Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

18. In remarks shortly after the group arrived in Kiev, Asher Ostrin, Director of the JDC Former Soviet Union Department, described the role of JDC in the post-Soviet successor states as providing material access to Judaism. He said that JDC, the Israeli Fund for Culture and Education in the Diaspora (Lishkat Hakesher), and the Jewish Agency all try to bring Judaism to Jewish people in the former Soviet republics. The most effective way of transmitting Judaism, he continued, was through aliyah (emigration) to Israel. A less effective way was to provide services for those Jews who remain, principally (1) the elderly, who constitute least one-third of the Jewish population, and (2) those who are emerging from assimilation. The latter require support through Jewish culture and education. Several tour participants expressed surprise at Mr. Ostrin’s emphasis on aliyah as the most desirable objective for post-Soviet Jewry; JDC is perceived by some as neutral at best regarding aliyah, supposedly favoring the continuing presence of large numbers of Jews in the former republics so that its services will still be required in this area. When questioned, Mr. Ostrin reiterated his pro-aliyah view, noting that he and his senior staff had all made aliyah to Israel.

Mr. Ostrin continued that the role of JDC Board members on the tour was to: (1) perceive the situation through the eyes of American Jews and as JDC Board members; (2) evaluate how JDC determines its priorities and allocates its resources; and (3) understand that JDC must find a balance between acute and long-term service requirements in the development of its programs.

19. On Friday morning, the group met with Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, at the Shekavitskaya street synagogue, which is located in Podol, the old Jewish district of the city. Rabbi Bleich is a Karliner-Stoliner hasid from Brooklyn. He welcomed the JDC mission to the synagogue, explaining that it was built in 1896 with funds provided by a local wealthy Jew. Prior to the 1917 Revolution, it was one of 55 synagogues in the Podol; more than 20 additional synagogues had been located elsewhere in the city. Records show that even in 1962, 15,000 Jews crowded the synagogue on Yom Kippur, spilling out into the surrounding yard. Regular Shabbat services drew 250 to 300 Jews during that period.

Today, the synagogue has three daily minyans and attracts about 200 people on Shabbat, many of them day school pupils, recent graduates, and other young people. A bakery on the synagogue grounds baked 90 tons of matzot in 1996, supplying all of Ukraine. The synagogue also operates a kosher slaughtering service. Meals are served daily to about 40 elderly people, and 40 day school students spend shabbatonim at the synagogue, staying in a dormitory in an adjacent building or in nearby apartments. A youth center is being constructed in the synagogue basement in cooperation with Makor, an organization that serves as a resource center to Jewish youth groups throughout the city. Fifteen men, ages 16 to 66, study in an affiliated yeshiva.

Rabbi Bleich is mentor to a Jewish preschool and to a day school enrolling about 600 pupils in separate buildings for boys and girls. A third building, which will accommodate the preschool and the day school primary grades (in separate classes for boys and girls), will open in September 1996.

The synagogue is associated with Kiev Jewish Community, a city-wide Jewish obshchina operating and/or coordinating various programs and services for various sectors of the Jewish population. These include welfare assistance, an employment agency, a pedagogic center, a matchmaking service, a club for artists, etc.

Many of the activities with which Rabbi Bleich is associated receive financial support from Yad Yisroel, a Brooklyn-based organization that oversees Karliner-Stoliner operations in Ukraine and Belarus.

20. From the synagogue, the JDC group split into smaller sub-groups to visit elderly JDC clients in their apartments. The home sites appeared to have been carefully selected to depict situations of modest poverty, rather than the abject destitution and degradation that tour participants had heard were prevalent among elderly Jews in Ukraine. Surprise and some skepticism were expressed about the selection of clients visited, a bewilderment that was only reinforced by a presentation the following day that depicted much harsher conditions in several smaller Ukrainian Jewish population centers. (See #26 below.)

21. The JDC group next visited the JDC-assisted Chabad-sponsored “Simcha” preschool. Although the school was closed for a state holiday, several groups of children had been assembled to present a program of songs and dances for the visitors.23 The JDC tour participants subsequently ate lunch at the facility.

22. The JDC bus proceeded to the new JDC Hesed Avot building, a large multi-service center similar to the JDC facility in Dnepropetrovsk. (See #7 above.) Although unfinished, the building was dedicated at this time, presumably because of the presence of the JDC group. A fairly large number of local Jews were present, including the Hesed’s Board of Directors.24

23. James Shoemaker, a First Secretary, received the JDC group at the Embassy of the United States in Kiev. In the absence of prepared remarks, he commented extemporaneously on various aspects of Ukraine, Ukrainian-American relations, and Ukrainian-Russian relations. He said that the U.S. viewed Ukraine as more stable than Russia, primarily because Ukrainians as a people are less demonstrative and certainly much less violent than Russians. Ukrainians, he said, tend to solve their problems by bribery. The Ukrainian economy was much worse than that of Russia and even worse than that of the United States during the Depression. It was still in a free fall, and no national leaders were prepared to address critical economic issues. The economy is a command economy run by plunder. Twenty-five to 30 years will be required to repair the damage done by 70 years of Soviet rule.

