Betsy Gidwitx Reports



The Naaleh high school in Israel program enrolled 35 new students from the region in 2011-2012, and applications for 2012-2013 are approximately twice as high as the number last year, said Ms. Shakur.  All applicants will be evaluated for both academic and psychological/emotional readiness.


The JAFI Kyiv office sent three busloads of 40 people each on Taglit (birthright Israel) in 2011 and anticipates sending the same number in 2012.  It offered three post-Taglit seminars - on Judaism, Israel, and the Holocaust.


MASA enrolled 100+ participants from Kyiv and central/western Ukraine in 2011-2012 - and 300 from all of Ukraine.  Ms. Shakur expected 2012-2013 enrollment to be comparable.  The more elite programs require co-payments of $5,000 to $10,000, which are difficult for Ukrainian families to provide, she said, so Ukrainian Jewish participants tend to enroll in programs sponsored by Orthodox religious institutions, which are more likely to be free.  Notwithstanding the reality that some young Jews thus participate in programs that are not their first choice, MASA remains very popular and often leads to aliyah.  Many participants change their status to new immigrant while still enrolled in MASA, Ms. Shakur said.


With supplemental funding from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, JAFI operates a day-long family Sunday school for approximately 70 youngsters between the ages of 11 and 13.  The two-year Sunday curriculum focuses on preparation for Bar/Bat Mitzvah and includes classes every Sunday for 30 weeks during the school year, Jewish holiday celebrations, and a trip to the Cherkasy region that includes a visit to Holocaust sites in the area.  Participants are drawn from the Kyiv contingent at the JAFI summer camp.  An accompanying program known as Tsror enrolls about 30 children between the ages of four and 11 (and their parents).  Upon  hearing that the Chicago Jewish Federation might suspend this support in favor of other projects, the JAFI staff mobilized a group of approximately 15 parents and grandparents to speak with the writer about its importance to them and their families.  Following are some excerpts:


Mother of three children, the eldest of whom enrolled in JAFI programs at the age of five.  At that time, the family "joined the Jewish nation".  All three children subsequently went to the ORT school in Kyiv.  The middle child is now in Israel in Naaleh; he is at an ORT school there and has had few adjustment problems because Kyiv ORT prepared him well.  Their daughter, age 20, is a graduate of Kyiv ORT and is preparing to go on aliyah; she met most of her current friends in JAFI teen programs and most of them now are in Israel.  The parents will make aliyah, along with their youngest son, when he graduates from the ORT school in Kyiv.  Meanwhile, he participates in JAFI teen programs.


Mother of two children, ages 13 and 17.  Children attend JAFI camp and youth club.  It is important that Bar/Bat Mitzvah program also has sessions for parents.  She appreciates the BBM sessions on the Holocaust, which were presented in a "sensitive" manner, giving her the opportunity to learn about this very important matter.  The madrichim courses help her children to become independent.  The kids used to go to Perlina school, but they had to drop out when Perlina started to charge tuition.  JAFI and Netzer (Reform movement youth group) fill the gap.


Mother of one adolescent daughter.  Daughter is in a conventional public school where she is "surrounded by antisemitism".  JAFI programs make the family comfortable as Jews, and the leadership training that daughter receives in JAFI enables her to be a leader in school even in the midst of antisemitism.


Mother of a 15-year old son now in Israel in Naaleh program.  Mother is not Jewish so son is not halachically Jewish, but JAFI accepts both of them warmly.  JAFI eased early adolescence of son, made him more responsible.  Now that son is in Israel, she is alone, but JAFI invites her to programs anyway (notwithstanding that she is not Jewish).


Mother of one child who has progressed through Tsror and Bat Mitzvah programs.  Many kids are unaware of their Jewish heritage and parents lack knowledge to raise them as Jews.  These programs are excellent in instructing parents and children about their Jewish heritage.


Father of two children, ages 12 and 14.  His family not only learns at JAFI, but "lives" at JAFI.  Educators at JAFI are very warm and helpful.  JAFI changes people and prepares them for new lives in Israel.


Mother of two children.  JAFI camps are "legendary" and also help parents learn to let go, to permit their children to become independent.


In response to a question, Ms. Shakur, who seemed well-acquainted with all of the parents and grandparents, described them as college-educated working-class individuals, some of whom are not halachically Jewish.  Perhaps 20 percent, not more, are single parents.


The writer later spoke with five JAFI staff members who work with children and youth:


S. attended JAFI camps for five years, has M.A. in marketing, went to Israel on Taglit, works part-time in Tsror program, has quit outside  and JAFI jobs to go to Israel on MASA.


P. also is going to Israel on MASA, enrolled in one of the more prestigious MASA programs.  She has worked in informal Jewish education in JAFI, including in summer camps.


V. is coordinator for Taglit and MASA.  He was born in Lviv and has M.A. in choreography.


C. has an M.A. in music.  She works with children and youth in various programs, including summer camps.  She also is going to Israel on MASA.


