Betsy Gidwitx Reports
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Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003
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At its peak, in the late 1990s, the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish day school enrolled approximately 700 pupils. Reflecting Jewish demographic patterns, enrollment has declined over the last several years. School opened in fall with 630 pupils, said Mr. Skarakhod; 40 youngsters emigrated with their families, most to Israel, during the school year. Their departure was partially offset by enrollment during the school year of ten new pupils. Enrollment will decline even further next fall, said Mr. Skarakhod, because the school has made a decision to sharply reduce the number of new pupils who are not halakhically Jewish, i.e., youngsters whose mother is not Jewish. The current non-halakhically Jewish enrollment may be as high as 30 percent, he continued, a proportion that is changing the character of the school. Therefore, the school probably will have only one first grade class next year (instead of two). It also will limit the enrollment of older non-halakhically Jewish youngsters who return to the city with their families from Israel. This policy may be difficult to express in an open manner because, as a public school, the school should appear to be available to everyone. A further complication is that, in some cases, the school cannot determine the true backgrounds of some pupils; identification papers have been lost and others have been forged in the turmoil that has afflicted the country during the last century. Some families really do not know their own history, and others find reasons for, and ways of, inventing fictional histories.

13. Rabbi Meir Stambler is President of the Beit Chana Women’s Pedagogical Seminary and Chairman of the Governing Council of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine (Федерация иудейских общин Украины). The Federation is an umbrella group embracing most Chabad activities in Ukraine; it is a branch of the larger Federation of Jewish Communities of the C.I.S., which covers most Chabad operations in all of the post-Soviet successor states.

Beit Chana was established in 1995 and currently enrolls 170 young women in its different programs. Girls who enter the seminary after ninth grade usually follow a four-year curriculum; those who enter after completion of the eleventh grade pursue a three-year course of studies. Graduates are certified by both Ukrainian and Israeli education authorities to work in one of three fields: early childhood education (pre-school and primary grades), early childhood music education, or child care. An agreement was reached in 2002 with the Crimean State Humanities Institute for new joint four- and five-year courses leading to Bachelor’s degrees in education with a specialty in teaching Hebrew as a second language. Eventually, Beit Chana hopes to offer its own Bachelor’s degree program.


The academic program of Beit Chana is housed in a former pre-school. Officials hope to expand the structure according to the architectural drawing shown at right. However, no funding exists for expansion of the current premises. A separate building serves as a dormitory.

 

According to Rabbi Stambler, between 20 percent and 30 percent of Beit Chana students are not halakhically Jewish upon entrance to the institution. However, he continued, the fact that all students live in one dormitory and are under close supervision at Beit Chana facilitates their conversion to Judaism during their time at the seminary. Faculty members are able to work with each young woman as an individual and to supervise her conversion course.41

Seventy-four graduates of Beit Chana now are working in Chabad day schools throughout the post-Soviet states, said Rabbi Stambler. About 20 graduates work in other Jewish settings, for example, as Hebrew teachers in Jewish Agency ulpans, in the post-Soviet states. Others have gone to Israel or to Germany, where they also work as teachers in various Jewish institutions.

Beit Chana takes great pride in its Center for Information Technology, which was installed with substantial assistance from ORT. The Center teaches basic computer technology, computer skills for teachers, computer education methodology, development of multimedia teaching materials, and related skills. The Jewish Agency for Israel recently established a video-conferencing center at Beit Chana, a program that is available to others in Dnipropetrovsk as well. Beit Chana uses the video-conferencing facility mainly for seminars with instructors in Israel.

Third- and fourth-year students at Beit Chana spend seven weeks in Israel, learning at Orot Israel College, a religious Zionist institution for young women. En route to Israel, the students spend four days in Poland, studying the Holocaust.

Jointly with Ohr Avner, the Chabad education authority, Beit Chana operates Beyachad (Hebrew, Together), a program of continuing education for Beit Chana graduates out in the field. Beyachad holds several seminars annually, provides methodological support by Internet, and publishes pedagogical literature, including material about holidays and teaching guides.

Beit Chana also has developed a Special Needs Education Resource Center that provides 30 youngsters with various disabilities with learning sessions, different therapies, and socializing opportunities several days each week.42 Most of these youngsters are effectively excluded from public school programs because few public school systems in Ukraine offer special education, few public buildings of any kind in Ukraine are handicapped-accessible, and transportation generally is not available. The Center hosts a special-needs education course for Beit Chana students and provides students with opportunities for practice teaching and volunteer activity in a special-needs framework.

