Betsy Gidwitx Reports

In common with other rabbis, Rabbi Edri was critical of the Joint Distribution Committee. The ballet classes and other cultural activities that are offered at the local JDC-sponsored Jewish community center are available elsewhere in the city, he said; JDC funds should focus on welfare needs, which are substantial and only superficially addressed. He believes that his own synagogue-based welfare service distributes more actual aid than does the hesed. Rabbi Edri continued that JDC operations should concentrate on the needs of Jewish elderly, mothers and preschool-age children, and special-needs children and their families.


Taglit (birthright Israel) is very effective in strengthening Jewish identity and conveying the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, said Rabbi Edri. He also is enthusiastic about MASA, which, he believes, provides young people with an excellent opportunity to explore opportunities in Israel. However, he finds the Na'aleh high school in Israel program less sound because, he said, it targets adolescents who are too immature to leave their families and native environments.







Situated on both banks of the Dnipr River in the north central part of the country, the origins of Kyiv are lost in antiquity. The Ukrainian capital is, however, known as the “mother of all Russian cities,” long pre-dating cities in Russia itself. Kyivan Rus – the city and territories around it - is considered the forerunner of the modern Russian state. In 988, Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv designated Orthodox (Byzantine rite) Christianity as the state religion of Russia and established its seat in Kyiv. Kyivan Rus attained its greatest powers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when it was a trading center between the Baltic and Mediterranean seas. Sacked by Mongols in 1240, the lands of Kyivan Rus were successively under Tatar, Lithuanian, and Polish control from the fourteenth century and then annexed by Russia in 1686. The third largest city in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Kyiv was occupied and almost completely destroyed by German forces between September 1941 and November 1943.

Now the capital of independent Ukraine, Kyiv is the political hub of the country and an important center of Ukrainian commerce, industry, culture, and education. Increasingly, prominent businessmen from other parts of the country are relocating to Kyiv in order to be close to government, national financial institutions, and other critical national organizations. It is as well a magnet for younger people wishing to build careers in post-Soviet Ukraine. The 2013 population of the city is approximately 2.8 million.


Kyiv is a mix of old and new, but the Dnepr River is constant. The wealthier west bank of the city hosts a number of magnificent centuries-old cathedrals, as well as critical government, economic, and cultural institutions. Massive newer apartment blocks dominate the lower-status east bank.


Photo: gallery/city_gallery_kiev/kiev-panorama.png.


Retrieved August 26, 2013.



Estimates of the size of the Jewish population of Kyiv range from 25,000 to 50,000. Unlike many other large Jewish population centers in the post-Soviet states, Ukraine lacks unambiguous Jewish leadership. The chief rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, frequently is absent from the city, and no other individual has emerged as a leader of Kyiv Jewry. The majority of Kyiv Jews remain aloof from organized Jewish activity. Although a small group of young adults is initiating several new Jewish ventures, the impact of their activity is yet to be measured.



Jewish Education



70. The Orach Chaim Jewish day school (School #299), operating under the auspices of Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, is the oldest of five Jewish day schools in the city. For the first time in many years, its principal, Khariton Gilgur, declined to speak with the writer, perhaps at the suggestion of Rabbi Bleich, who earlier had expressed displeasure with Mr. Gilgur's statements to the writer. Historically, the school and related institutions were dispersed over four buildings - separate boys' and girls' schools, and separate boys' and girls' dormitories - in different locations. All facilities were in deteriorating physical condition.


Rabbi Bleich stated in an interview that enrollment is now between 100 and 120 from grades one through 11.[115] In an effort to reduce costs, boys and girls now are in the same building; classes in grades one through four are mixed, and classes in grades five through 11 are separated by gender. Approximately 80 children are in a preschool, and another 80 are in a boys' heder and girls' machon. The preschool, heder, and machon have been more successful in retaining enrollment.


He was in the process, continued Rabbi Bleich, of closing down the dormitories for children from at-risk homes. Occupancy had declined over the years;[116] further, closure of these buildings and programs would generate considerable savings. Those youngsters who remained in need of such housing would be transferred to the Tikvah homes in Odesa.[117]


In response to a question about his previous plans to open an academically strong community Jewish high school that might draw Jewish youngsters from across the city, Rabbi Bleich said that such an institution is not feasible in the near future. He realizes, he said, that he needs to focus on upgrading the current elementary school in order to increase enrollment and build a base for a stronger and more attractive high school.



71. The Simcha-Chabad Jewish Academy was established in 1992 by Berel Karasik, then a Chabad-associated local leader in Kyiv. The two-building institution is located in the Dniprovskiy district of the city, on the east bank of the Dnipr River. Simcha is affiliated with Tsirei Chabad (Young Chabad), an Israel-based faction of the Chabad movement. The school receives no financial assistance from Ohr Avner, the educational arm of the Chabad-controlled Federation of Jewish Communities. The writer spoke with Rabbi Mordechai Levenhartz, director of Tsirei Chabad programs in Ukraine.


Enrollment at Simcha reached a peak of 540 youngsters in 2007-2008, said Rabbi Levenhartz. Current enrollment (2012-2013) is 235 (compared to 252 last year). Enrollment in the preschool is about 100, slightly higher than last year. In response to a question, Rabbi Levenhartz said that the majority of Simcha graduates remain in Kyiv, entering a variety of local universities and colleges, including some very demanding ones. About four or five in every class go to Israel, including those who leave Simcha after ninth grade to enroll in the Na'aleh high school in Israel program and those who join Jewish Agency college preparatory programs. In response to a question, Rabbi Levenhartz said that he did not know if any Simcha graduates had joined any of the MASA programs; he loses track of kids after they leave the school, he acknowledged.


The information technology program at Simcha remains weak, acknowledged Rabbi Levenhartz. They have no computers at all in the lower school (preschool and grades one through five), and the upper school has only second-hand computers given to the school by KLM, the airline. These computers have no peripherals; however, the main office has Internet capacity and a scanner.




Rabbi Mordechai Levenhartz, an Israeli, is respected in Kyiv for his broad, communal approach to Jewish education. His facilities are located in a deprived area of the city.



Photo: the writer.



Although improving the quality of computer-related education at Simcha is an important goal, stated Rabbi Levenhartz, his greatest priority is raising at least $50,000 to repair a substantial leak in the roof of one of his two buildings. Water infiltration is so serious that mold has formed on the walls, creating a dangerous health situation. They have had to close off a section of the building in order to avoid exposing youngsters and their teachers to the danger imposed by this problem.


In general, continued Rabbi Levenhartz, fundraising remains very difficult in the current economic environment. Some wealthy Jewish oligarchs refuse even to listen to him; he understands that such people with means are approached by "everyone" in the Jewish community who needs assistance, but the situation is very discouraging. Rabbi Levenhartz said that meeting the regular budget is tough; finding additional money for emergencies adds an extra dimension of anguish.[118]



[115] At its peak, Orach Chaim enrollment in grades one through 11 was approximately 470.

[116] Declining occupancy reflects general Jewish demographic decline, as well as competition from the Tikvah homes in Odesa, several other residential programs (such as the one operated by Rabbi Moshe Asman in Kyiv [see page 125]), and boarding schools in Israel in the Na'aleh program.

[117] See pages 122-123 for an account of the remainder of the interview with Rabbi Bleich.

[118] See pages 132 for information about a welfare program operated by Rabbi Levenhartz.


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