Betsy Gidwitx Reports



61. As noted elsewhere in this paper, a residential program for youngsters from troubled homes is maintained by Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich. Another facility for Jewish children is operated by Rabbi Moshe Asman of the Brodsky synagogue. In general, the number of youngsters in these programs throughout Ukraine has declined sharply in recent years, probably reflecting the general Jewish population decline.



62. International Solomon University, a private proprietary institution, opened in Kyiv in 1991. Its predominantly Jewish management reached out to Jewish individuals and organizations for acceptance and support; a large number of its students during its first decade were Jewish young people, including many from smaller towns in western Ukraine, whose inferior high school preparation precluded admission into more traditional institutions in the Ukrainian capital.


The writer spoke with Dr. Aleksandr Rosenfeld, rector of ISU. Dr. Rosenfeld, who was curt and dismissive throughout the interview, said that enrollment in ISU now is about 2,000, a number that many outside observers consider exaggerated. He continued that the majority of students are from out-of-town, and that many reside in ISU dormitories. ISU offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, stated Dr. Rosenfeld. In response to a question, he said that the major areas of concentration are computer science, biology, history, sociology, law, finance, and marketing. Within the history department, he continued, students may elect to specialize in Jewish history; the ISU Jewish history program emphasizes Hasidism, Holocaust studies, and Zionism, he stated, noting that each of these areas has strong roots in Ukraine.


When the writer asked about the number of students enrolled in Jewish studies, Dr. Rosenfeld responded that these courses are “not popular”. The writer then asked if the lack of popularity stemmed from difficulties obtaining subsequent employment in the field, Dr. Rosenfeld replied affirmatively. “Кому это нужно?” (“Who needs it?”), he responded, referring to Jewish studies.


The primary foreign languages taught at ISU are English and French, said Dr. Rosenfeld. Hebrew would be taught if students were interested in learning it, but students do not ask for Hebrew courses.

Other individuals in Kyiv with whom the writer spoke said that ISU focuses on its law and finance concentrations because these departments are profitable. Enrollment at ISU may be as low as 500, stated a professional at a Kyiv Jewish organization, observing that the ISU Jewish market had “evaporated” due to Jewish population decline in the smaller cities and towns in central and western Ukraine from which ISU draws its population. This professional doubted that any identifying Jews remain at the institution. Poorly prepared students of all ethnic backgrounds now had other choices due to the emergence of other institutions since Ukrainian independence. ISU simply is not competitive in any field, claimed several people. They also noted that many Jewish professors, as well as qualified academics of other ethnic backgrounds, have left the institution because its salaries are very low.[85]



63. Iosif Akselrud is the Director of Hillel CASE, the section of the Hillel student organization that oversees Hillel operations in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. He is less concerned with specific Hillel programs in Kyiv than with overall management issues, he said. He described his responsibilities as fundraising, staff deployment and training, and other large questions concerning the entire CASE area. Although aware of Hillel operations in Kyiv, his role transcends local issues.


One of Mr. Akselrud’s major accomplishments has been the establishment of a functional indigenous board of directors for Hillel CASE. In 2010, its first year of existence, the board raised $45,000; its goal for 2011 is $60,000, Mr. Akselrud said. Apart from the board, Mr. Akselrud himself is one of the most successful indigenous fundraisers in the post-Soviet states. His efforts yielded almost $400,000 in 2010, including the $45,000 from the board; other major contributors, stated Mr. Akselrud are the Genesis Philanthropic Group of Moscow, the Hamama incubator program of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund,[86] and Vadym Rabynovych of Ukraine. The remainder of the CASE Hillel budget of $1,134,000 is provided by Hillel International. CASE Hillel, noted Mr. Akselrud, now submits to an annual independent audit, a measure that remains rare among local non-profits.


Iosif Akselrud, right, is one of the most successful Jewish fundraisers in the post-Soviet states. His primary work is with Hillel, but he also is influential in other groups.


Photo: the writer.

Other than persistent funding problems, Mr. Akselrud said that one of the most significant issues facing Hillel at this point is a clear loss of interest among Hillel students in Jewish educational programs. When Hillel was first organized in the early 1990’s, he continued, students seemed to have an almost limitless appetite for Jewish education – Jewish tradition, Jewish ritual, Jewish music, Jewish history, and almost every other aspect of Jewish education. Some current students, he acknowledged, are veterans of Jewish camps and other educational programs, which certainly was not the case 15 years ago. Perhaps they already know as much as they want to know, although not all students have not had these formative experiences. He also believes that new recreational opportunities, such as bowling and student-oriented nightclubs, are competing for student time. He has organized a committee of education experts, many from the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee, to study this issue and advise Hillel on new Jewish education programs that will be appealing to contemporary Jewish young people. Mr. Akselrud noted that he is trying to work closely with JAFI, JDC, and Nativ (formerly, the Liaison Bureau), overcoming past rivalries and animosities. However, the relationship with JDC now is much different than it used to be; JDC no longer is the financial agent for Hillel, a separation that has facilitated new partnerships with others who might not have wanted to work with JDC or a JDC affiliate.


Another issue, continued Mr. Akselrud, is that the Taglit program, as valuable as it is, sometimes seems to be taking over Hillel. Hillel CASE organized 10 Taglit trips in 2010 from its region, he said, and Hillel has become a travel agency in doing the necessary planning for these journeys. On the other hand, he lamented, Hillel lacks funding to do appropriate follow-up programming with Taglit participants upon their return to Ukraine. He fears that some of the benefits accruing to Taglit dissipate due to lack of follow-up with tour members.


Mr. Akslerud observed that he also is struggling with several personnel issues, including replacing a Hillel director in a major city. Political infighting among Hillel staff members was a problem in some areas, he added.


In response to a question, Mr. Akselrud said that Ukrainian Hillel students enjoy working with counterpart Hillel students from the United States and other countries and are pleased to host such groups when they come to Ukraine. Both New York and Israeli Hillel students visited Hillel groups in Kyiv and Odesa in 2010-2011, and the New York groups were guests of Lviv Hillel as well.


CASE and Russian Hillel students were eligible for a new selective-entry Holocaust- related program this year, stated Mr. Akselrud. Those who had shown particular interest in the Holocaust were invited to participate in a special Holocaust seminar in Lithuania, he said. The seminar required pre-seminar orientation sessions and was funded by the Genesis Philanthropic Group and led by Yad Vashem.


[85] See page 56 for information about the International Solomon University branch in Kharkiv.

[86] The Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund (Joods Humanitair Fonds) was established in 2002. Its mission is to support projects restoring Jewish life in former Communist countries, Jewish education, mutual respect between people, and support civilian victims in war zones. Its asset base derives from unclaimed Jewish property remaining in the Netherlands following World War II and the Holocaust.

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