Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

27. The JDC group attended Shabbat morning services at the Shekavitskaya street synagogue, and then ate lunch in an adjacent building. Group members visited the studios of Jewish artists during the afternoon.

28. In the evening, JDC mission participants attended a third Shabbat meal honoring Lynn Schusterman of Tulsa, whose family has generously supported the establishment of Hillel organizations at several universities in the successor states in cooperation with JDC. Also present were members of the Hillel center at International Solomon University, a post-secondary school institution in Kiev.31 Although the dinner was overlong, the participation of the students was well-received. Several of them described their experiences in conducting a seder project, in which small groups of Hillel members traveled to small and/or remote Jewish population centers to lead Pesach sedarim for local Jews. (Indeed, in previous and subsequent travel described elsewhere in this report, the writer met with several individuals who had attended such seders in one or another Ukrainian city. Without exception, their reports of Hillel student leadership were positive.)

29. Following the departure of the JDC group for Moscow and St. Petersburg, Jeffrey Weill (Chicago JCRC) and I remained in Kiev. Our first meeting on May 6 was with Dr. Yosef Tropiansky, Director of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI, Sokhnut) in Ukraine. Dr. Tropiansky said that 24,000 olim (immigrants) entered Israel from Ukraine in 1995; another 13,000 Jews (or relatives of Jews) emigrated to the United States, and 6,000 went to Germany. Aliyah for the first four months of 1996 was four percent greater than the first four months of 1995.

Dr. Tropiansky believes that aliyah from Ukraine will end in a few years. Acknowledging that Jewish demography in the successor states cannot be measured precisely, he notes that the official Ukrainian estimate of its Jewish population is 380,000 and the actual number may be greater. It is broadly accepted that about 35 percent of the Ukrainian Jewish population, i.e., at least 130,000 people, are over 65 years of age. Few of these individuals will emigrate. He expects that 100,000 to 150,000 Jews will depart from Ukraine (for all points) by the end of 1998. He believes that as many as 200,000 Jews under age 65 will remain, most of them profoundly assimilated32

Jewish communal life as such will end in Ukraine by the end of the century, except for the work of JDC, which is essential for the large number of Jewish elderly. However, Dr. Tropiansky believes that JDC efforts to “build community” are sending a misleading message because community cannot be built under such circumstances. The construction of multipurpose JCC’s, such as that recently dedicated in Kiev, is a negative commentary on Zionism.

While affirming his own strong Zionist views, Dr. Tropiansky volunteered the judgment that Jews are safe in the United States and Canada. However, because of great political and economic instability in the post-Soviet successor states, these countries are not safe for Jews. In Ukraine, Communists constitute 38 percent of the Rada (Parliament). Ukrainian Communists are heavily influenced by their Russian counterparts and, Dr. Tropiansky believes, they could be persuaded to implement in Ukraine the sort of anti-Sochnut measures currently in force in Russia. The chief ethnic problem for Ukraine is the presence of 11 million Russians (in a total Ukrainian population of 52 million), many of them concentrated in industrialized eastern Ukraine, which is close to the Russian heartland. State-sponsored antisemitism, acknowledged Dr. Tropiansky, is not a problem in Ukraine; nonetheless, demographic reality as well as political and economic instability lessen the likelihood that Jewish community-building will be successful in Ukraine.

The contemporary Ukrainian Jewish population, said Dr. Tropiansky, is highly assimilated and is “very far from Judaism and Israel.” Those whose Jewish identity was stronger made aliyah in 1990-1991 (or earlier). The Jewish Agency, he continued, must “work to bring Israel to the Jewish people [in Ukraine] and then [bring] the Jewish people to Israel.”

In discussing Jewish Agency programs that he considered most vital, Dr. Tropiansky first mentioned Aliyah 2000, which places adults in specific jobs in Israel and provides assistance in housing, and Na’aleh 16, which brings adolescents to Israel to finish high school. The high school graduates are expected to stay in Israel and their parents generally follow them to Israel within a few years. Approximately 1,350 Ukrainian Jewish teens, some of whom have been exposed to Chernobyl radiation, have registered for the program, but only about 500 will pass the qualifying exams. The remaining 800+ probably will stay in Ukraine. Dr. Tropiansky believes that the opportunity for bringing all interested Ukrainian Jewish young people to Ukraine may end soon because the Ukrainian government may decide to limit emigration. American Jews, he said, should understand that little time is left in which to rescue Ukrainian Jews [from assimilation and conditions of political/economic instability].

