Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

As the most modern and well-appointed facility of its kind in Ukraine, Beit Baruch receives many visitors. Various Jewish community groups, especially the day school and the local Jewish Agency representation, send musical troupes under their sponsorship to perform for the residents. The Jewish day school sponsors a foster grandparent program in which pupils are paired with Beit Baruch residents. Youngsters visit the home during all holiday periods.36

10. Rabbi Menachem Lepkivker, now in his sixth year as representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Dnipropetrovsk, declined to meet with the writer, saying that JDC now has a policy requiring all “journalists and other people who write reports” to direct all of their inquiries through the JDC New York office. In a subsequent (July 7, 2003) brief conversation in New York with Steven Schwager, Executive Vice-President of JDC, Mr. Schwager told the writer that no such policy exists and that she should have called him in New York from Dnipropetrovsk when the problem arose. Rabbi Lepkivker also declined to meet with the writer during her most recent previous visit to Dnipropetrovsk, in November 2002; on that occasion, he claimed a lack of time, notwithstanding the fact that the writer was in the city for more than a week.37

11. Alexander Sokolovsky has been director of the Rosalind Gurwin Jewish Community Center in Dnipropetrovsk since September 2002. The JCC is directly behind, and attached to, the Golden Rose Choral Synagogue (Chabad) in the city. Offices of Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki and others associated with Chabad occupy the second floor of the four-story JCC.

In response to a question, Mr. Sokolovsky said that the most recent addition to the Dnipropetrovsk JCC agenda is a music and dance program that focuses on klezmer music, but also includes Israeli and modern dance, choral music, and variety performances. The JCC employs “three or four” skilled teachers who offer instruction in these disciplines, especially in those instruments that are common in klezmer music, such as violin and clarinet.

With funding from JDC, the JCC will operate two family camps on the shore of the Black Sea this summer, each accommodating 270 individuals in a ten-day session. The major goal of the family camps, said Mr. Sokolovsky, is to build Jewish identity. Experience shows that many participants will begin to affiliate with Jewish institutions, such as the JCC, after the camp. Some participants also develop new friendships with other Jews.

The JCC is continuing most of its traditional programs, including clubs for women, chess enthusiasts, dance groups, children, and youth. Among the most popular activities for youth are chess and intellectual games. Mr. Sokolovsky would like to develop sewing and metal-crafting clubs, but lacks the resources to do so.

The Hillel student group convenes under JCC auspices. Mr. Sokolovsky said that the group currently includes about 70 young people, only about 25 of whom are active on a regular basis. On that very day (May 25), a large number of local Hillel members were on a day-long bus tour, visiting various historic sites of Jewish interest in the region. Mr. Sokolovsky remarked that Hillel should attract a larger number of students, but faces two problems. It lacks resources to develop the types of programs that appeal to young people, and many younger Jews are assimilated and do not want to acknowledge their Jewish heritage. Those who do acknowledge their Jewish identity are only the “tip of the iceberg” of the younger Jewish population, he said, and they are precisely the Jews who are emigrating. For the past eight years, noted Mr. Sokolovsky, Ukrainian passports (internal identification documents) have not listed the “nationality” of passport holders; therefore, Jews are not required to acknowledge their Jewish backgrounds.

In response to a question from the writer whether antisemitism is a deterrent to Jewish identification, Mr. Sokolovsky said that anti-Jewish bigotry is strongly related to political and economic stability in Ukraine. If conditions deteriorate, antisemitism will increase. Antisemitism exists in Ukraine, he continued, but it is mainly below the surface in Dnipropetrovsk. It is much worse in western Ukraine [where Ukrainian nationalism is much stronger].

12. The Jewish day school (School #144) in Dnipropetrovsk occupies a three-building campus that had been used as a boarding school during the Soviet period. The largest and centrally-positioned structure is the main building and accommodates offices, most classrooms, and a kitchen and lunchroom. The second building stands to the left of the main facility; it accommodates a yeshiva katana for approximately 70 boys, a heder for preschool boys, and a sports hall. The third building, which is located to the right of the main building, is used by a machon for approximately 50 girls and also includes a three-room ORT computer center that is used by all pupils. In all, about 600 pupils were enrolled in the school at the end of the 2002-2003 school year, including about 120 in the yeshiva katana and machon, which offer more intensive Jewish studies programs for boys and girls respectively.

Georgy Skarakhod, a former professor of mathematics at a local university, was completing his third year as principal of the school at the time of the writer’s visit. Mr. Skarakhod said that the school is now in its twelfth year of operation:38 approximately 600 have graduated from it to date, many of whom have emigrated to Israel. Some have gone to the United States and to other countries.

