Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

73. The Lvov Jewish population is led by Rabbi Mordechai Bald, an American Karliner-Stoliner hasid. Rabbi Bald is held in high esteem locally and in Kiev, where he is recognized as skillfully dealing with the strong antisemitism in the Lvov area. Because Rabbi Bald was out of town during my visit, my official host was Meylakh Sheykhet, a businessman who serves as chairman of the community’s external relations committee. Mr. Sheykhet appears to conduct most of his communications business at odd hours of the day and evening; an observant Jew, he is dedicated to the Jewish community and spends many daytime hours in Jewish communal work.

74. In September 1994, Yad Yisroel, the New York-based support group for Karliner-Stoliner operations in Ukraine and Belarus, opened the Lvov Jewish National School, a day school that enrolled 150 pupils between the ages of six and 17 during the 1995-1996 school year. Boys and girls are assigned to separate classes, with two to 12 pupils per class. Admission is limited to youngsters with a Jewish mother or a Jewish grandmother on the mother’s side of the family.

The school administration believes that few pupils will become Orthodox Jews. However, in common with the management of other Jewish schools in the post-Soviet successor states, administrators hope that day school pupils will become sufficiently comfortable with and enthusiastic about their Jewish heritage that they will choose to emigrate to a country, particularly Israel, where Judaism can be practiced with ease and satisfaction. Tuition is free, and administration readily acknowledges that free meals and small classes are major attractions.

The school operates under several very severe handicaps. Its facilities are in two rented floors of a dormitory building, using student bedrooms as classrooms. Space in each room is obviously limited, even for the small classes that the school now enrolls. The principal of the school noted that such cramped quarters are “psychologically difficult.” The small enrollment and financial pressures constrain curriculum development, e.g., it is difficult to justify construction of science laboratories. The school cannot afford to take pupils on field trips. The school also lacks such basic equipment as a copying machine. Inflation has driven up prices of almost all goods by 300 percent since the school opened its doors two years previously.

Reflecting a problem in Jewish day schools throughout the post-Soviet successor states, the school lacks trained teachers in Jewish subjects. It currently depends on two volunteer young men, one from Canada and the other from the United States; neither speaks Russian and neither has much teaching experience. School administrators spoke with both understanding and exasperation of the emotional need of these individuals to return to their homes in North America for prolonged holiday visits, thus leaving the school without any religious studies instruction for long periods. Ideally, administrators said, the school should have three to five male teachers of Jewish subjects for boys and three to five female teachers for girls, all of them trained and experienced.

In addition to teaching conventional secular and Judaic subjects, the school also offers art and music classes. The school kitchen and dining room, located on the ground floor of the dormitory building, seemed clean and well-organized. Meals served to children appeared nutritious.

The school is located some distance from the center of the city, thus requiring lengthy bus routes, which are expensive as well as tiring for the children. However, the dormitory base of the school encourages the enrollment of boarding students from other towns in western Ukraine; accommodations are easily arranged.

Approximately 80 percent of the teachers of secular subjects are Jewish. The school is able to attract good local teachers because classes are small and teacher salaries are paid according to schedule. (At the time of my visit, in May, teachers in Lvov regular public schools had not been paid since January.) Additional staff expenses will be incurred in 1996-1997 and beyond because the school must hire Ukrainian language teachers and Ukrainian-speaking teachers of other subjects in order to satisfy nationalist demands. The principal estimated that only 10 percent of the school pupils speak Ukrainian.

The school nurse said that some children in the school as well as other children in the city had suffered from diphtheria earlier in the year because vaccine arrived too late to be effective. Tuberculosis was also a problem. The city water supply is contaminated.

75. Friday evening services at the synagogue attracted 50 to 60 participants, most of them middle-aged and older.50 Prior to candle-lighting, approximately equal numbers of men and women gathered in separate areas of the synagogue courtyard. Two visiting women from the Caucasus -- both were Mountain (Tat) Jews -- were greeted warmly by local women. All of the women went inside a ground level room to light candle stubs and to sing Shabbat songs; most required song sheets with transliterated Hebrew lyrics. About five adolescent girls from the day school remained outside in the courtyard, looking in the window from time to time.

Only a few women left the women’s gathering to go the women’s balcony during the traditional Friday evening service. Three of the day school girls tried with apparent difficulty to follow the service in siddurim.

