Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

43. Rabbi Breuer said that 60 to 70 percent of Berdichev Jewry is elderly and the majority need assistance. He receives a subsidy from JDC to provide a meals-on-wheels service to 30 seniors and stretches his budget to include 37; he has a long waiting list of others wishing to be included. Dozens more eat in the synagogue dining room every day.

44. Rabbi Breuer and his wife operate a Sunday school and late afternoon program that attract 20 to 25 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 16. He encourages young people to enter study programs in Monsey (N.Y.), Toronto, or Israel.

45. Rabbi Breuer said that he advises young adult Jews to emigrate, although most do so even without his recommendation. They go to the United States, Israel, and to Germany. In common with other rabbis, he seemed deeply pained by the emigration of Jews to Germany; he recognizes that many such individuals go there in pursuit of the generous assistance provided by the German government or because they are in mixed marriages and anticipate problems in Israel due to their personal status.

46. An individual in Toronto pays Rabbi Breuer a salary for his work in Berdichev. Rabbi Breuer’s adult children in New York try to raise funds for him and he visits London occasionally to try to raise money there. He would like to send Berdichev Jewish children to Jewish summer camps, but lacks the funds to do so.

47. Rabbi Breuer appeared to be exceptionally isolated, his ‘ordinary’ loneliness exacerbated by the absence of his wife who was visiting relatives in the United States at the time of my visit. He has “no one to talk with,” referring to others of his Jewish knowledge and commitment. He spoke respectfully of Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, but probably would be more comfortable with someone from his own movement and closer to his own age. He also expressed a desire for a ‘sister-city’ relationship between his community and a Jewish community or synagogue in another country. Rabbi Breuer said that he was almost ready to retire, but that he would remain in Berdichev at least several more years because the old people there need him.

48. The writer did not visit a different Jewish organization that has modest ties to the Masorti (Conservative) movement. It was learned later that this group has a semi-active relationship with a large Conservative synagogue in a Chicago suburb.44

49. Because of time constraints, the writer was unable to visit the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, which had been recently vandalized.


50. The city of Khmelnitsky (Khmelnytskyy) is the administrative center of Khmelnitsky oblast, located just to the west of Zhitomir oblast. Khmelnitsky oblast and Rovno oblast, its northern neighbor, are considered the easternmost portions of western Ukraine.

Formerly known as Proskurov, the city was renamed after Bogdan Khmelnitsky in 1954. A large heroic statue of Khmelnitsky astride a horse rises in the city square, honoring the Cossack leader whose troops massacred about 100,000 Jews and destroyed about 300 Jewish communities in 1648-49. Many Ukrainians perceive him as a great Ukrainian patriot who was instrumental in awakening a sense of Ukrainian nationhood.

51. About 11,500 Jews lived in Proskurov at the end of the 19th century, approximately 50 percent of the entire population of the city at that time. In 1919, Proskurov fell victim to one of the most vicious pogroms of the Civil War period. Following the failure of Communist forces (including both Ukrainians and Jews) to secure control of the railroad station in February, Ukrainian hetman Semosenko ordered the killing of all Jews in the city. His troops murdered 1,500 and wounded thousands more in less than half a day. Despite appeals to the Petlyura government, Semosenko was never punished.

The overwhelming majority of Proskurov Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust. Since Ukraine declared independence in 1991, Jews in Khmelnitsky (as elsewhere in the area) have amended ‘generic’ monuments (e.g., “To the victims of fascism shot between 1942 and 1944”) at Holocaust sites to more specific captions that state the approximate number of victims and the reality that most were Jews. The new memorials usually bear a Star of David and inscriptions in both Ukrainian and Hebrew. Two such sites are located in Khmelnitsky; one memorializes 8,500 Jews and the other remembers 4,500 Jews.

52. The current population of the city of Khmelnitsky is about 350,000, of whom approximately 3,000 are Jews. An additional 3,000 to 4,000 Jews reside in smaller cities and towns throughout the oblast.

