Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Observations On
Jewish Community Life In Eastern Ukraine

May 20 to June 1, 2003

Mr. Romanov’s office played a key role in the recent distribution of surplus United States government food in the Dnipropetrovsk region.48 The office was required to obtain warehouse space throughout the region, said Mr. Romanov, and distributed the food to pensioners, chronically ill individuals, children’s institutions, and hospitals. The project earned considerable good will for both the Jewish community and the United States, added Mr. Romanov.

Regarding Jewish life in small towns in a general sense, Mr. Romanov said that the Jewish population is decreasing in all of these towns. Many non-Jews are leaving as well. The Ukrainian government must take action to preserve the farming industry if these towns are to retain their populations. People leave because they see no opportunities for themselves in these places. Perhaps 70 percent of the Jewish population in the periphery is elderly, said Mr. Romanov. Younger Jews go away to universities or other post-secondary school institutions and do not return. However, he commented, middle-aged and older Jews will remain in many of these towns for some time.

In response to a question about antisemitism in small towns, Mr. Romanov said that the situation is quite different from the Soviet period in which antisemitism was state-sponsored and widespread. Antisemitism no longer is sponsored by the state, but some antisemitism exists “on the street” (по улице). Some people are very envious of the services provided by the Jewish community to Jewish seniors or by the Joint Distribution Committee in its Mazel Tov program for young Jewish children. They show their frustration at lack of access to these services by making antisemitic comments. Others, continued Mr. Romanov, understand that Jews organize to help themselves and accept the situation. Some Jewish cemeteries in small towns have been vandalized. In some cases, the motives may be financial as iron fences surrounding individual or family plots have been taken; these can be sold as scrap metal, said Mr. Romanov. In other cases, antisemitic slogans or drawings have been spray-painted on monuments or walls. Community buildings have been subject to vandalism in several towns. Many smaller communities have no funds for repairs or preventive security, said Mr. Romanov, citing several recent incidents in the town of Nikopol.

18. Ariel Datel is Consul General of the State of Israel and Director of the Israel Cultural Center in Dnipropetrovsk. Under current circumstances, the Consulate and the ICC are under the supervision of Nativ (formerly known as Lishkat Hakesher), an entity attached to the Office of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel, rather than to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.49 However, Mr. Datel also is accredited to the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv as an attaché.

Mr. Datel spoke with some satisfaction of seminars that the Consulate had concluded recently, repeating a program in Krivyy Rig and in Dnipropetrovsk. Local non-Jewish leaders -- public officials, journalists, and university professors -- from the host cities and surrounding towns had participated in a round table discussion on Israel. Speakers included officials from the Embassy of Israel in Kyiv and Ukrainian specialists on the Middle East. Mr. Datel believed that the seminars were very successful.

Consul Datel also is pleased with the high level of cooperation and collaboration between various Jewish organizations in Dnipropetrovsk. As is the case with all holidays, the Consulate/ICC worked together with the Philanthropic Fund, the Jewish Agency, and JDC in the recent celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

Many community groups, noted Mr. Datel, are encountering serious economic difficulties. He noted the “impossibility” of charging people for the services that they receive from different organizations. For example, he said the hesed cannot charge impoverished older people for the meals or other services that it provides. Similarly, no admission fee was charged for participation in the festivities marking Yom Ha’atzmaut. The average monthly salary in Dnipropetrovsk, he said, is $80, and pensions are much lower. Therefore, community organizations must provide all programs at no charge to consumers, a situation that places a significant burden on the organizations.

Mr. Datel was generous in his praise of rabbis in the region under the purview of his office.50 Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki’s accomplishments in Dnipropetrovsk are well known, but Rabbi Nochum Ehrentroi also is building an “empire” in Zaporizhya, a welcome development. Mr. Datel also praised Rabbi Liron Edri in Krivyy Rig and Rabbi Levi Stambler in Dniprodzerzhinsk.51 Day schools, dormitories for children at risk and from small towns, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions all help to build Jewish identity and will encourage aliyah. The key to aliyah, he continued, is good day schools. The Israeli government has provided assistance to day schools, the Birthright program, and other forms of Jewish education that encourage aliyah.

Regarding the then impending transfer of the formal education portfolio from Nativ/Ministry of Education to the Jewish Agency, Mr. Datel said that he would prefer that formal education remain within the purview of the Israeli government; however, he continued, the Jewish Agency also is Israel-oriented so, if the transfer is to be made, it is fine that the portfolio will become the responsibility of the Jewish Agency. The Israel Culture Center has a very close and productive working relationship with the Jewish Agency in Dnipropetrovsk, he added.

His office, said Mr. Datel, supervises 17 Sunday schools in the region (in addition to the day schools). Each of the 17 school has an average of 40 pupils; the total number of pupils is about 700. Operating concurrently with the Sunday schools for children are classes for parents in Hebrew (ulpans) and the history of Israel. Specialists from Dnipropetrovsk and from Kyiv lead Jewish and Israeli holiday celebrations at these schools. Local individuals teach the regular classes, said Mr. Datel; however, he continued, it is very difficult to find qualified teachers in smaller cities.

