Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

Russified Jews, said Mr. Rubin, are searching for a new identity in newly-independent Ukraine. Russification is no longer appropriate. Will they identify as Ukrainians, Jews, or Ukrainian Jews?

Answering his own question, at least in part, Mr. Rubin said that he believes 50 percent of those Jews now in Ukraine will emigrate by the year 2000. Of the 50 percent who stay, most will assimilate. At least 100,000 will identify as Jews.

The major deterrent to aliyah, said Mr. Rubin, is fear of loss of status, both (1) loss of professional status, due to failure to find equivalent employment in Israel, and (2) loss of personal status, due to lack of a shared history with veteran Israelis. Emigration to Germany, said Mr. Rubin, was a “purely economic” decision, motivated by the generous benefits that Germany provides to new immigrants.

Mr. Rubin expressed some surprise at seeing several American Jewish groups touring Poland during his recent visit to that country. He suggested that American Jewish organizations focus European travel on Ukraine because (1) more American Jews have roots in Ukraine and thus feel a kinship to Ukrainian Jewry, and (2) the “level of ignorance about Ukrainian Jewry is very high” in the United States.


33. Before its departure for St. Petersburg on Sunday, the JDC group went by bus to Chernigov (Chernihiv), a city about 80 miles north/northeast of Kiev. A very old city of historic significance in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Chernigov now has a population of approximately 250,000, about 3,000 of whom are Jews. The chairman of the Chernigov Jewish obshchina is Felix Kagno, a dynamic leader who appeared highly respected by other activist Jews. The obshchina, which receives significant support from JDC, operates a Sunday school/youth program attracting 100 to 120 children and teens and a welfare service that assists about 500 Jewish elderly. Currently meeting in very cramped quarters in a section of an old building, the obshchina has recently acquired a more spacious facility that will require substantial renovation before it can fulfill its intended purpose as a communal center with quarters for a variety of activities. (A former synagogue is now being used as a municipal theater and is not available to the Jewish community; in any case, it is too large for the needs of the Chernigov Jewish population.)

Mr. Kagno, a local businessman, has strong Zionist sentiments and is quite proud that a large percentage of Chernigov Jewish youth participate in the Na’aleh 16 program. He perceives little future for small Jewish communities in Ukraine.

Smaller Jewish Population Centers to the South and West of Kiev

With the assistance of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, a journey to four of the seven oblasts in western Ukraine was organized for the writer. Two additional oblasts, Zhitomir and Khmelnitsky, were also visited en route to western Ukraine. Reflecting Rabbi Bleich’s own interests, agendas had been arranged mainly with local Orthodox organizations or with individuals and groups associated with such organizations; non-Orthodox and/or secular Jewish groups were neglected in some locales. Aware of the omissions from her itinerary, the writer decided not to press for the absent contacts. Time constraints and inadequate unbiased information about political circumstances in the various Jewish population centers were the major determinants in this decision.


34. A city of some 350,000 inhabitants, Zhitomir (Zhytomyr) is the administrative center of Zhitomir oblast, which is located immediately to the west of Kiev oblast. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Jewish population constituted slightly over half of the then 80,000 residents of the city. Today, about 7,000 Jews are believed to remain in Zhitomir. Because of its proximity to the Ukrainian capital, Zhitomir receives a fairly large number of foreign Jewish visitors every year who wish to visit a “shtetl.”

The dominant Jewish leader in Zhitomir is Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, a Chabad rabbi from Belgium and Israel, who is in his late twenties. Extraordinarily energetic, he presides over the only synagogue in the city, a nascent day school, a welfare program, and a varied cultural agenda. Officially the director of Chabad activities in Zhitomir, Rabbi Wilhelm has replaced Rabbi Shmuel Plotkin, an older man, who remains the Chief Rabbi of Zhitomir, although he has returned to Brooklyn. The synagogue building is currently undergoing significant expansion in order to accommodate more communal activities.