The special needs program was initiated in 1999 with support from individuals in the Boston area who are active in the Boston-Dnipropetrovsk kehilla relationship. The Boston partners have provided various forms of assistance to the Dnipropetrovsk center, including teaching materials and equipment, a specially-equipped van for transportation, encouragement and advice for a family support program, and linkages to various educational programs, relevant organizations, and foundations in the United States and Israel.

Beit Chana maintains a website at www.bethana.com.ua. The site is available in Russian, English, and Hebrew versions.

14. Referring to the 18 Ukrainian day schools in the Ohr Avner education program of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine (Федерация иудейских общин Украины), Rabbi Meir Stambler said that only six such schools currently receive financial support from the Israeli Ministry of Education Hephzibah project. He hopes that new Jewish Agency leadership of this project will bring experienced Israeli teachers to the other 12 Ohr Avner schools in Ukraine as well; all of these schools, he said, need “senior master teachers” from Israel. Overall, Rabbi Stambler believes that Jewish Agency management of the program is a positive development because there is “more professionalism” in Sochnut diaspora Jewish education than is the case in the Israeli Ministry of Education.

15. Rabbi Yossi Glick directs children’s and youth programs for the Jewish community, including dormitories that accommodate youngsters from unstable home situations.43 The girls’ residence, which has a capacity of approximately 28 girls, currently houses 16 girls. Forty boys live in very crowded conditions in the boys’ home, which has a designated capacity of 38. (On occasion, said Rabbi Glick, as many as 45 boys have resided in the structure, a former synagogue.) Rabbi Glick, Rabbi Kaminezki, and other Dnipropetrovsk leaders have considered various measures to address the overcrowding in the boys’ home; during the writer’s last visit, in November 2002, discussion centered on development of a boys’ town campus on property to be obtained. However, Rabbi Glick now believes that a large plot of land next to the dormitory will become available in the near future. If so, the community will purchase the land and build a large special-purpose residential facility immediately adjacent to the current building. The current building will be renovated to provide room for community offices and for recreation space for boys who live in the new residence. The community currently has no funding for such a project, but Rabbi Glick and Rabbi Kaminezki believe that money can be raised from individuals interested in helping children. They probably will approach the British-based CIS Development Fund, which has been successful in attracting support for children’s homes in other Ukrainian cities.44 In response to a question, Rabbi Glick said that most of the boys in the home go to Israel upon completion of the yeshiva high school in Dnipropetrovsk.45 In Israel, some enter universities and other enroll in yeshivas.

Four residents of the girls’ home are seen in the photo at left. Most are enrolled in the machon section of the Jewish day school. They also participate in several after-school activities, including music and sports.

 

In a late afternoon visit to the girls’ home, the writer found 12 of the 16 girls present. The other four, she was told, were at a gymnastics class and would return soon. Fifteen of the 16 girls resided at the home during the writer’s last visit in November 2002. Since that time, the girls said, one of the older girls had gone to the United States to join her grandmother who had settled there. Another girl would leave during the summer with her mother to live in Israel, and a 15-year old would join the Na’aleh (high school) program in Israel. Several younger girls expressed the desire to join Na’aleh as soon as they are old enough. Two of the older girls were preparing to leave the home and become Beit Chana students. One new girl had entered the home since September.

The girls spoke enthusiastically of the various programs available to them. They had especially fond memories of celebrating Pesach in the Crimea, where they had been taken by the machon principal and her family.



41. Beit Chana readily acknowledges difficulties in finding qualified Jewish young women eager to enroll in their programs. See the author’s Jewish Community Life in Eastern Ukraine, April 12-28, 2002, p. 19.
42. Space limitations prohibit daily participation by youngsters.
43. Many such children are from single-parent families in which the custodial parent is an alcoholic, narcotics addict, or suffers from psychological or other problems. Some parents are in prison. Other children are in the legal custody of grandparents who find it difficult to cope with active youngsters. Some families are overwhelmed by poverty. A few children are from small villages and towns; they have been sent by their families to Dnipropetrovsk to take advantage of greater educational opportunities, including the opportunity to learn about their Jewish heritage. Similar programs exist in other Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, Korosten, Zhytomyr, Odesa, Donetsk, and Kharkiv; a second dormitory program opened in Kharkiv in 2003 (see below) and a new program in Zaporizhya will open in September 2003.
44. See p. 10 for further information on the CIS Development Fund.
45. Boys from the dormitory constitute the majority of pupils in the yeshiva program of the day school. One of the reasons why all are enrolled in the yeshiva, said Rabbi Kaminezki on an earlier occasion, is that the extended day of the yeshiva program assures that all boys are occupied in constructive activity from early morning until late in the afternoon.

 
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