Consul Datel said that the level of aliyah is more dependent on economic factors than on the level of violence in Israel. Local Jews, he said, know “everything” about Israel from relatives already living there; if local Jews believe it will be difficult for them to find work and affordable housing in Israel, they simply will not go to Israel. Another aliyah problem is the attraction of Germany, which offers far more generous welfare benefits than does Israel. In common with others, Mr. Datel said that he has seen conflicts erupt between adolescents and young adults and their parents over emigration destinations. The parents, who may be middle-aged with only modest opportunities for gainful employment in Israel, want to go to Germany, where the welfare system will provide them with a middle-class lifestyle without work. Adolescent and young adult children who have been exposed to Israel through Jewish day schools or informal Jewish education activities want to go to Israel.

19. The Jewish Agency for Israel (known to many English-speakers as JAFI and to most people in the post-Soviet states as Sochnut, the first word of its name in Hebrew) maintains a large presence in Dnipropetrovsk, a source of significant aliyah to Israel. The writer spoke with Ilana Lipkin, head of the Dnipropetrovsk delegation, and several other members of the JAFI staff.

Aliyah to Israel from the Dnipropetrovsk region decreased to 950 individuals in 2002, said Ms. Lipkin. The major reasons for the decline are the economy in Israel and fear that the then forthcoming war in Iraq would have some spillover into Israel.

Notwithstanding the decreased aliyah, she continued, the number of people who visit the Jewish Agency office continues to grow. JAFI operates many programs, most of which attract new participants on a regular basis. In addition to traditional Hebrew ulpans, JAFI enrolls a growing number of individuals in courses offered by the Open University of Israel. Many students participate through conventional correspondence courses, but JAFI in Dnipropetrovsk enrolls 65 percent of all Open University participants throughout the post-Soviet states who participate online. Use of computers enables many people in smaller towns, who do not have access to qualified local tutors, to study with instructors in Israel. Students prepare by reading Russian-language textbooks and then gather in an Internet café in their town to hear a lecture; follow-up is by e-mail contact with lecturers and Open University coordinators.

JAFI gave video conferencing equipment to the local Jewish community. This equipment is now housed at Beit Chana Women’s Pedagogical Seminary, where it is used by students and by groups of teachers and other individuals to connect with instructors and others in Israel.52 Although Sochnut’s assumption of responsibility for formal education in the post-Soviet states is not yet official [at the time of the writer’s visit], it is working with day school teachers in Dnipopetrovsk, Dniprodzerzhinsk, Zaporizhya, Krivyy Rig, and Kirovograd to improve methodology in the teaching of Hebrew and Jewish subjects.

A new Hebrew song club attracting 15 to 30 participants every Sunday is just one of the new activities stretching the capacity of current JAFI space in a Dnipropetrovsk hotel. Additionally, JAFI offers many standard clubs; its student club enrolls more Jewish students than any other Jewish student group in the city. Ms. Lipkin is currently looking for new facilities with ulpan classrooms and multi-purpose space that will accommodate the broad range of JAFI activities more comfortably.



A native of Kharkiv, Ilana Lipkin became involved in Zionist activities while a university student in Moscow. She met her husband, Matvei (Mordechai) Lipkin, there and they subsequently married and, in 1988, made aliyah. Mordechai Lipkin, a noted artist, was killed in a terrorist attack in 1993. They had four sons, now all of school age; the boys are with Ms. Lipkin in Dnipropetrovsk.



The Dnipropetrovsk JAFI office plans to operate four overnight summer camp sessions in the Crimea in 2003 in cooperation with the Zaporizhya JAFI representation.53 Two camp sessions will enroll preteens and teens, and one will focus on university students. A fourth camp session will be open to younger children between the ages of six and 11; they will come to camp with their mothers. Additionally, JAFI will operate week-long day camps in both Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhya. Because of ongoing budgetary pressures, the length of all JAFI summer camps has been cut from year to year; the sessions now are only seven and one-half days in length. Nonetheless, said Ms. Lipkin, summer camps even of such short duration build Jewish identity and thus fulfill one of the central objectives of JAFI. A total of 1,000 children and young adults from the Dnipropetrovsk/Zaporizhya region and from Crimea are expected to participate in these camp sessions.

48. See p. 10.
49. See pp. 4-5.
50. The region covered by the Dnipropetrovsk office of Nativ stretches from Dniprodzerzhinsk in the north to Berdyansk in the south and from Kremenchuk and Kirovograd in the west to Tokmak in the east. Regional demarcations of the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee are somewhat different
51. The writer describes visits to Krivyy Rig and Zaporizhya below. Plans to visit Dniprodzerzhinsk were changed after Rabbi Levi Stambler developed a minor health problem.
52. See p. 26.
53. See p. 75.

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