Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Migdal also sponsors lectures, a Jewish film festival with partners in London and Warsaw, a Jewish youth group and conference, teen and young adult expeditions in Jewish Odesa and Jewish Ukraine, and a publications program featuring Odesa Jewish authors.  Publications include a website, magazine, and a large number of books.  Additionally, Migdal trains guides for tours of Jewish Odesa.  A Migdal summer family camp has operated for 17 years, said Ms. Verkhovskaya, attracting 140-145 people each year for a one-week session; participants include some Jews from abroad.  All programs require the payment of participation fees, although these sometimes are adjusted to accommodate individuals of limited means.


Migdal has been heavily involved in three of the four Limmud programs held in Ukraine, stated Ms. Verkhovskaya, noting that the informal, communal culture of Limmud is similar to the culture of Migdal itself.  Migdal has an active volunteer corps, she noted, who are crucial to the successful operation of many of its programs.



Kira Verkhovskaya is the creator and director of the Migdal Jewish Community Center in Odesa.  Her largely self-imposed responsibilities include facility management, facility re-design and renovation supervision, program creation and direction, and fundraising. Approximately 1,000 Jewish families participate in Migdal programs, said Ms. Verkhov-skaya.


Photo: the writer.


Among its offsite activities is a Jewish text study group that meets regularly in a kosher restaurant for a lunch and learn program that includes consideration of the weekly Torah portion and other Jewish texts.  The Jewish businessmen who participate in this program, Ms. Verkhovskaya said, will not enter a synagogue, but they will meet in an outside venue for serious Jewish learning.  These businessmen, she added, now provide financial support to Migdal.


Migdal created and operates a separate small Jewish museum (known as Shorashim), which focuses on Odesa Jewish history. Migdal also manages the JDC Mazel Tov program that is designed for at-risk Jewish children.  Mazel Tov, which is located in a small apartment in a nearby building, enrolls approximately 120 youngsters from infancy through age eight from about 100 families, said Ms. Verkhovskaya.  Due to space constraints, the program accommodates only 18 children at one time; most children participate only once weekly or even less frequently - some in a structured daycare program, others after school for homework assistance and enrichment activities, and yet others only on Sundays.  Parents also convene for instruction in childcare, psychological support, and socializing.  Meals are prepared in a small kosher kitchen.  The program is financed both by JDC and local contributions.


The largest single source of Migdal funding is an annual $135,000 operating subsidy from the Joint Distribution Committee, stated Ms. Verkhovskaya, who expressed gratitude for its dependable transmission.  Additionally, these funds are supplemented by Ms. Verkhovskaya's own fundraising efforts, which include securing the premises for both the Shorashim museum and the Mazal Tov apartment from a local Jewish family.  Other funding sources are tourist services (both tours of Jewish Odesa and the publication of a popular Jewish Odesa guidebook available in several languages), a small publishing house featuring Jewish-content books and magazines, user fees, an annual local fundraising drive for general operating expenses, and the establishment of a 501(c)3 ”friends" organization in the United States.  As noted, Migdal also has mobilized an effective volunteer group that serves to reduce personnel costs.



Youngsters participate in an afterschool Mazal Tov art class in a room that also serves as a computer educational center.

Photo: the writer.


Notwithstanding the JDC subsidy, observers note tension between Migdal on one side and JDC and the more modern Beit Grand on the other side.  The original grant of $1 million to JDC from the Grand family eleven years ago was intended for modernization of the Migdal facility, contend Migdal supporters; however, JDC sought a different structure to house a separate program aimed at attracting middle-class families assumed to be less drawn to Jewish themes.  JDC withheld the funds from Migdal while searching for a new site and then consumed seven years in construction while making multiple design changes that required additional fundraising during a period of massive inflation in Ukraine.  Migdal was to be mollified by receiving the entire third floor of Beit Grand for its own, specifically Jewish, programs; however, that pledge disappeared and Migdal was allocated a mere two small rooms (for programs of non-Jewish content) in Beit Grand, for which it pays rent.  As noted, subsequent renovations to the Migdal building have been financed independently.


Philosophically, the two centers seem far apart.  Migdal proudly pursues Jewish-content programming, eschewing frothy popular cultural activity (such as the yoga and belly-dancing classes that Beit Grand offers, Ms. Verkhovskaya observed).  Whereas Beit Grand seeks out the Jewish middle class said to be alienated from Jewish life, Migdal attracts both a less affluent Jewish population and intellectuals of varying economic strata pursuing specific Jewish content.  No less important is the role of particular personalities, in this case, Kira Verkhovskaya, who preceded Joint in Odesa and declines to be controlled by Joint or by anyone else.  "I work for the Jews," she told the writer, "and not for Joint and not for [any] rabbis."  ("Я работаю для евреев, и ни для Джойнт и ни для раббинов.")[24]



9.  Gennady Katzen, the former director of The Community Home of Jewish Knowledge <Moriah> (Общинный дом еврейских знаний <Мория>), now is based at Beit Grand, where he maintains an office and presides over the Moriah collection of Jewish artifacts, some of which are displayed in several showcases at various locations in Beit Grand.  Some of the objects related to specific Jewish holidays or events are exhibited only on holidays or special occasions, such as Israel Independence Day.


Moriah, which was struggling to maintain its existence during the writer's most recent previous visit to Odesa in 2009,[25] once occupied four rooms in an Odesa public library.  These premises housed a 10,700-volume multilingual Jewish library and a collection of Jewish artifacts; its programs included Jewish literary and musical salons, a Jewish historical society, a scholarly journal, and several youth programs.  However, JDC withdrew a crucial subsidy at the end of 2008, which effectively closed the program.  Its holdings were dispersed to Beit Grand and Migdal, and Mr. Katzen endeavors to continue some of its activities from his office at Beit Grand.



Gennady Katzen is a graduate of several Melton programs in Israel, but is unable to find a satisfying Jewish educational or cultural position in Odesa.


Photo: the writer.


Mr. Katzen has attempted to create Jewish intellectual programs at Beit Grand, but said that little appetite exists for serious intellectual activity there.  Everything is "pop culture," he said, inserting the English-language term into his Russian speech.  The only type of Jewish history that interests people, he continued, is history of the Holocaust.  Young people, in particular, are interested only in technology, and the "rich" (богатый) Jews that Beit Grand is trying to attract are not intellectuals.  No one cares about the Judaica books that he accumulated, many of which are still in the cartons in which he packed them when he was forced to abandon Moriah.  He managed to publish two issues of the Moriah scholarly journal in 2012, but he has been unable to find financial support for its continuation in 2013.

10.  Anna Misiuk is a Jewish cultural force on her own, a source of popular Jewish history.  A social anthropologist and writer, she is based at the Odesa Literary Museum, a major repository of rare editions, manuscripts, photographs, and other objects tracing the history of literary Odesa.  A general dissident and producer of samizdat (clandestine self-published literature) during the late Soviet period, she became interested in Jewish history and culture only in the 1990's after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of formerly suppressed Jewish life.


[24] Ms. Verkhovskaya has been compared to Evgenia Lvova of St. Petersburg, who operates a number of independent Jewish programs in that city.  Ms. Verkhovskaya does not dispute the comparison.

[25]  See the writer's A Spring Visit to Ukraine - March-April 2009, pages 20-21.

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