The local economy is depressed, with many factories shuttered and municipal services rapidly eroding. Among others, policemen are poorly paid and are thus subject to bribes. Jews dominate the local mafia. Reflecting economic pressures, many families are troubled and unstable.

53. The unchallenged leader of Khmelnitsky Jewry is Rabbi Peretz Charach, an American-born Karliner-Stoliner hasid, who also has strong roots in Israel. He is young, gregarious, and sometimes brash. Rabbi Charach’s wife, Esti, is also active in the community.

54. Rabbi Charach estimates that 50 percent of the Khmelnitsky Jewish population is elderly, and that only about 200 Jews between the ages of 7 and 23 remain in the city. Of the latter, he says that he is in contact with about 120. He arranged for 25 Jewish youths to study in Israel in 1995, and another 20 made aliyah with their families. Rabbi Charach has very strong Zionist sentiments and will direct young people only to Israel.45

55. A small building located on a major street serves as a Jewish communal center. A sign identifying its purpose was moved from the front of the structure to a location near the side entrance after it was defaced by vandals. It contains offices and several activity rooms. Facilities in a nearby building accommodate a kitchen and a pre-school.

56. Esti Charach directs the Jewish pre-school enrolling 15 children. Fifty to sixty youngsters attend Sunday school classes at the Jewish community center, and about 20 children are enrolled in afterschool Judaic lessons that meet there three days each week. Daily tutoring in Jewish tradition attracts a number of boys eleven years of age and older. Due to the small number of Jewish youngsters in the city, Rabbi Charach does not plan to open a day school. He also recognizes that daily individual and small-group tutoring provides excellent opportunities for influencing the lives of adolescents.

Other activities for Jewish youth include a teen club that attracts about 30 youngsters twice each week and several Israeli dance groups. Rabbi Charach has also trained about 10 adolescents to visit Jewish elderly confined to their homes.

The Charachs arrange field trips for young people to places of Jewish interest. They sponsor a summer day camp for younger children and arrange for older youngsters to attend the Ukrainian camps operated by Yad Yisroel, the Karliner-Stoliner organization active in Ukraine and Belarus.

57. The Center is also the headquarters for a substantial social and welfare program that serves the large Jewish elderly population. About 120 Jewish elderly participate in discussion groups on Sundays. Also on Sundays, a physician holds office hours at the Center. More than 60 elderly Jews are served hot meals at the Center once every day for six days each week.

A well-organized group of 15 women use the Center as a base for a home visiting program in which each visits three to five homebound elderly Jews on a regular schedule, sometimes as often as six days weekly, to bring food, cook, clean, and perform various household chores. Humanitarian aid packages are also distributed from the Center. The welfare program is managed by an older man who participated in the JDC paraprofessional training institute in St. Petersburg; he seemed well-informed and well-respected.

Escorted by Rabbi Charach, the writer visited several Jewish elderly in their homes. We approached the bungalow of one elderly woman through piles of debris to the side of her front door. Rabbi Charach explained that he had removed the trash himself and was waiting for someone to haul it away; however, the woman was a compulsive “saver” who would not permit the rabbi to remove stacks of old newspapers, some dating from the 1930s. Indeed, the interior of the dilapidated house was so crammed with various possessions, some of no conceivable use, that it was difficult to find a clear space on the floor. Notably lacking in the domicile was indoor plumbing; the woman used a neighborhood outhouse about 25 yards behind her dwelling, a distance she is unable to traverse when the temperature is below zero and the ground is covered with ice and snow. Rabbi Charach has recruited some young people to visit her daily and assist her in emptying the contents of chamber pots -- and also in bringing in fresh water, which is obtained from a hand pump located an even greater distance from her bungalow.

44.  When the existence of this group was mentioned to Rabbi Breuer, he dismissed it, saying, “Oh, they are not really Jewish.”
45.  The Karliner-Stoliner movement operates boarding schools in Israel that are geared to the needs of immigrant youngsters from the post-Soviet successor states. These junior/senior high schools offer strong curricula in both secular and religious studies.

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