School #144 is one of the best in the city, said Mr. Skarakhod, known especially for its computer technology program. However, he continued, its most important strength is its Jewish studies program, which includes three to four classes weekly in Hebrew and two to three weekly in Jewish tradition.39 A four-page article about the school appeared in a recent issue of The Modern School, a national journal for school principals. The article focused on the technology curriculum and even printed a syllabus of its content. The Ukrainian government also is interested in methods used by the school to build Jewish identity among pupils; recent surveys show that many Ukrainians lack a strong Ukrainian identity, perceiving themselves as generic Slavs or as individuals without any ethnic loyalties.40  Mr. Skarakhod said that School #144 pupils feel that they are Jewish because of the atmosphere in the school, school celebrations of Jewish and Israeli holidays, and a music curriculum that includes Israeli and Hasidic music. Parents of youngsters may lack such a strong Jewish identity, continued Mr. Skarakhod, but he believes that many pupils bring their Jewish identities home with them.

Many school officials and teachers in the city are familiar with School #144, said Mr. Skarakhod, because the school has been the site for various seminars, including one for principals and others for teachers on the use of computers in different academic subjects, such as geography. The school attracts highly-qualified teachers to its own faculty because teaching conditions are excellent and the school pays bonuses to the best teachers.

Mr. Skarakhod described several special programs in the school. Thirty-five tenth graders from Dnipropetrovsk, along with counterparts from Chabad schools in Kharkiv and Donetsk, spent four days in May on a fast-moving bus tour of Jewish sites in Ukraine, visiting Kyiv (including Babi Yar), Zhytomyr, Berdichev, Bratslav, Uman, and Odesa. Their focus was on general Jewish history, the Holocaust, Jewish partisan activity in World War II, and, in Odesa, Jewish literature. Ninth graders joined with Boston Jewish ninth graders in writing an English/Russian/Hebrew book about the Holocaust; each group interviewed Holocaust survivors in their own cities. Ten Sunday schools in the Boston area have arrangements with the day school in which letters, drawings and paintings, and souvenirs are exchanged. Boston provides special funding for the lead English classroom in the school, thus enabling the school to purchase electronic equipment, English-language videos, and English books. A group of Boston teens comes to Dnipropetrovsk each winter for a winter camp, which permits School #144 pupils to practice their English with American Jewish counterparts between the ages of 14 and 16. Twelve Dnipropetrovsk teenagers will go to Haifa (the Boston Partnership 2000 community) during the summer for a camp experience with Haifa teens; Boston pupils were supposed to join them, but are not doing so this year because of the situation in Israel.

As soon as school is dismissed for the year in mid-June, the Jewish community will begin a major repair project, replacement of the school boiler. Following the explosion of a school boiler in Kyiv several years ago in which a number of school children were killed, the Ukrainian government introduced a new regulation requiring that all school boilers be housed in buildings separate from those used by children. The Ministry of Education was ordered to cover the costs of such renovations in every school, but it lacks the funds to do so. Nonetheless, local fire departments are threatening closure of schools if boilers are not relocated. The Jewish community has decided to relocate the school boiler to a separate structure at a cost estimated at between $50,000 and $70,000; they do not know if reimbursement from the state with be forthcoming.

As he has done in previous years, Mr. Skarakhod expressed the hope that the Jewish community will find funding sources for construction of a fourth campus building. The new building, he said, should include larger and more sophisticated facilities for sports and for art, and also include space for student clubs and extra-curricular activities.

Girls in the kindergarten class of the machon use playground equipment during recess without any adult supervision. When one of the youngsters fell from the apparatus seen at left, Mr. Skarakhod, who happened to be in the area, came to her aid. No teacher or other adult worker in the machon observed the incident. The child was not hurt.


36. In a separate discussion with Georgy Skarakhod, principal of the day school, Mr. Skarakhod told the writer that two of the foster grandmothers in the program had died. Unaware that the two women had passed away, the foster grandchildren arrived at Beit Baruch for a holiday meeting, only to be told that their foster grandparents had “gone away” (ушли). The pupils discovered the real circumstances on their own, much to their distress. Mr. Skarakhod commented that the school would have arranged psychological counseling for the youngsters in a timely manner if Beit Baruch had informed school officials before the visit that the two women had died.
37.  See p. 43 regarding a similar occurrence when the writer was in Kharkiv.
38. During the writer’s first visit to Dnipropetrovsk in 1992, the Jewish day school was located in a wing of a conventional public school. School #144 remains the only Jewish day school in the city, an anomaly in post-Soviet cities with Jewish populations exceeding 20,000.
39. Pupils enrolled in the yeshiva and machon have longer school days and a more intensive Jewish studies program.
40. This issue is of great interest to many Ukrainian government officials and educators.

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