Betsy Gidwitx Reports



The Jewish Agency will offer three summer camp sessions in 2011, each based at a site on the Black Sea and each aimed at a specific age group (ages 12-14, ages 15-17, and students). Each camp session will accommodate 90 campers for a period of eight days. Most counselors are former campers who have completed training courses, said Ms. Zbarzhevsky. The director also is a local individual, but six or seven specialists from Israel will join the staff to lead particular programs.


With support from the Pincus Fund and another Jewish Agency program, JAFI also sponsors Community Home, an Internet role-playing game that attracts individuals between the ages of 16 and 30. Dnipropetrovsk activists compete with five other teams in the region to build their own local Jewish community for the future. Ms. Zbarzhevsky commented that high on the agenda of all participants are Jewish pluralism and a high-quality Jewish day school that is open to all youngsters of Jewish heritage regardless of halachic background.


Ms. Zbarzhevsky stated that local Jews clearly desire a Jewish communal infrastructure that offers multiple approaches to Judaism and Jewish practice with mutual respect among all Jews and Jewish organizations. Rabbi Kaminezki understands this need for diverse Jewish community programs and thus welcomes programs of the Jewish Agency, Israel Culture Center, and certain other groups, she continued.[42]


The Jewish Agency will move its local offices and program space to the Menorah Center when that structure is ready for occupation, said Ms. Zbarzhevsky. Rabbi Kaminezki would like the entire Jewish population to be represented in that building – and the Jewish Agency needs to be with the rest of the Jewish population.



25. Nativ was established in the 1950’s as the Lishkat Hakesher (Liaison Office) by the then Prime Minister of Israel to operate covertly among the Jewish population of the then Soviet Union, maintaining contacts and assisting immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel. Although the rationale for its maintenance in the post-Soviet era has been questioned, it continues to exist under the influence of Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel and is responsible today for managing Israeli consulates in the post-Soviet states; in that capacity, it issues Israeli visas to new immigrants. It also operates Israel Culture Centers (attached to consulates) in a number of cities with significant Jewish populations.


The Israeli consul in Dnipropetrovsk, said that the local Israel Culture Center sponsors various programs related to Israeli culture, including an Israel cinema club, and also offers Hebrew ulpan classes[43], a Jewish women’s club, and seminars on Israeli business. Its major youth activities are sponsorship of adapted Israeli Scout groups among local teenagers and various sports clubs. In cooperation with other Israel Culture Centers in Ukraine, it sponsors two Taglit (birthright Israel) trips to Israel annually, along with Taglit follow-up programs. Nativ sponsors its own Masa program, offering a number of different courses of study free of co-payments at Ariel College in Samaria (the West Bank).



A participant in the Israeli Scout group tries a ropes course at a Scout encampment on an island in the Dnipr River in nearby Zaporizhya.



Photo: Chabad of Dnipropetrovsk.


The consul noted that the ICC will work with almost any Jewish affinity group in the area, including those rejected by the synagogue because some or all of its members are not halachic Jews. A number of different Jewish organizations use the ICC large multi-purpose room for their own meetings and/or social activities.



26. Esther Katz, an Israeli, is the new director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint, JDC) in Dnipropetrovsk, replacing Amir Ben-Tzvi who has been transferred to Kyiv.[44] Ms. Katz stated that Joint provides welfare services to 7,000 Jewish elderly in the city through Hesed Menachem.[45] Additionally, said Ms. Katz, JDC provides various forms of assistance – welfare, psychological, legal, vocational, and instruction in childcare – to 510 at-risk Jewish families. About 120 special needs children and youth rotate in various groups according to disability and age through Hesed Menachem, each group coming to the hesed one day every one to two weeks for programs geared to their specific needs. In addition to Dnipropetrovsk clients, Joint provides assistance to additional Jews who live in smaller cities and towns.[46]


Esther Katz, left, a veteran JDC professional, is in her first year of fieldwork in Dnipropetrovsk.


Photo: the writer.


In response to a question, Ms. Katz estimated the Jewish population in the city at 50,000 to 60,000 people according to the Israeli Law of Return, that is, individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent and thus eligible for citizenship in Israel. Emigration of Jews from the Dnipropetrovsk area is high and generally removes those individuals who are more actively engaged Jewishly from the community; those who remain, said Ms. Katz, are less like to be committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish continuity. Further, she continued, the rate of intermarriage is very high and is a deterrent to local leadership development; individuals with diluted Jewish identity are unlikely to be interested in volunteer work on behalf of the Jewish community.