The United States and other Western countries were trying to assist Ukraine. It is an important country in Europe, with a population of about 52 million people. It shares a long border with Russia and is perceived as an important counterweight to Russia. With the help of the U.S., Ukraine is dismantling all nuclear weapons on its territory.

In response to a question, Mr. Shoemaker spoke briefly about regional differences in Ukraine. The most sensitive region in Ukraine now is Crimea. The local population is overwhelmingly Russian and its economic base is built on Russian money for support of military installations and tourism. The 225,000 Crimean Tatars who have returned to Crimea from Central Asia in recent years are considered “invaders” by the local Russians. Although the dispute seems less acute now than in other periods during the last few years, it remains a very serious issue.

Dnepropetrovsk is the “chief center of power” in Ukraine. Leonid Kuchma, the President, spent most of his adulthood in Dnepropetrovsk and continues to recruit additional leaders from that city to the national government. The Dnepropetrovsk area is heavily russified and has very serious economic problems. Mr. Shoemaker believes that it should develop agriculture and agricultural industries.25

Responding to another query, Mr. Shoemaker said that the Ukrainian diaspora is poorly organized and thus ineffective. Its greatest influence is in western Ukraine.26

Organized crime is less pervasive in Ukraine than in Russia, commented Mr. Shoemaker. However, “six or seven” ‘mafia’ groups operate in the country, each composed of people from a similar ethnic background, such as, Azerbaidzhani, Assyrian, Ukrainian, and Russian.27 Mr. Shoemaker said that any foreign business in Ukraine must deal with protection and corruption. In response to the crime situation, a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, and the United States is training Ukrainian security personnel at the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA.

Mr. Shoemaker said that the rate of suicide was very high in Ukraine.

24. The JDC tour group attended Friday evening Shabbat services at Congregation Hatikva, one of the strongest Reform (Progressive) groups in all of the former Soviet states. Unable to afford its own premises, the congregation rents the former Karaite synagogue in Kiev on Friday evenings.

The service was well-attended and expertly led by Mikhail Farbman, a young employee of JDC in Kiev.28 (Mr. Farbman will join two other Hatikva members in rabbinic studies at the Leo Baeck Institute in London later this year.) The congregation, which includes many young families, participated enthusiastically in the service.29

25. Shabbat dinner was held at the hotel with the entire JDC group plus various guests seated around one long table. The guests, who included representatives of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Embassy, were each invited to say a few words to the group.

26. In a riveting presentation on Shabbat, Ruti Averbuch, a registered nurse and JDC homecare trainer in Israel, spoke to the JDC group on her recently-completed tour of smaller Ukrainian Jewish communities served by JDC.30 Although her approach was professional, Mrs. Averbukh spoke with great sensitivity about the degrading circumstances in which many elderly Jews survived, especially in the smaller cities of Vinnitsa oblast, an area southwest of Kiev that is the focal point of a special JDC project. Mrs. Averbuch addressed numerous issues, including housing without running water or cooking gas, lack of electricity, and severe malnutrition. She was clearly overwhelmed by her findings, and her presentation thoroughly absorbed the attention of the JDC mission group. For some, an additional extraordinarily troubling element was the contrast of her report with the relatively mild poverty of Jewish elderly visited in Kiev on the previous day. (See #20 above.)

23. Upon cue from accompanying JDC staff, tour members joined the children in dancing and distributed candy to them. The candy, which had been purchased by JDC staff in Kiev, had been manufactured in Iran, a source of origin that some tour participants found disturbing.
24.  Some controversy has attended the construction and organization of the Center, including: its site on a small hill that may limit accessibility for elderly; a lavish entrance hall; poorly supervised construction; and appointment by JDC of a Board of Directors that lacks credibility in the community.
25.  Following his dismissal of Yehven Marchuk from the position of Prime Minister in late May, Mr. Kuchma named a close political ally from Dnepropetrovsk, Pavlo Lazarenko, as his successor. Lazarenko is a trained agronomist and a supporter of Kuchma’s reform programs
26.  Ukrainian nationalism is strongest in western Ukraine. Ukrainian extremists living outside Ukraine are said to be funding some of the most zealous groups.
27. Perhaps in deference to the organization he was addressing, Mr. Shoemaker did not note the existence of Jewish organized crime groups, which operate in several parts of Ukraine.
28. Mr. Farbman and several other current and past prominent members of the Reform congregation, including its President, Boris Kutik, are employed by JDC.
29. Congregation Hatikvah, which was established in 1991, currently has about 800 members. It sponsors two preschools enrolling a total of 50 children, a Jewish youth dance group with about 80 school-age dancers, a Sunday school with classes for both children and adults, and a youth group for about 30 adolescents. An American rabbi led the congregation for about one year in 1993-1994, but returned to the United States and, due to budgetary problems, has not been replaced.
30. As Ruta Aleksandrovich, Mrs. Averbukh was a prominent young Zionist leader in Riga during the 1960s.

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