Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Volunteer activity is popular in Odesa Hillel, as in other Hillels throughout Ukraine.  Odesa Hillel took a leading role in Good Deeds Week, which actually continued for three weeks in Odesa.  Hillel members worked with special needs children, elderly and blind people, and also donated blood.


Mr. Vugelman was effusive about a new information technology venture that Hillel initiated in March, financed in part by a grant from a prominent individual in the Baltimore Jewish community.[21]   The Hillel International Computer School currently enrolls six groups of ten young people in three-month courses covering advanced computer languages (such as Java), development of mobile apps, networking, and other information technology skills.  Three professional IT instructors from established Odesa IT firms teach these courses in late afternoon and evening classes accessible after university and working hours.  Participants include both students in local universities and colleges and individuals who are working full- or part-time.


Tuition for such classes normally is about $200 per month, said Mr. Vugelman, but Hillel has arranged a 50 percent discount so that students pay only $100 monthly. Admission to the program requires successful completion of mathematics and engineering exams.  In addition to technology classes, the Computer School also offers courses in English and soon will initiate a Hebrew track.


Pavel Vugelman, left, is the veteran director of Hillel in Odesa. At right is Ihor Bohun, who directs the Hillel International Computer School.  The School occupies a single modern classroom in the lobby of a prominent Odesa office building.

Photo: the writer.


Mr. Vugelman anticipates that some graduates will remain in Ukraine and try to find IT work in companies that do technology work for foreign firms, including the two that currently employ the Computer School instructors.  However, it also is likely that many will emigrate, having acquired skills that will enhance their employment prospects in many Western countries.  He referred to the soon-to-be implemented Hebrew language track as a "bridge" to Israel.


The Odesa office building in which the IT classes meet is one of three Hillel locations in the city.  Most of its everyday classes and clubs meet in a centrally-located smaller commercial building, said Mr. Vugelman, and Hillel also maintains a "very small" office in the Beit Grand Jewish Cultural Center.  (See below.)  Hillel uses the Beit Grand theater for its drama productions and the gym for sports activities; it also uses JCC studios for art and photography groups, and JCC classrooms for English study groups and for various clubs.  Obviously, it would be less expensive to centralize its operations in one space, noted Mr. Vugelman, but Hillel is unable to find a single space that accommodates all of its needs.  In recognition of extensive Hillel volunteer work in the city, the Odesa municipality offered Hillel much larger premises several years ago for token annual rent.  However, Hillel could not afford to undertake the extensive renovations required for occupancy and the space had to be declined.



6.   Moishe House is a new addition to Odesa, having opened in November 2012.  In common with approximately 40 other Moishe Houses in different countries, its purpose is to serve as a young adult-operated Jewish program center for local Jews in their 20's.  In return for subsidized rent in a spacious apartment and a program budget from Moishe House headquarters in California, each Moishe House is expected to operate a variety of programs that attract Jewish young adults.


The Odesa Moishe House is a three-bedroom apartment with a generously-sized kitchen and equally large living and dining rooms.  The primary piece of furniture in the living room is a ping pong table, which accommodates Sabbath dinners and, at other times of the week, table tennis games.


The writer spoke with the three residents of the home. Sasha Dovgospilny, at left, is from Kramatorsk, a small city north of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. His mother works as a local Jewish Agency representative in that city and, through JAFI connections, heard that Rabbi Baksht's Odesa Jewish University admitted students from smaller cities. Sasha completed two years at OJU, then left because he found the religious requirements stifling. He subsequently transferred to a conventional secular institution and finished his degree. He also completed a course of studies at the Paideia program in Stockholm; Paideia, he said, opened his eyes to a broader Jewish world than the "shtetl" lifestyle promoted by Rabbi Baksht. Sasha currently works in informal Jewish education in the Jewish Agency and said that he probably will go on aliyah to Israel in the not-too-distant future. Katya Osnekhovskaya is from Kishinev in nearby Moldova. She started the Moishe House there and is happy to be a founder of the Odesa program. Also a graduate of Paideia, Katya used to work for the Jewish Agency and is now working as a freelance English teacher. She was looking for another job at the time of the writer's visit, but probably will emigrate to Israel in the near future. Kostya Richkov, right, is a native of Odesa and has a degree in construction engineering. He currently is doing freelance web design, but is seeking fulltime employ-ment. Kostya is enrolled in the Hillel International Computer School, where he is studying C++, a programming language. He completed a course of studies at a Moscow machon operated by the World Union for Progressive Judaism and is active in the Odesa Progressive community. Sasha and Katya joked that Kostya would emigrate to the United States because he is a devotee of Starbucks coffee.


Photo: the writer.




Sasha, Katya, and Kostya said that the appeal of Moishe House is that it is an "open community", offering Jewish experiences that are "comfortable".  They cal their own friends to initiate its activities, then their friends call their own friends, and thus a "telephone tree" has been created to inform young Jews of Moishe House programs.  Additionally, they have 120 "friends" on Facebook, who check the site for announcements.  For many participants, they said, Moishe House is their only link to Jewish life.  Some were activists in Hillel, but now have aged out of Hillel; others, they said, had no prior Jewish community experience at all and know nothing about Judaism, Jewish ritual, Jewish history, or related subjects.


In addition to Shabbat dinners and celebrations of Jewish holidays, Moishe House arranges lectures on Jewish topics, group participation in the Week of Good Deeds, and seminars on Odesa Jewish history and on Israel.  They would like to organize a heritage trip to Jewish shtetls, and are planning a camping trip with Hillel and a local Beitar group.  They try to work collaboratively with all Jewish groups; their participants include people whose primary identity is with the Migdal JCC (see below), Chabad, or other organizations.  They will not become involved in Jewish politics, they said; they are neutral in the conflict between Rabbi Baksht and Rabbi Wolf.


The three Moishe House residents expressed resentment over Orthodox domination of Jewish life in the city.  Everything must be approved by either Rabbi Baksht or Rabbi Wolf, who continue to exercise a high degree of "control" over Jewish practice, they commented.


As the writer left the building in which Moishe House is located, one of the residents pointed out a plaque on the building exterior.  The plaque notes that Meir Dizengoff (1861-1936), a pioneer of modern Zionism and the first mayor of Tel Aviv, once lived there.  They hadn't known about the former occupant of the building when they leased the space, they said, but it was good to be in the same structure that once housed such an important Jewish figure.



7.  Odesa is home to two Jewish community centers or cultural centers, both of which are supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  The newer center is Beit Grand, which opened in 2008.  Accommodating both the local JDC hesed (see below) and Jewish cultural activities, the facility is named in honor of the Grand family of Detroit, whose gift enabled construction.



A former hospital, Beit Grand opened in 2008 after a seven-year construction period in which building plans changed frequently and substantially.  The structure is centrally located in Odesa.


Photo: JDC.


[21]  Baltimore and Odesa are sister cities.

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