L. has university degrees in both economics and foreign languages.  Her JAFI work is in youth and student aliyah programs.




Ms. Shakur described two JAFI community programs that focus on adults.  JAFI is the convener of Shavuah Tov (Heb., A Good Week), an independently-funded forum that is "the only place in Kyiv where everyone [all Jews] meet".  Individuals from different synagogues and organizations gather to discuss such topics as religious tensions in Ukraine and in Israel, antisemitism in Ukraine, Jewish family life in the diaspora, and how to represent Jews in discussions with local authorities.  Although actual discussions are now limited to adults, JAFI intends to invite Jewish students as listeners so that they can become acquainted with various issues.  A Rosh Hodesh (Heb., lit. Head of the Month, or First Day of the New Month) program, started by two Chabad women, has found a home in JAFI.  Women gather monthly for Jewish learning, social activities, and programs on Israel.                                                                   


Reflecting on her six years as a JAFI emissary in the post-Soviet states, Ms. Shakur said that the Jewish Agency faces major challenges as it prepares for the future in these countries.  Many of these issues stem from the ever-diminishing funds available for JAFI operations.  Popular and effective programs are eroded as budgets are slashed again and again; if additional cuts are ordered for some of them, she continued, the programs will just collapse.  The uncertainty about available funds is debilitating; one cannot build on existing enthusiasm if the funding base is in doubt.  She observed that the reductions in financial support for programs in smaller cities and towns has eliminated Jewish contacts for people who already are isolated; Jews need to know that Jews and Judaism exist outside of Chabad.  By the time that some people in small cities and towns learn about various JAFI programs, she said, the registration period for these activities has closed and would-be participants are again excluded from Jewish opportunities.



61.  Amir Ben-Tzvi directs operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in central and western Ukraine.  In all, JDC serves 22,350 people in this region, 11,000 of whom reside in Kyiv.  Of the 11,000 clients in Kyiv, Mr. Ben-Tzvi continued, 57 percent are ineligible for supplemental funds from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany because they did not reside in areas occupied by the Nazis during World War II.  As Nazi victims continue to die, the proportion of non-victims continues to grow.  It would be even higher than reported, said Mr. Ben-Tzvi, if JDC, seeking to limit costs, had not decided to terminate registration of non-victims on its client list.  The average age of hesed clients, he noted, is 79.



Amir Ben-Tzvi is in his second year as director of JDC operations in central and western Ukraine after a successful term in a comparable position in Dnipropetrovsk.



Photo: the writer.




Clearly, JAFI welcomes the Claims Conference funds, stated Mr. Ben-Tzvi, but the German government appears to be imposing stricter regulations on the use of these funds for home care, socialization opportunities, and other programs.  Negotiations with the German government have become very difficult, he said.  Mr. Ben-Tzvi commented that Claims Conference allocations probably will peak in 2013, then decline sharply.


Apart from the hot lunches served to day center clients at the hesed,[104] JDC has sharply cut back its food services.  Food parcels are still delivered to some homebound elderly, but the majority of aid recipients are enabled to purchase discount cards for use at a chain of supermarkets.  The discount card system costs about one-fifth as much as the old food parcel/hot meals structure that characterized previous JDC operations, said Mr. Ben-Tzvi.  (A similar discount card system is used for the purchase of certain pharmaceutical goods.)


The number of poor Jewish families in Kyiv has increased, stated Mr. Ben-Tzvi.  Most of these impoverished families, he continued, are fairly recent migrants to the city from smaller towns.  They believe that greater opportunities await them in the capital city, but they are unprepared to deal with the complexities of city life.  They often are isolated socially.  Further, he noted, such families often leave their elderly members behind to fend for themselves in small population centers with few resources.[105]


Historically, JDC has focused disproportionately on welfare services in Kyiv and other territories covered by the Kyiv office.  Far fewer resources are targeted on Jewish renewal programs, a situation that Mr. Ben-Tzvi would like to change.  However, both inadequate funding and a lack of suitable program space deter implementation of additional Jewish renewal activity.


No resolution is in sight for easing the occupancy and general premises issues that continue to plague JDC in Kyiv.  Formally, JDC has set aside $1.5 million for improvements to the hesed building, but Mr. Ben-Tzvi - and others - believe that the structure is beyond repair.  Further, due to its poor location at the crest of a small hill and some distance from public transportation lines, it seems illogical to attempt to salvage the building.  Replicating the new JDC Kharkiv building in Kyiv would cost $10 million, Mr. Ben-Tzvi noted.[106]


Mr. Ben-Tzvi stated that the general mood in Kyiv is one of pessimism.  The economic and political problems of the country are seen as overwhelming.

[104]  See pages 82-83.

[105]  This phenomenon also occurs in other large cities, such as Dnipropetrovsk.  Jews from villages relocate in a larger city, and soon approach - or are referred to - Jewish organizations for various forms of assistance.

[106]  See pages 57-59.  It was not clear to the writer if the quoted cost referred only to the building or to the building and the property on which it stands.

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