Betsy Gidwitx Reports


The Resource Center is a beneficiary of steady volunteer assistance, said Ms. Olshanitskaya. Local volunteers help regularly, usually on a weekly basis, with the children, she explained, playing with them, helping them with art projects, etc. Several Beit Chana students also volunteer in the Resource Center, Ms. Olshanitskaya added.


The Resource Center will move with Beit Chana into its new building when that facility is ready, stated Ms. Olshanitskaya.[66] The space available to the Resource Center will be somewhat smaller, but the new premises are much more conveniently located, she said.



32. At the time of the writer's visit to Dnipropetrovsk in April, the Hillel student organization was still occupying severely overcrowded space in a small office building attached to the Golden Rose Choral Synagogue. Their official move to more commodious premises in the new Menorah Center was scheduled for June, at which time a "big opening ceremony" will be held, declared Olga Tovkach, the highly regarded Hillel executive in the city. Another party, she proclaimed, will be held in December to mark the 15th anniversary of Hillel in Dnipropetrovsk. A festival and major show will be staged in celebration of its accomplishments.


In response to a question, Ms. Tovkach stated that about 1,500 people are listed on the Hillel data base.[67] The list is up-to-date, she said, and does not include individuals who have emigrated or have aged out of Hillel activities. However, Ms. Tovkach continued, the demographic situation is becoming "difficult" for Hillel. The Jewish population, especially in the age group served by Hillel is diminishing; aliyah (emigration to Israel) has become a "problem," she said. Individuals go to Israel on Taglit programs, MASA programs, or even Yad Vashem seminars, and either don't come back - or they return to Dnipropetrovsk for a brief period and then go to Israel permanently. Hillel has lost many of its "best people" - staff members and student leaders - to aliyah, she said.



Olga Tovkach has revitalized a once lackluster Hillel organization in Dnipropetrovsk since becoming its executive in 2008.


Photo: the writer.


Ms. Tovkach is the only fulltime staff member at Dnipropetrovsk Hillel. Eight others have part-time positions, each specializing in a particular area, such as Jewish education or Israel programming. Another 10 individuals work as "connectors," that is, people who seek out other Jewish students and attempt to connect them with Hillel. The connectors are not paid regular salaries, but do receive small gifts in recognition of their work.


In response to a question about the most popular Hillel programs, Ms. Tovkach said that observance of kabbalat Shabbat (receiving Shabbat) always draws a crowd of about 70 people on Friday afternoons/early evenings. The traditional kabbalat Shabbat ritual, she continued, is supplemented by a presentation from well-known individuals, such as Israeli government officials in Ukraine, academics, or others who can deliver a lecture on an interesting topic. Another popular program, she continued, is the Campus Entrepreneurs Initiative; CEI invites selected individuals to participate in a leadership seminar, after which they seek out previously uninvolved Jewish students and attempt to engage/connect them with ongoing Hillel programs or invent new ones related to Judaism or Israel. The CEI program, now in its third year, has successfully attracted 380 new participants from local universities and colleges to Hillel programs. Expanding on this theme, Ms. Tovkach said that some Jewish students deny their Jewish heritage when approached. Some acknowledge that their maternal grandmother is Jewish, but insist that such ancestry is irrelevant.


Hillel members also enjoy shabbatons, stated Ms. Tovkach. The next one, she said, is scheduled for May and is intended to be a Taglit follow-up experience for Hillel Taglit veterans from Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk. About 50 people are expected to participate in the Shabbaton, along with nine or ten trained madrichim (leaders). All attendees will pay a subsidized fee, Ms. Tovkach said, and Hillel will pay the remainder of costs for the event.


Volunteer work also is appealing to Hillel members, said Ms. Tovkach. Hillel members eagerly participated in the annual Week of Good Deeds, which has expanded to two weeks of good deeds in Dnipropetrovsk. Hillel members donated blood to children with cancer and play with child cancer victims at least once every month, Ms. Tovkach stated. They also have assisted people with various disabilities, and have purchased clothing and toys for children in state orphanages. The major Hillel project for the Week of Good Deeds in Dnipropetrovsk this year was cleaning the ravine on the local university campus where many Jews were massacred during the Holocaust. The ravine had become a garbage dump, said Ms. Tovkach. Hillel mobilized other students, including a large contingent of Armenian-heritage young people, to help them in removing garbage and then planting trees at the site. Between 300 and 400 young people participated in this project, Ms. Tovkach stated.