On the main floor, in the absence of Rabbi Bald, a few men led the service from the bima. A very energetic gabbai, who might have been a cheerleader in another setting, led prayers and singing with great enthusiasm. Within the ‘chorus’ was one local younger man, sporting long straggly black hair and attired in red trousers from a running suit and a gray sweatshirt with one turquoise shoulder cap and one pink shoulder cap. Meylakh Sheykhet and the two young North American volunteer teachers were active worshippers, but conspicuous in their well-fitting suits and in their distance from the local ‘chorus’.

At one point, Mr. Sheykhet and the two young teachers suddenly moved toward the rear of the synagogue. A commotion ensued and the ritual briefly ceased. After a few minutes, the service resumed. From the women’s balcony, which was directly above the ‘action’, it was impossible to see what had transpired. After the service, it was reported that a group of foreign messianic Jews had attempted to enter the synagogue and take control of the ritual. After a scuffle between them and regular worshippers (including Mr. Sheykhet and the two young North American teachers), the missionaries were ejected. They left behind a gift package of sorely needed welfare items, including medicine; however, in view of its provenance, the goods were considered by some to be tainted. The package was placed in a locked cabinet, awaiting the return of Rabbi Bald and a rabbinic decision on its potential use.

76. Without any regular assistance from the Joint Distribution Committee, the Lvov obshchina operates an active welfare service. Its principal supporters are Yad Yisroel and the Jewish owner of a major hotel in the city; the latter individual contributes $60 monthly. The director of the service is Evgenia Pavlovna Zamskaya, an energetic woman with a strong and caring presence.

The centerpiece of the welfare program is a meals-on-wheels program that provides meals prepared in the school kitchen as well as fresh fruit to 75 Jewish elderly three times weekly. Ordinary food containers and army thermoses are packed into two small station wagons that make the rounds of clientele; drivers and delivery people wear Yad Yisroel identification so that police will permit the vehicles to park while food is carried into apartments. Thirteen diabetics and others with special dietary needs receive special meals. Ms. Zamskaya readily acknowledges that, due to inappropriate food containers and vehicles, the meals delivery service is neither kosher nor maximally sanitary. Another problem is inadequate refrigeration capacity in the school kitchen, thus necessitating the frequent purchase of small quantities of food.

In addition to the 75 elderly who receive meals on wheels, another 25 people receive cash disbursements for food and/or prescription medicine. When available, the program also distributes medications, medical appliances, and other items. It also subsidizes the rent of the most impoverished. Ms. Zamskaya reported a need for a variety of medical appliances, over-the-counter medicines, and clothing. Record-keeping appeared to be meticulous.

Ms. Zamskaya said that loneliness is a major problem for almost all elderly. Younger family members emigrate and forget about those left behind. The loneliness generates various psychological and physical illnesses.

77. Alexander Wernik is the Aliyah Emissary in the Lvov regional office of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI, Sochnut). Born in Kharkov, he worked as a Russian-language philologist there before emigrating to Israel; he also speaks Ukrainian, regarding it as his “passive language.” In Israel, he is a patent examiner in the Ministry of Justice. He had been in Lvov seven months at the time of our meeting and said he believed he must remain there at least two years in order to make an impact on the local Jewish population. In common with most JAFI emissaries, his wife and children remain in Israel; he said that it was very difficult to be without them, but life in Lvov is too difficult for an Israeli family.

Mr. Wernik said that 600 Jews emigrated to Israel from the Lvov region in 1995, including 300 from the city of Lvov itself. JAFI operates a youth club in the city and an ulpan system enrolling 600 Hebrew students. JAFI sponsors a summer camp (two sessions of 12 to 14 days) and a winter camp during school winter vacation. However, financial pressures were severely constraining camp activities.

His primary responsibility is encouraging aliyah. His secondary role is to acquaint assimilated Jews with Israel so they will want to come some day; currently, they are not ready to go to Israel, but he would like them to think about it and prepare themselves to come “if something happens.” Mr. Wernik suggested that a precipitating event might be a consequence of Ukrainian nationalism, which is an increasingly powerful force in the region. He noted that most Jews are russified and that some are very active in a local Russian club that endeavors to promote Russian culture in this heavily Ukrainian city. He believes that such activity is ill-advised for Jews and he tries to explain to them that their culture is Jewish, not Russian. He said that the JAFI camps are very helpful in promoting Jewish culture.

50.  Meylakh Sheykhet readily acknowledged that the major goals of most attendees are socializing and partaking of Shabbat meals at the synagogue after services. He said that fewer than five men can follow the service in siddurim (prayer books).

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