbis in this endeavor, gaining their respect and cooperation.

Such collaborative efforts, which extend beyond the rabbinate into other sectors of post-Soviet Jewish life, have gained new respect for the Jewish Agency. Alex Katz, the head of the JAFI delegation in Ukraine and Moldova, has been a pivotal figure in the advancement of this policy.

The addition of the post-Soviet formal Jewish education portfolio to the Jewish Agency mandate further strengthens the JAFI position in the post-Soviet states. Critical to its continuing success, both in the strengthening of Jewish identity among post-Soviet Jews and in ensuring collaboration with the rabbinic establishment, is the placement of qualified Israeli teachers in many of the more than 50 Jewish day schools now operating in the post-Soviet states that do not have such teachers. Failure to meet this test will dissipate much of the good will JAFI has gained in recent years and seriously strain its credibility.

58. Although many individual Nativ (Lishkat Haksher) emissaries in the post-Soviet states remain respected in the communities in which they are posted and their organization continues to provide valuable services to local Jewish populations, the larger organization is but a shadow of its former self and is shrinking further. Established in 1952 as an adjunct to the office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, Nativ is a Cold War institution that has been unable to find a place for itself in the 21st century. It is expiring slowly and inelegantly. Recalling its past achievements, it deserves a dignified termination and a thoughtful transfer of its remaining responsibilities to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

59. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee remains a large and critically important organization in post-Soviet Jewish life. Notwithstanding its great resources and authority, it is strangely defensive in its conduct. It has made major ill-informed decisions, e.g., reducing its own budgetary allocations for the welfare of impoverished elderly Jews and planning a Jewish community center for an inappropriate site in Kyiv (Babi Yar); nonetheless, it persists in these decisions even in the face of substantial constructive opposition. That it declines to discuss its local operations with “journalists and other people who write reports,” as this writer was told, is further indication of the patronizing and condescending attitude for which the organization is heavily criticized by local post-Soviet Jews. The work of JDC is too important to be tarnished in this manner.

60. The impact of a declining Jewish population can be seen in static or declining enrollments in Jewish day schools, particularly in those schools with strict requirements regarding the halachic status of pupils. This situation will be exacerbated by the continuing emigration of younger Jews who will bear their own children in other countries. It is likely that most post-Soviet rabbis who initiate boarding schools (internats) do so to provide supportive environments for children in distress; however, boarding school programs also increase the available critical mass of pupils necessary for the operation of high-quality schools.

61. In Ukraine, which boasts a disproportionately large number of the more gifted Chabad rabbis in the post-Soviet states, competition between rabbis is emerging in the area of kashrut certification. Competition for the limited number of foreign donors eager to support Chabad operations in the post-Soviet states appears to be constrained, as most rabbis seem to respect existing donor-rabbi relationships; however, the growth of boarding school programs is likely to generate more rivalries as rabbis compete for the small number of Jewish children still residing in smaller cities and towns unable to support local Jewish day schools.

62. However beneficial Jewish day and boarding schools, homes for Jewish elderly, Jewish community centers, and other Jewish community institutions are to Jews in the post Soviet states, construction and operating costs of these programs are costly and are escalating. Several rabbis appear to be seriously overextended in the number of projects that they have initiated as are the international Jewish organizations (JAFI, JDC, Nativ, ORT, GJARN) that are active in the post-Soviet states.

63. The number of local rabbis in Ukraine who are nurturing the development of local Jewish leadership is encouraging, but responsible Jewish lay leadership has yet to emerge on a national level. No Jewish organization represents the national Jewish population of Ukraine.

64. The decline in aliyah to Israel is attributable to many conditions, including shrinking of the Ukrainian Jewish aliyah pool, economic hardship in Israel, some improvement in economic conditions in Ukraine, the intifada in Israel, and the appeal of the German welfare state. Although these factors may appear to be beyond the control of concerned individuals and institutions, much can be done in several areas that might encourage further aliyah. Increased funding of Jewish education, including both formal and informal formats, and greater support for comprehensive absorption programs in Israel should be encouraged.


Betsy Gidwitz
August 8, 2003


Unless otherwise attributed, all translations and photographs in this report are by the writer

79. The writer is borrowing this phrase from one of the rabbis with whom she spoke during the trip covered in this report.

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