Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996

This report is an account of travel to several Jewish population centers in Ukraine during the last week in April and first two weeks in May 1996.1  Areas visited include Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkov in eastern Ukraine, Kiev and Chernigov in central Ukraine, and a number of smaller centers to the south and west of Kiev. The latter are Zhitomir, Berdichev, Khmelnitsky, Ternopol, Lvov, Lutsk, and Rovno.2

Four general observations may be made. First, Ukrainians and foreigners resident in Ukraine were watching with some trepidation the then-forthcoming (June 16 and July 3) presidential elections in Russia, their neighbor to the north and east. Of all the candidates, the clear favorite was Boris Yeltsin, the incumbent and eventual victor. Heard frequently was the adage, “When Russia sneezes, Ukraine catches cold.” Concern was expressed regarding two potential election outcomes: (1) that a victory by Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist candidate, would encourage Communists in Ukraine to act even more aggressively in thwarting both political and economic reform; and (2) that success by either Zyuganov or Russian nationalist/fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky would threaten Ukrainian independence as both favored “re-integration” of the former Soviet republics into a Moscow-dominated single political entity. Jewish organizations, which have been able to operate with considerable freedom in independent Ukraine feared severe restrictions under newly-emboldened Communists or renewed Russian authority.

Second, in the brief few years of Ukrainian sovereignty, Ukrainians and others resident in Ukraine have developed a strong sense of Ukrainian coherence and national integrity. Nowhere was that Ukrainian sense of separateness more forcefully expressed than in Ukrainian apprehension about the Russian elections. “Ukrainianization” is apparent in other, more mundane expressions. Russian remains the working language of the large cities, but street signs in urban areas have been changed to Ukrainian, and urban schools are facing political pressure to teach in Ukrainian rather than Russian. Despite its dependence on Russian energy resources, the Ukrainian economy is developing separately -- and less progressively -- from that in Russia.

Third, whereas experienced observers of Soviet and post-Soviet Jewry have always recognized significant differences between Russian and Ukrainian Jews (as well as Jews in other contiguous nationality areas), these variances are becoming more salient as Ukrainian nationhood strengthens its own particularity. Historically, Ukrainian Jewry is closer to its roots. The following developments of the post-Soviet era should also be noted: (1) despite horrendously brutal expressions of Ukrainian antisemitism in the past, the current Ukrainian government is more accommodating to its Jewish population than is the Russian state;3 (2) Ukrainian national Jewish institutions are much more effective than those in Russia;4 (3) skilled rabbis are more numerous in Ukraine than in Russia;5 and (4) aliyah (emigration to Israel) has been greater in Ukraine than in Russia, reflecting the economic crisis in Ukraine, the stronger attachment of Ukrainian Jews to their Jewish heritage, and the impact of rabbis and their programs in instilling a sense of Jewish and Zionist identity in younger Jews. The combination of aliyah and emigration to other countries is contributing to a notable decrease (15 to 20 percent) in Jewish day school enrollment in several Ukrainian cities.6

Fourth, although the Jewish population of Ukraine remains concentrated in four large cities -- Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Odessa -- significant numbers of Jews continue to live in population clusters of several hundred to 10,000 in smaller urban areas. Many such smaller Jewish populations are located in the 10 oblasts west of Kiev, i.e., a large portion of the former Pale Settlement. The majority of Jews in this area are elderly, many of them frail and impoverished. A significant number of younger Jews still residing in these oblasts may face a similar future as small-town lassitude and general inertia seem to define their lives. In a general sense, the area is poorly served by international Jewish organizations, which find the remoteness of such small population concentrations daunting. Problems of logistics are reinforced by problems of institutional policy, such as a regionalization policy in the Joint Distribution Committee that overlooks territorial political and economic coherence and a adolescent aliyah program (Na’aleh 16) sponsored by the Jewish Agency and Israeli government that emphasizes prior academic experience difficult to obtain in smaller cities and towns.

Observations about specific Ukrainian Jewish population centers follow.


1. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki remains the central figure in the Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipropetrovsk) Jewish population. No rabbi in the post-Soviet successor states has established and has continued to support as many communal institutions as he. These include: an active synagogue and mikva, a 700-pupil day school, a yeshiva high school enrolling about 50 boys, a cheder enrolling about 10 boys, four preschools enrolling a total of 135 children, a youth club, a summer camp enrolling 150 youngsters in each of two sessions, a michlala enrolling about 80 young women, a Jewish educational program attracting about 50 Jewish students at local universities and colleges, a Jewish “public university” enrolling approximately 120 adults, a weekly television program, a kosher slaughtering service, and a soup kitchen that serves about 80 elderly Jews daily. Rabbi Kaminezki also distributes a Jewish monthly magazine that, although published in Moscow, reserves the inside cover pages for matters of specific Dnepropetrovsk concern.