34. Rabbi Wilhelm estimates that 3,000 of the 7,000 Jews in Zhitomir are elderly. With the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee, about 300 of these seniors are served one hot meal every day at the synagogue. Hot meals are delivered to another 150 elderly at their homes three days each week.42 JDC also provides food parcels for distribution to about 1,000 individuals twice each year. JDC began a medical equipment loan service in Zhitomir in summer 1996.

The aid provided by JDC is supplemented by Ezrat Menachem, a Chabad support group located in France, that sends a container of food and other items to Rabbi Wilhelm every two to three months. (Some material from the container is sent on to other Jewish population centers in Ukraine.) The obshchina recently opened a free-loan service.

35. In facilities located close to the synagogue, Chabad operates a preschool for about 50 children and a first-grade day school class of about 15. A quasi-day school for about 100 post-first grade pupils is also in place, organized around the public school system, which functions on a shift schedule. When younger children attend public schools, older pupils meet in synagogue building classrooms for religious school classes; similarly, when older pupils attend secular studies in the public schools, the younger children meet in the synagogue building for Judaic classes. Rabbi Wilhelm hopes that a suitable building will be available to the community in September so that a more conventional day school will be available to Jewish families.

The obshchina also operates a small part-time yeshiva enrolling about 15 men. Additionally, under Rabbi Wilhelm’s guidance, Zhitomir young people have enrolled in Chabad educational programs in larger Ukrainian cities, such as Dnepropetrovsk.

The obshchina sponsors a day camp during the summer months, and directs older youngsters to residential camps operated by other organizations.

Esther Wilhelm, the wife of Rabbi Wilhelm, teaches Jewish subjects to children in the various educational programs and also supervises a girls’ club and day camp activities. Mrs. Wilhelm is an American.

36. An active Jewish library, whose core collection was donated by JDC, and a weekly Jewish newspaper have offices in the synagogue building. The library serves about 300 member clients, and the newspaper is published in about 1,000 copies. A children’s newspaper is also published, in an edition of about 500 copies.

37. The obshchina sponsored two community seders in 1996, each accommodating about 300 people. The first seder was planned for local Jewish elderly, and the second was attended mainly by families whose children are enrolled in the various Jewish youth activities. Earlier in the year, the obshchina rented a large hall for a Purim celebration, which was attended by approximately 1,500 people. Other holidays are also observed communally.

38. According to Rabbi Wilhelm, 50 percent of his budget is covered by Or Avner, a Chabad support group established by Levi Levayev, a Tashkent-born Israeli, in memory of his father. Rabbi Shmuel Plotkin assists Rabbi Wilhelm in U.S.-based fundraising.

39. A more secular Jewish Cultural Society, with which the writer had no contact, also operates in Zhitomir. This group offers cultural programs for adults, a small Sunday school for children (in cooperation with the Israeli-government Mechina program), and a welfare service.


40. Also in Zhitomir oblast, Berdichev is located a short distance south of Zhitomir city. Often depicted as the typical Jewish town in both Russian and Jewish literature of the pre-revolutionary period, Berdichev was home to nearly 50,000 Jews in the mid-19th century. Emigration reduced the Jewish population to less than 35,000 on the eve of World War II, then somewhat more than half of the total population of the city. Today, fewer than 1,000 Jews remain in Berdichev.

41. Rabbi Shlomo Breuer, an American Skverer hasid, is Rabbi of Berdichev.43 An older man, Rabbi Breuer was somewhat distracted during the visit by the collapse of an apartment building near the synagogue a few days earlier; five inhabitants had been killed in the catastrophe.

42. The synagogue complex includes a kitchen and dining room, a new mikva, and four sleeping rooms then under construction. A minyan meets for prayer twice daily. Rabbi Breuer also serves as a ritual slaughterer.

42.  In many such meals-on-wheels programs, a two-day supply of food is delivered on Mondays and Wednesdays and a three-day supply on Fridays, thus providing food for the full week.
43.  Rabbi Breuer is the only Skverer rabbi working full-time in the post-Soviet successor states. A colleague is the rabbi in Vinnitsa, but the latter lives in the United States and travels periodically to Vinnitsa.

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