Answering another query, Ms. Katz said that JDC continues to operate family camps as part of its Jewish renewal agenda. Joint partially subsidizes these programs, but all participants pay at least a portion of the cost. About 1200 families from nine cities in the Dnipropetrovsk region have taken part in such workshops, which usually are held at resorts. Although JDC had once been optimistic that participants would become community leaders, it is now recognized that few are eager to assume leadership roles; however, she continued, it is possible that some will become volunteers in some capacity. On the other hand, she noted, it is obvious that some children in these family camps admire the madrichim [leaders, especially of youth programs, many of whom are Hillel activists], so it is possible that some of the youngsters will assume activist roles.[47]


Speaking about the economy, Ms. Katz said that the private sector is much more developed in Dnipropetrovsk than in other Ukrainian cities, but, nonetheless, the local economy remains very problematic. Officially, unemployment is 8.7 percent, she said, but actual unemployment is much higher and is increasing. Huge industrial plants close, she continued, and throw thousands of people out of work. Technically, some or all people remain on the payroll, but they are not receiving salaries; because they remain on an official payroll list, no unemployment insurance is activated. Some factories, she continued, supplied nearby markets in neighboring Russia, but lost these markets when the Soviet Union collapsed. Ms Katz observed that eastern Ukraine has many “monogorods” [моногород], single-industry towns in which the local economy falls apart when a large factory closes. Further, added Ms. Katz, new taxes are “killing” the emerging middle class and destroying small businesses. The taxes have been introduced incrementally, destroying some businesses in December of 2010 and others in January and April of 2011. Another increase scheduled for December 2011 will drive even more businesses into bankruptcy, she said.


In response to a question about the greatest needs of Joint in Dnipropetrovsk, Ms. Katz identified two priorities. First, she said, JDC needs to provide more services for elderly Jews who are ineligible for welfare services provided through Holocaust restitution funds; if an individual was not in an area occupied by Nazi forces during World War II, he or she is ineligible for services provided through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany or other Holocaust-related support organizations. Such elderly, who include all evacuees as well as younger seniors born after World War II, receive fewer essential services than Holocaust survivors or war-time armed forces veterans. Second, said Ms. Katz, JDC needs resources for employment services, including computer training. Even relatively young adults lack computer skills vital to the contemporary labor market.


Ms. Katz confirmed that Hesed Menachem and the small Jewish community center program[48] will move into the new Menorah Center upon its completion. The Jewish community center will need to coordinate its activities with other programs operated in the Menorah Center, such as an independently-operated fitness center. The JCC will focus on children’s programs, particularly on afterschool activities and expanded offerings for special needs groups. JDC general offices will remain in their current premises, a small office building.


In answer to a question about the probable fate of the current hesed building, Ms. Katz said that no decision had yet been made about its disposition after hesed services are moved to the Menorah Center. The current structure, a former school, is in poor physical condition, but the property on which it stands is in a good location.


[42] In the past, Rabbi Kaminezki’s tolerance for different expressions of Judaism has not extended to non-Orthodox interpretations of the Jewish faith. Other Jewish religious groups exploring a possible presence in the city have been made to feel unwelcome.

[43] Unlike the Jewish Agency, which charges fees for its ulpan classes, the ICC ulpan is cost-free to participants. However, Jewish Agency ulpans include Jewish identity components and are viewed by most observers as providing a superior level of Hebrew-language instruction.

[44] See pages 123-124 for an account of an interview with Mr. Ben-Tzvi in Kyiv.

[45] See pages 28-29 for information about Hesed Menachem in Dnipropetrovsk.

[46] See pages 84-85 for information about JDC services in Krivoi Rog.

[47] The programs at JDC family camps usually include a mix of resort recreational activities, informal Jewish education, and structured discussion groups. Some programs are planned for family units, and some are directed toward separate groups of adults and children. Although the writer did not ask Ms. Katz about the level of family participation in all activities, other JDC personnel have acknowledged that some individuals avoid the Jewish education components and spend the majority of their time in various recreational pursuits.

In general, JDC has found it very difficult to recruit indigenous Jews to leadership positions in local heseds. In addition to the Jewish identity issues addressed by Ms. Katz, local Jews have told the writer (and others) that they view JDC as an alien organization controlled by foreigners in Jerusalem and New York. They have no desire to become nominal authority figures (or stooges, as several people have said) when other individuals outside the country are exercising real control.

[48] The latter currently occupies three activity rooms in the office building attached to the Golden Rose Choral Synagogue.

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