Dr. Tropiansky also noted that JAFI financial constraints and the hardships of living in Ukraine are impeding JAFI in recruiting qualified candidates to serve as shlichim (emissaries) to Jewish communities. Few Israelis are willing to endure Ukrainian winters with only sporadic supplies of heat and hot water; most who do come to Ukraine leave their families behind in Israel, sparing them such austerity, but possibly damaging family ties during periods of separation. Dr. Tropiansky said that approximately 6,000 adults were studying Hebrew in Ukraine; this number could be increased to 10,000 if enough Hebrew teachers were available.

In common with many others, Dr. Tropiansky believes that Jewish summer camps are vital to Jewish education. However, Sochnut lacks the funds to operate as many camps as it should. In Ukraine, the Jewish Agency will operate 16 camp sessions at eight sites in 1996, compared with 18 camp sessions as eight sites in 1995.33

Dr. Tropiansky expressed some ambivalence about the establishment of a Hillel student association in Kiev. He said that although Hillel is supposed to be a Zionist organization, it is sending six student leaders to a Hillel conference in Pennsylvania this summer. It would be much better to provide support for a conference in Israel, he asserted.

30. Efforts to meet with Kiev representatives of the Lishkat Hakesher (also known as the Liaison Bureau and the Israeli Fund for Education and Culture in the Diaspora) were rebuffed, despite efforts by Rabbi Bleich, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry (Washington, D.C.), and others to ensure that such a meeting would take place. The Lishka, which reports directly to the office of the Prime Minister in Israel, has been displeased with the writer since publication of an article she wrote about post-Soviet Jewry in 1995.34

31. Rabbi Bleich joined Betsy Gidwitz and Jeffrey Weill in a meeting with Vasyl Stepanovych Hazhaman, the director of the Kiev municipal Department of Nationality, Migration, and Language Issues, and with a Mr. Novik, the director of the municipal Department of National Minorities and Migration.35 In introductory remarks, the two men acknowledged that their departments had overlapping mandates and predicted a merger or consolidation within the near future. Portfolio confusion is almost inevitable as the municipality strives to create city departments that are parallel to national departments -- and the mandates of national departments remain unstable.

Migration posed problems for Ukraine on a national level and for Kiev on a municipal level. Nationally, the major issues were migration of Ukrainians from other former republics of the Soviet Union to Ukraine, migration of foreigners to Ukraine, and the return of Tatars, who had been expelled from Crimea to Central Asia by Stalin, to Crimea. This immigration had caused an increase in the overall population of Ukraine, thus straining already inadequate housing and social services. The major problems for Kiev were: (1) an influx of people displaced by the Chernobyl disaster, and (2) an increasing number of individuals from developing countries, including people in transit who lacked documentation to continue to the destination of their choice, and foreign students, most of whom overstay legitimate student visas. Many of the latter are fleeing countries of political and economic disorder, such as Afghanistan and Burundi.

31. A somewhat controversial institution, International Solomon University enrolls about 800 students and often promotes itself as a Jewish university. However, only about 20 percent of its student body is Jewish, and its Jewish studies program is mediocre at best. Lacking its own premises, its classes meet in a public school building in the late afternoons and early evenings. It has little credibility within the organized Jewish community in Ukraine. JDC, one of the very few Jewish organizations to support ISU, recently commissioned an evaluation of it. The decision to sponsor the first Hillel in Ukraine at ISU has generated considerable resentment within the Kiev Jewish Community obshchina because Makor, a broadbased Kiev Jewish youth and student organization, was not been consulted in the process.
32.  Although other experienced observers may believe that at least 500,000 Jews live in Ukraine, few would challenge the general tenor of his remarks.
33.  Dr. Tropiansky did not mention that the number of days per camp session was also being cut, from 14 to 12.
34.  See Betsy Gidwitz, “Post-Soviet Jewry at Mid-Decade -- Part One,” Jerusalem Letter, #309 (February 15, 1995), and Gidwitz, “Post-Soviet Jewry at Mid-Decade -- Part Two,” Jerusalem Letter, #310 (March 1, 1995). Jerusalem Letter is a publication of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
35. This appointment was arranged by Rabbi Yaakov Bleich because he thought that such contacts might prove useful in furthering the sister-city relationship between Kiev and Chicago.

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