Under his influence, a local businessman has opened a high-quality kosher restaurant that attracts both Jews and non-Jews. Rabbi Kaminezki enjoys excellent relations with other Jewish institutions in the city, especially the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut) and the local Jewish community council (Yevreisky soviet).

Rabbi Kaminezki is one of a number of Chabad rabbis in the successor states who receives significant support from Or Avner, an organization established by Levi Levayev a Tashkent-born Israeli businessman, in memory of his father. Or Avner currently funds the michlala and approximately 50 percent of the cost of other Chabad activities in the city. Almost alone among rabbis in post-Soviet Jewish population centers, Rabbi Kaminezki has been successful in fundraising among local Jewish businessmen.8 He also seeks assistance from Jews in several foreign countries. Notwithstanding the above, financial constraints are a day-to-day reality.

2. The Jewish day school is unusual in the successor states in the size of its enrollment, its campus-like premises, and the warmth of its atmosphere.9 Three factors should be noted as changes since a previous visit almost exactly one year ago.

a. Increasing attention is being devoted to upgrading the Judaic component of the school curriculum. Earlier attempts to engage student teachers from a Chabad pedagogical institute in Israel to teach Jewish subjects were abandoned several years ago upon realization that the young women lacked necessary classroom experience, familiarity with local educational practice, sufficient fluency in the Russian language, and the possibility of employment continuity. School administrators have attempted to train experienced local teachers (of secular subjects) in Jewish studies, by means of some in-service education as well as Russian-language materials prepared by Shamir, an Israel—based Chabad Soviet/post-Soviet Jewry support group, and translations of curricula developed by the United Synagogue (Orthodox) of Great Britain.

Further progress in developing a source of skilled Judaica teachers is anticipated through (1) employment of graduates of the newly established local michlala, and (2) implementation of a proposed project aimed at enhancing Jewish education in Ukraine through collaboration with the Bar-Ilan University Lookstein Centre for Jewish Education in the Diaspora. The latter project, which would be initiated concurrently in Dnepropetrovsk and the Kiev school associated with Rabbi Bleich, envisions emphasis on teacher training, curriculum development, and preparation of learning materials, principally Russian-language texts appropriate to local conditions. The Lookstein Centre has already completed an evaluation of both schools.

1. Unless otherwise noted, Russian orthography is used throughout this report. Ukrainian names of cities are printed in parentheses at the beginning of each city section. Two commonly used Russian words should be noted, oblast (oblast=) and obshchina (ob]ina). An oblast is an administrative region within Ukraine and several other post-Soviet states. In some respects, it is similar to a state within the United States; in other respects, it is similar to a county. Ukraine has 24 oblasts and two municipalities with oblast status (Kiev and Sevastopol, the latter being a military district). An obshchina is a self-governing organization of the inhabitants of a specific territorial entity, e.g., a Jewish communal organization claiming to represent all or most of the Jews in a specific oblast. The appropriate Hebrew word for a Jewish obshchina is kehilla (????).
2. A map of Ukraine appears on the last page of this report.
3. For example, the Ukrainian government has been more responsive to requests from Jewish organizations for the return of confiscated communal property (or equivalent structures).
4. These include the Ukrainian Vaad, a national coordination and service group, and its affiliated organizations, as well as the Chief Rabbinate of Kiev and Ukraine.
5. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich (Karliner-Stoliner), Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, is the most visible of these leaders. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki (Chabad), Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, is another outstanding large-city rabbi. Rabbis in three smaller Ukrainian Jewish population centers are also recognized as particularly effective: Rabbi Mordechai Bald (Karliner-Stoliner) of Lvov, Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm (Chabad) of Zhitomir, and Rabbi Peretz Charach (Karliner-Stoliner) of Khmelnitsky. The three Karliner-Stoliner rabbis are Americans. The Chabad rabbis are Israelis. All are young men in their late twenties or early thirties.
6. Declining enrollment is apparent in the two largest Ukrainian day schools -- in Dnepropetrovsk (from approximately 800 to an expected 650), and in Kiev Gymnasium #144 (from 600 to an expected 500) -- and in smaller schools, such as that in Kherson, which enrolls about 200 pupils. None of these schools is in danger of closing. Emigration should be viewed in this context as the exodus of children with their families, participation of high school students in Na’aleh 16 or other Israel-based programs, and departure of child-bearing age adults whose children will be born elsewhere.
7. Readers should refer to previous reports of the writer for general information about Dnepropetrovsk and Dnepropetrovsk Jewry.
8. Reflecting the instability of the Ukrainian economy, the extent of this support has varied widely from year to year.
9. No attempt will be made to describe all Jewish institutions in detail as this has been done in other reports. Instead, this statement will focus on changes that have occurred since the completion and distribution of previous accounts.

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