Betsy Gidwitx Reports




104. The general mood in Ukraine is one of despair as residents attempt to cope with national political instability, acute economic pressure, massive corruption, and fear of the future. Critical institutions have failed, including many in medical care and in education. "There is no hope for tomorrow" was a common lament during the writer's visit. For young adults attempting to build careers and for those raising children, a sense of foreboding prevails.


A casualty of the ineptitude of the Yanukhovych government has been its credibility. It has lost the support even of its oligarchs, who have benefited from its incompetence and corruption. However, the government continues to enjoy the backing of the security services and armed forces.


The Ukrainian population has suffered a significant demographic decline in the 22 years of Ukrainian independence. Demographic losses reflect poor health care, inadequate nutrition, substance abuse, impoverishment, low fertility, high mortality, lack of confidence in the future, emigration of younger age cohorts and wealthier segments of the population, and environmental degradation.




105. The rise of a right-wing, fascist political party, Svoboda, in Ukraine only deepens the sense of apprehension. Although Svoboda (Freedom) denies that it is antisemitic and it has attempted to reach out to prominent indigenous Jews and to Israeli and other foreign diplomats, its political platform and rhetoric are frightening to many.




106. The Jewish population of Ukraine is declining more precipitously than the general Ukrainian population. Although anecdotal information suggests that Jews live longer than non-Jewish Ukrainians - due to residential concentration in large cities with better access to health care, a higher level of education, greater financial security, and medical/social services provided to some older Jews by international Jewish organizations - Jews are emigrating in disproportionately greater numbers than their share of the overall population would suggest. Many of those who remain in Ukraine are assimilating into the general population. Smaller Jewish population centers are disappearing as former Jewish residents emigrate abroad, migrate to larger cities, or assimilate. Jewish day schools in some smaller Jewish population centers have closed, and other Jewish institutions are likely to collapse as well. Jewish funding sources are recognizing that smaller Jewish population centers simply cannot sustain Jewish life at a cost that is defensible.


Such circumstances demand an increased investment in summer and winter camps, Shabbatonim, family camps, and seminars that bring people together over considerable distances for intensive Jewish experiences. In the longer term, migration to large cities or to Israel should be encouraged.




107. The demographic situation is exacerbated by an intermarriage rate widely believed to be 80 to 90 percent. Many descendants of such intermarriages are disinclined to identify as Jews. Of those whose Jewish roots do not conform to Jewish law (halacha), that is, those who are not descendants of Jewish mothers, most are rejected by Orthodox rabbis who continue to control certain gateways to Jewish life. On the other hand, the search by some individuals of mixed ethnicity for a Jewish heritage validates the presence of more welcoming Jewish organizations, such as Hillel, Moishe House, the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, and others. In turn, these groups need to be fully responsive to those Jewish religious streams that offer a more open, more tolerant interpretation of Jewish law and practice.




108. The formal Jewish education infrastructure appears to be a spent force, yielding few positive results. Jewish day schools, particularly those under Orthodox sponsorship, are losing enrollment. Many are operating with fewer than 20 youngsters per grade level, a number depriving them of government aid (if government inspectors adhere to government policy). Certainly, Jewish demographic decline plays a major role in the loss of pupils. However, low achievement standards in secular studies, poorly equipped and maintained school facilities, and Jewish educational content that seems antiquated and irrelevant to many contemporary Jewish families are additional deterrents to pupil enrollment.


The various colleges and quasi-universities established by rabbis attract mainly impoverished and/or academically weak young people who are unable to enroll in more conventional universities and institutes. Alternatively, some rabbis pay tuition fees at secular institutions for young people who agree to undertake a parallel course of religious studies under rabbinic supervision. Many young people in these programs find such religious curricula tedious and irrelevant to the lifestyles that they wish to pursue.


Students from poverty-stricken families may have few alternatives within Ukraine, but Israeli programs offer other options. As the Ukrainian Jewish population continues to decline - particularly that segment of the Jewish population that comes from small towns with weak schools - the ability of these rabbinic-sponsored programs to attract students will wane accordingly. Clearly, some rabbis also are finding that the cost of main-taining these dual programs is prohibitive.


The stipend-based Orthodox STARS (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers) program, which was initiated in 2006, drew positive endorsement from some observers in its early years, but the passage of time has led to a more tempered view of its achievements. In brief, the issuance of stipends has been the primary incentive for many, perhaps most, participants; with only a modest number of exceptions, their interest in Orthodoxy has failed to survive the cessation of payments upon completion of the STARS course.


Although several universities in Ukraine offer random Jewish-focus courses (most often in history), the field of academic Jewish studies is severely underdeveloped and underfunded. The situation is unlikely to improve under current economic conditions.




109. Informal Jewish education - in the form of summer and winter camps, Shabbatons, multi-day seminars and family camps, programs focusing on cultural expressions of Judaism, youth and student groups - appears to generate greater interest. Participant planning and leadership are critical elements of successful programs for older adolescents and young adults. The need to pay participation fees is understood, although many would-be participants are unable to pay the full cost of programs.


A single [multi-day] Jewish Agency seminar for students and young adults achieves more profound and lasting results in building Jewish identity than does an entire year of STARS classes, an Orthodox rabbi told the writer, and his rabbinic colleagues agree with him, he added. However, he acknowledged, they cannot declare this fact in public, and he implored the writer not to mention his name. Greater investment in informal Jewish education, properly planned and executed, is warranted.


Similarly, Taglit and MASA, as well as Na'aleh and Selah, have proved their worth in advancing Jewish identity and strrengthening ties between Ukrainian Jewish young people and Israel. These programs also should be fortified and expanded.




110. As Ukrainian Jewry diminishes in numbers, the circumstances of older Jews in Ukraine require additional attention from both local Jews who remain and from world Jewry. It is unrealistic to expect the Ukrainian government to respond adequately to the needs of its older citizens; equally, it is unlikely that the current model of dependence upon the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee will yield a sustainable plan to insure that Jewish seniors in Ukraine are able to live in dignity. A more fruitful approach might be the development of a coalition of indigenous, Israeli, and North American Jewish service providers that would create a Ukrainian Jewish welfare system for the provision of social services to Ukrainian Jews, particularly elderly Jews. The coalition must be committed to actual service management by local Jews, with financial support from both Ukrainian Jews and from international Jewish organizations.


Such a coalition would include Ukrainian Jewish professional and lay leaders, a Joint Distribution Committee team with a revised future-oriented mandate, North American Jewish federations and their constituent welfare agencies, smaller Jewish welfare-related groups (such as Jewish Healthcare International and Adopt-a-Bubbe), European Jewish foundations and other groups, community rabbis in the post-Soviet states, and relevant Israeli organizations, including health plans, hospitals, and other organizations. Hundreds of qualified Russian-speaking Jewish social service professionals are available within these groups to work with indigenous individuals, many of whom already have acquired valuable professional experience, in building a viable post-Soviet Jewish social service system. A Ukrainian Jewish welfare system might vary in detail from one post-Soviet Jewish community to another, but its common element would be local management of essential social services for the Jewish population, supported financially by both local and international sources.









Betsy Gidwitz

Chicago, Illinois

October 10, 2013


Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs and translations are by the writer.

Modified Ukrainian orthography generally is favored over Russian orthography.

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