Dnipropetrovsk Hillel was visited by a group of Hillel students from the University of Virginia during the current academic year, responded Ms. Tovkach to a question about participation in international Hillel activities. The visit of the Americans, added Ms. Tovkach, happened to occur during the Week of Good Deeds, so the Americans joined their Dnipropetrovsk counterparts in volunteer work.[68]


Dnipropetrovsk Hillel is organizing two Taglit buses this year, one in winter and one in summer, said Ms. Tovkach. The summer trip is seriously oversubscribed, she said, with a long waiting list.


Ms. Tovkach described her relationships with other Jewish organizations in the city as very good, singling out Ilana Shpak of the Jewish Agency for Israel as being especially warm and helpful.[69] In response to a question about the establishment of a Moishe House in Dnipropetrovsk, Ms. Tovkach said that very little progress has been made on this project, mainly because Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki insists that Hillel play a major role in its planning and early management. She is simply too busy to fulfill such responsibilities, she said.


Answering another query, Ms. Tovkach stated that the Dnipropetrovsk Hillel budget for this year is almost $60,000. She herself solicited $13,000 in support from local donors in 2012 (exceeding her target of $12,000). Her goal for 2013 is $15,000. As a Jewish community organization, Hillel will pay the discounted community rate for its new space in the Menorah Center, she said. Asked if some students might be hesitant to visit Hillel premises that are so close to an Orthodox synagogue, Ms. Tovkach responded that some Jewish young people are uneasy now because they must walk through the synagogue courtyard in order to enter the attached building in which Hillel currently is located. However, she said, the main entry points to the Menorah Center do not require passage through the synagogue. The Menorah Center is very open, whereas the synagogue seems closed. Security is light at the Menorah Center, and the atmosphere is "public", not confined.



33. Conceived as a serious Jewish education program for halachically-Jewish students and young adults, STARS (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers) was initiated in many regions of the post-Soviet states in 2006. The program is taught according to Orthodox philosophy and practice; males and females are assigned to separate classes, although some mixing occurs in holiday celebrations. Stipends are offered to attract participants. The major goal is to educate young people in Orthodox Jewish tradition, encourage them to meet and marry other halachically Jewish young people, and raise Jewish families.



Iosif Masakovsky, a former computer technology instructor in Dnipropetrovsk, directs the local STARS program. Largely self-taught in Judaism, he acknowledges that the program has encountered some difficulties, but predicts a bright future for the derivative programs that have been developed since its earlier flaws were detected. STARS has been funded by Eli Horin of Brazil and oligarch Levi Leviev.



Photo: the writer.


Mr. Masakovsky is among many observers in Ukraine who acknowledge that the original STARS program has only partially met expectations. Some participants, he and others stated, enrolled in the program under false pretenses; they were not students and were, in fact, incapable of absorbing the college-level Jewish curriculum that had been prepared for them. A number of them had limited intellectual capacity and/or psychological or emotional issues. Some were disruptive in class. Their motivation for joining the program was receipt of Chabad stipends. Even some young people who successfully completed the course had shown that their primary interest had been receipt of subsidies. As soon as their courses of study ended and the grants ceased, he explained, many of them broke with the community and declined any further involvement with Chabad. From time to time, Chabad implemented various measures aimed at improving educational achievement, such as requiring successful completion of monthly exams before stipends were paid, but many would-be STARS participants were resistant to such conditions.


[66] See pages 59-60 regarding the new premises of Beit Chana.

[67] Approximately 10 percent of the individuals in the Hillel data base appear to have no Jewish roots, stated Ms. Tovkach.

[68] Notwithstanding the location of a large number of colleges and universities in the Boston area, no Hillel group from that city has ever visited its sister-city counterparts in Dnipropetrovsk.

[69] See pages 81-84 for more information about the Jewish Agency in Dnipropetrovsk. Hillel and the Jewish Agency are rivals in some cities as they compete to fill Taglit buses and differ over the role of Israel and Zionism in program planning. Ms. Tovkach's characterization of aliyah as a "problem" was at least partially tongue-in-cheek and even self-congratulatory regarding the strength of Israel-related programming in Dnipropetrovsk Hillel.

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